Growing up in Newton, Sam Hyun never quite fit in. With his family, he spoke Korean, watched K-dramas, and fought over each tender slice of galbi, or grilled beef short ribs, at dinner. But at school, where white classmates bullied him about his race, he downplayed his Korean identity and avoided talking about his culture.
Hyun, now 30, wants young Asian American and Pacific Islanders to not feel the way he did at school. “I want to do my part to make sure I can change that,” he says.
As chairperson of the Massachusetts Asian American and Pacific Islanders Commission, Hyun has become a tireless advocate for the AAPI community, speaking out against rising anti-Asian xenophobia and violence amid the coronavirus pandemic. He is prolific on Instagram and TikTok (where he has nearly a quarter-million followers), and uses his far-reaching impact to raise awareness about anti-Asian hate crimes and other social justice issues.
Asian Americans “have a long history of being silenced,” Hyun says. “For me, social media was an act of defiance — a way of saying, ‘No, I’m not going to be quiet anymore. I’m not going to sit idly by and you’re going to hear me, whether you like it or not.’”
Hyun was appointed to the commission in 2019 and elected its chairperson last year. (The commission formally changed its name in November to recognize the 2,300 Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders who reside in Massachusetts.) He is also a communications manager for Hate Is A Virus, a national coalition of AAPI activists that formed at the beginning of the pandemic to combat prejudice against Asians.
Since March 2020, the data tracking center Stop AAPI Hate has recorded more than 10,000 anti-Asian hate incidents, including physical assaults and civil rights violations. The organization estimates that 1 in 5 Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders has experienced a hate incident in the past year alone.
Hyun believes he has a responsibility not only to expose acts of hate and injustice, but to empower Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders to stand up for their communities. He derives inspiration from civil rights luminaries, such as Yuri Kochiyama, and trailblazing political contemporaries, such as Boston Mayor Michelle Wu.
“Not only was [Wu’s win] a breaking of barriers for the Asian American community,” says Hyun, who campaigned for Wu, “but I think for generations to come, members of our community can be like, ‘I, too, can be the mayor of Boston.’”
But his single most important influence is his mother. A South Korean immigrant, Donna Hyun raised Hyun and his sister largely on her own. She worked multiple jobs before eventually purchasing a laundry business, which Hyun credits with saving their family at a time when they were struggling to afford groceries and rent.
“My relationship with her has been everything,” he says. “She’s the one who taught me how to love. She’s the one who showed me public service and also to follow your heart.”
As the world gradually reopens from the pandemic, Hyun is shifting his activism from awareness to action. At the commission, he is working with state lawmakers to push for a policy agenda that includes mandating ethnic studies in public schools and improving language access at state agencies for non-English speakers. And earlier this month, Democratic state Senator Sonia Chang-Díaz tapped Hyun to serve as political director of her gubernatorial campaign.
Hyun may even run for political office himself one day. “It’s something that I’ll always consider and, if the right opportunity presents itself, I’ll certainly think about it,” he says. “But for right now, what I’m really focused on is getting Senator Chang-Díaz into office.”
Deanna Pan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @DDpan.