Harvard Kennedy School student vigil stirs reflection on hate incidents against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.

BY Julie Galante
April 6, 2021

Candles spelling out "Stop Asian Hate" with Harvard cupola in background.The 3,800-candle vigil on the Harvard Kennedy School steps leading into John F. Kennedy Memorial  Park Monday evening illuminated the magnitude of the number of reported hate incidents against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPIs) in the United States this past year.

Nhat Nguyen MPA 2021 and Lily Cheng Zedler MC/MPA 2020, the vigil’s organizers who met as concurrent students at the MIT Sloan School of Management—and who also organized a similar vigil on the MIT campus Saturday evening—worked alongside other socially distanced HKS students, placing the candles one-by-one to spell out “Stop Asian Hate.” The meditative precision of piecing the powerful display together was as much of an act of solidarity as the message itself. 

That was the intent. After the shooting at three massage parlors in the Atlanta-area in March that left eight people dead, six of whom were Asian, Cheng Zedler said it felt like the AAPI community has been in mourning and in shock. The shooting heightened a long, complex, and deeply painful history of hate incidents and hate crimes against Asians in the United States—inflamed even further by the pandemic. She and Nguyen wanted to do more than just participate in Zoom reflection sessions.

“We realized how important it was to symbolize the magnitude of what the AAPI community has experienced,” Cheng Zedler said about the vigil.   

“Usually people think of Asians as being quiet, resilient, and accepting and move on,” Nguyen added. “But we’re fighting back. The vigil’s visualization will hopefully inspire this message.”

Devika Balachandran MPA 2021, who is from Louisiana and identifies as South Asian, was inspired to join the vigil, in part because she said South Asian identity in the United States is fraught. 

“There's a lot of othering—Islamophobia or separating themselves from Asian American communities,” Balachandran said. “I think it’s important to make it clear this affects all Asian Americans. I’ve been frustrated at how South Asians separate themselves from these conversations because it doesn’t seem to impact them directly. I think it’s complicit in perpetuating white supremacy.”

Students placing candles.

All of us here have probably experienced or know people who have experienced hate incidents but didn’t report them. When you add these unreported incidents on top of the nearly 3,800 reported cases, we can see the magnitude of what AAPIs go through.

Lily Cheng Zedler MC/MPA 2020

As students of public policy, there’s also important discussion about what can be done at the federal, state, and local levels to combat hate crimes. 

“I learned in a recent class discussion the intent of hate crimes is to instill fear, render silence, and make people feel alone. That really stuck with me,” Cheng Zedler said. “Prosecution of these crimes is an important part of changing that message.” 

Balachandran said it’s not enough for the federal government to speak out against hate crimes. Representatives at the state and local levels need to do more to name incidents as hate crimes and define clear courses of action. 

Bystander training also needs to be integrated in the workplace. “You won’t know how you’ll react until you’re in the situation. It’s important to prepare,” Cheng Zedler said. “More organizations and government bodies should fully incorporate it into its broader DEI [diversity, equity, and inclusion] and antiharassment training.”

These tactical, informed, and forward-looking approaches certainly are means to spur solutions. But the vigil also gave some much-needed room during the isolation of the pandemic to reflect with others on something deeply personal and painful. 

On Monday, April, 2021, HKS students held a candlelight vigil for victims of Asian American and Pacific Islander hate crimes. Organizers worked alongside other students, placing 3,800 candles one-by-one to spell out “Stop Asian Hate."

“All of us here have probably experienced or know people who have experienced hate incidents but didn’t report them,” Cheng Zedler said. “When you add these unreported incidents on top of the nearly 3,800 reported cases, we can see the magnitude of what AAPIs go through.”  

“The vigil is for the community and our allies to reflect and mourn together,” she continued. “But our other goal is to move people to take action, to advocate for change in solidarity with the AAPI community.”

As night fell, someone at the vigil said the piecing together of the candle-lit display reminded them of a mandala, a geometric configuration painstakingly created to enlighten minds, inspire, and heal before it is swept away as a reminder that nothing is permanent. That everything is in flux. That change is what makes us human. It unites us. 

Photos by Martha Stewart