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How KSDK anchor Michelle Li turned the #VeryAsian hashtag into a movement

Michelle Li is a news anchor with 5 On Your Side
Emily Woodbury
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Michelle Li co-founded the Very Asian Foundation with Gia Vang to highlight Asian American experiences and provide support to organizations working within the community.

After 5 On Your Side anchor Michelle Li mentioned eating dumplings on a New Year’s broadcast, a viewer chastised Li for being “very Asian.” 

“I have worked so hard on myself and discovering who I am,” Li told St. Louis on the Air. “I just thought, ‘Man, this woman has no idea who I am.’”

Li shared the viewer’s voicemail with her followers on social media with a short note: “If you’re #veryasian please stand up.”

Her post and hashtag garnered overwhelming support. Her tweet sharing the voicemail got more than 8,000 retweets — and coverage from CNN to the Washington Post. Ellen DeGeneres invited Li to come on her show and gave her $15,000. She used that funding to launch the Very Asian Foundation, which aims to highlight Asian American experiences and provide support to organizations working within the community.

Michelle Li of the Very Asian Foundation and Cassie Sun, a senior at Marquette High School in Chesterfield
Emily Woodbury
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Pictured: Michelle Li of the Very Asian Foundation and Cassie Sun, a senior at Marquette High School in Chesterfield

“I do think that there is a vibe, between not just Missouri Asians but Midwest Asians, that we need visibility,” Li said.

“For 100 years, we had a Chinatown in St. Louis. And if you walk around the streets and you ask people, ‘Hey, do you know what Hop Alley is?’ So many people have no idea,” she added. (St. Louis’ Chinatown, often referred to as Hop Alley, existed from the 1860s until its demolition for Busch Memorial Stadium, which opened in 1966.)

“It's not just like, ‘Oh, this is Asian American history’ — This is Missouri history,” Li added. “We've got to do more, because… we need to make sure that our kids feel confident, so that they can go out into the world. And once they love themselves, they can love others — and they can do better for their communities as well.”

To help foster the confidence of Asian American kids growing up today, the Very Asian Foundation launched the May Book Project, which encourages schools and libraries to build and maintain robust Asian American youth literature collections.

The project was inspired by a book list created by members of the Asian American Civic Scholars Group in St. Louis in 2021. However, their list didn’t take off.

“They sent it out to about 10 schools in the area, and they were completely ignored,” Li said.

Cassie Sun, now a senior at Marquette High School in Chesterfield, said getting Li involved allowed the list to take off.

“We really needed a stronger organization to back us up and to show that this is actually something that's happening — and something that's real,” Sun said.

Sun and other members of the Asian American Civic Scholars Group have been active in their own schools, getting both librarians and students involved in the project. Her passion for the work stems from her own experience seeing herself reflected in literature.

“When I found a book with a main character who was Asian, doing all the same things, being the same heroine as [the] white characters, and they're just doing the same things, but they're Asian. … Even if we're not similar, even if the character has rainbow hair, or is a hacker or in a dystopian world, it's like this one trait makes me feel so seen and like related,” she said.

When the May Book Project launched, the St. Louis County Library already had 70% of the book list in its collection. Since then, it’s purchased the rest of the titles on the list.

The Very Asian Foundation’s book list centers Asian-American voices

Jennifer Gibson, the library’s assistant director of strategic initiatives, said she was ecstatic to work with the Very Asian Foundation on this project. She is of Korean descent and was adopted by a family in the U.S. in the 1980s.

“I grew up in an area where I was never really around a lot of other Asian people, and it's only as an adult that I've started to really understand that I have a place in the Asian diaspora,” she said. “And so this project, on a personal level, was so exciting and fulfilling. … Being able to help the next generation is so meaningful, and [I’m] also getting to become part of a community that I didn't necessarily feel I was a part of before.”

Li said she hopes to keep growing the book list and to bring in libraries and schools across the country. The foundation has schools in Seattle, Minneapolis, Atlanta and Los Angeles on board to expand their library collections.

“This idea of being able to hopefully make an impact at young levels, so that people go out into the world and can make it a better place — because they've already put on their own oxygen mask, so they can help other people,” she said. “I really do hope it keeps growing.”

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Emily Woodbury, Kayla Drake, Danny Wicentowski and Alex Heuer. Avery Rogers is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Emily is the senior producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.

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