In July 2020, our own Don Young, who oversees CAAM’s programming, became one of the latest group of invitees to join the Documentary branch for the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences. The honor comes at the end of a whirlwind spring for the veteran producer of Asian American documentaries. Post-production wrapped for the five-part documentary series Asian Americans, just as the COVID-19 pandemic was sending the world into a tailspin. Then came promotion of the series—in conjunction with WETA for PBS—all while sheltering in place.
But even though he’s overseen hundreds documentaries to broadcast, Don has a surprising confession: “I never viewed myself as a filmmaker.” Much of his work is behind the scenes, supporting the infrastructure to create more opportunities for Asian American filmmakers to get their projects funded and distributed.
He joined CAAM in 1995, when it was called National Asian American Television Association (NAATA), after working with co-founder Loni Ding on the groundbreaking documentary series Ancestors in the Americas. In those early days, NAATA would be lucky to get four Asian American films to the airwaves each year.
Over the 25 years he’s been doing this work, he’s seen a lot of changes in the documentary film and public broadcasting industry, which remains predominantly white. “When I first started, we’d sit at a table in the back of the PBS conference,” Don says, recalling his earliest programming experiences. What keeps him going is a dedication to the Asian American community and to shining light on the stories that would otherwise go untold. It’s work that has sometimes felt frustratingly slow.
But around 2015, things started to change, with the #MeToo, #BlackLivesMatter,#OscarsSoWhite movements, as well as the important formation of A-Doc. The advocacy and creative worlds started to merge, generating an unprecedented wave of change. “You don’t have to justify that your voice matters anymore,” he says, reflecting on the societal shifts in just four or five years that have deeply inspired him.
In 2020, the global COVID-19 pandemic, the rise in anti-Asian hate crimes, and the widespread racial reckoning have all continued to catalyze change and collaboration. Don saw the opportunity for CAAM to engage its audience in new ways, using the expertise developed for organizing CAAMFest Online and also through the long-standing partnerships with public media.
In late April, Don led CAAM’s Asian Americans in the Time of COVID-19 Digital Town Hall which reached 35,000 viewers on Facebook Live. In June, CAAM partnered with APIAVote to co-produce the Asian American Presidential Town Hall, with Vice President Joe Biden and Trump surrogate former Governor of Guam Eddie Baza Calvo. That Town Hall has been viewed over one million times to date, and resulted in the reporting of staff diversity data by both campaigns.
While joining the Academy may be a sign of “making it” in the film industry, Don isn’t going to sit back and relax. “I see the invitation as much about recognizing CAAM’s work for many decades. I’m honored and very excited to bring a new voice to the Academy. There’s still so much more important work to be done.”