Growing up, Jessica Boling didn’t learn much about her Korean culture. She didn’t know many people who looked like her in her small hometown ouher in her small hometown out
on on World War II-era violence against Japanese immigrants. What Boling does remember is a distinct feeling of otherness. “You always know that you’re different and can be targeted for your differences, and I’ve become more aware of it as I’ve grown up,” the 37-year-old says.
That feeling didn’t go away when Boling moved to Milwaukee in 2013. So when she connected with similar-minded Asian American and Pacific Islander friends, she decided to do something about it. ElevAsian, an organization dedicated to elevating the visibility of AAPIs in the Milwaukee community, started organically as small get-togethers to talk about what it was like to be Asian in Milwaukee. Today, ElevAsian has expanded to 175 members, who’ve banded together to host social networking events, support AAPI-owned businesses and educate the community on AAPI history, culture and allyship.
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Boling’s advocacy work expands beyond the Milwaukee metro. She also chairs the AAPI Coalition of Wisconsin, which acts as a conduit for AAPI communities and local and state resources to come together against hate and racism. Shortly after the murder spree in Atlanta last March, the group held a virtual rally with state elected officials and AAPI leaders. “During that time, people were hesitant to call it a hate crime, so it felt like we were being gaslit and didn’t have the right to be upset about what happened,” Boling says. “We did a lot of talking about that and informed people about what a hate crime can actually look like.” Recently, Boling and her colleagues have been working with state Rep. Francesca Hong to create a hate crime hotline in Wisconsin.
Along with cultivating awareness to issues of hate and racism, Boling dedicates herself to celebrating Asian culture so Milwaukeeans and Wisconsinites can experience the representation she never had as a kid. In her role at the AAPI Coalition, she’s advocating for Wisconsin public schools to incorporate Asian history in their curriculum. In May 2021, ElevAsian hosted its first Asian Restaurant Week in Milwaukee, promoting 50 local AAPI-owned restaurants in celebration of AAPI Heritage Month.
Boling was in Seattle that month, but even watching the event unfold from afar was a career and personal highlight – it represented something she’d yearned for since she was a kid. “I saw all the things we’d been doing and realized, wow, we’ve really been able to build something over the last few years to bring visibility to this community,” she says.