The University Record, March 8, 1993

Helen Zia: If you know your heart’s desire, never give up

By Mary Jo Frank

A decade ago Helen Zia was working as a large-press operator at a Chrysler stamping plant in Detroit.

Today the New Jersey-born Chinese American and past president of the Asian American Journalists Association is a contributing editor of Ms. magazine and president of a San Franciso-based database firm.

Zia shared her life story with 700 men and women who attended the Feb. 26 People of Color Career Conference sponsored by the Women of Color Task Force.

When Zia was growing up, she said, “People of color had jobs. They didn’t have careers. You didn’t see people like us in positions of authority.”

Although she made missteps in her search for a career, Zia said she learned from the series of jobs she held, including one at a Chrysler plant.

Laid off from her shop job and with time on her hands, Zia became a news junkie.

“I realized that I was really upset all the time, seeing information that was incorrect.” She decided she could be a reporter. “It was like a light going on.”

She began her journalism career covering social and political issues for the Detroit Metro Times and Monthly Detroit.

When Vincent Chin was beaten to death in 1982 by two white auto workers who were sentenced only to probation, Zia joined others in Detroit’s Asian American community who protested the injustice.

“A lot of my colleagues thought I was foolhardy getting involved in civil rights issues,” Zia recalled.

However, being true to what she believed earned her the respect of her peers and opened up contacts that advanced her career, she explained.

One and one-half years later a job at Ms. opened up, giving her the opportunity to combine her real interests as a writer, editor, activist and feminist.

While Zia was executive editor, Ms. initiated a regular column on race and women, launched one of the most inclusive surveys on race, recruited and hired a new generation of women-of-color staff members, and searched for women-of-color writers and topics that had been ignored.

Among the lessons Zia learned from her circuitous career path:

—Know yourself and keep striving to rediscover yourself. “If you don’t know who you are, you won’t get past square one.”

—If you know your heart’s desire, never give up.

—Understand how others see you. What cartoon character do they see when they see you? By knowing how others see us, Zia said, we can better understand the limitations they may try to place on us.

—Know your rights, get organized and build coalitions. Acknowledge that misinformation and prejudice exist between such groups as African Americans and Asian Americans, Zia said, then work with other people of color.

—Knowledge is power. Don’t let anyone hold you back. Use your knowledge to be true to yourself.