To Serve and to Learn: What We Gain from Giving Back
Khin Mai Aung is being honored as a Cesar E. Chavez Champion of Change.
I began my legal career in the San Francisco Bay Area during the “dot com boom” of the late 1990s, in the litigation department of a large law firm. It was a good firm and I worked on intellectually stimulating cases, but I wanted a more tangible connection to my work, and with my clients and community. I decided to take my career in a radically different path, and transitioned into a nonprofit public interest job that paid about 1/3 of my former salary.
At my new organization, I provided legal advice to indigent senior citizens at clinics throughout San Francisco. At first, the bulk of my cases involved welfare reform. Soon, rising rents led to a wave of eviction defense matters. It was rewarding to provide representation to individuals who wouldn’t otherwise have access to legal assistance, and learn from their diverse life experiences. I was in my 20s at the time, and many clients were old enough to be my grandparents. Some were immigrants and refugees from far flung places who left their homes to pursue opportunity or flee persecution. Others were native-born Americans who were relocated into internment camps as children during World War II. They all had interesting stories to tell.
Eleven years ago, I moved to New York City to launch the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund’s (AALDEF) Educational Equity Program. My work now encompasses a myriad of issues in kindergarten through 12th grade and higher education, representing and advocating for students, parents, and teachers in matters like obtaining programmatic access for English Language Learners, combatting anti-immigrant and anti-Asian harassment, and promoting school integration and diversity. My clients are different now – teenagers and adults – but I still learn from their experiences. I am grateful for the opportunity to partner with immigrant Chinese students to battle bias-based harassment, and with teachers who risk their jobs to report problems at their schools.
One of my most memorable cases involved representing a group of veteran teachers in Lowell, Massachusetts who were fired for failing a faulty mandatory English proficiency test. My clients, who hailed from Cambodia, Laos, and Puerto Rico, spoke fluent but accented English. The school district perceived them as deficient on account of their accents and national origin. Our work uncovered critical flaws in the fluency test and testing conditions, and my clients were ultimately reinstated with full back pay and benefits.
In the course of proving our case, I learned a lot about service and community from that group of teachers. Witness after witness came forward to testify that far from being deficient, my clients were assets to their schools. One was a volunteer sports coach, and another helped out with delinquent youth. All were exemplary role models for their students, most of whom came from working class immigrant and refugee families.
My life would never have intersected with any of these individuals had I remained in private practice. I am grateful for the opportunity to meet them, and honored to have served and learned from them.
Khin Mai Aung is the Director of the Educational Equity Program at the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF), where she advocates for the rights of Asian American and Pacific Islander students, parents and teachers. In particular, she focuses on concerns faced by immigrant students, English Language Learners, and students from lower income communities.