Dixie Latu Riley was nominated posthumously as a longtime community leader who passed away in September 2009 from cancer at just age 58. She is remembered as a tireless and vigilant advocate on the core issues facing the Asian Pacific Islander community.
She was a fourth generation Hawaiian-born, Chinese-Irish American, raised in Minnesota. She studied mathematics and engineering at the University of Minnesota’s Institute of Technology. She lived in Brooklyn Park with a Polynesian spouse, Fuahau Latu, and children, Mary Jane, Siosifa, Fredrina, Helemina, Phillip; siblings-Patrick, Michael, Colleen Riley, and Ellen (Ron) Miller.
Riley retired from Anoka County and Northwestern Bell and was considered a lifelong, tireless social activist. There are few organizations engaged with the Asian Pacific American community that have not had her support in Minnesota. Among those she’d been involved in were Pan Asian Voices for Equality, Pan Pacific and Southeast Asia Women’s Association, Sister Song and the Bootjack Saddle Club.
Riley was active in the National Organization for Women, where she served on several committees and authored or co-authored many resolution on issues from global feminism to indigenous peoples, and sexual harassment.
She initiated or joined local efforts as they formed in response including the Miss Saigon Protest Committee to bring awareness to insensitivity regarding the casting and production of the play and its many stereotypes it perpetuated regarding Asian Americans. She also mobilized the Asian community in support of Native Americans that were facing racism and hate regarding their treaty and spear fishing rights in Northern Wisconsin.
“She was one of the great lights and consciences of Minnesota and played a significant role in helping to make the Asian Pacific American community in Minnesota as vibrant and strong as it is today, with a deep sense of community,” states Bryan Thao Worra, who nominated Riley.
Riley worked tireless to advance the causes of women, Asian Pacific Islanders, artists and overall society. She was outspoken and her efforts focused on educating people about the effects of negative thoughts, stereotypes and images. She was not afraid to stand out on her own even when others would hesitate.
Karen Tanaka Lucas, coordinator for Pan Asian American Voices for Equality, said Riley had a glowing presence that was accentuated by her clash of Irish and Chinese, but with a glowing smile and gentle voice. She also called her a pioneer with incredible strength and focus as a founding member of the Asian American Renaissance and other Minnesota efforts from 1980s to the 2000s.
“She was one of the first people who would welcome you to a working potluck or meeting,” said Lucas. “She was there in front with the Miss Saigon Protest and the CAAR (Community Action Against Racism) head on attack of KQRS and Tom Bernard’s denigration of the Hmong community.
“She was in front helping to plan the Duy Ngo campaign and our assault on the mayor’s office. As one of the core members of PAAVE she never lost her passion for justice and never wavered in her stand against racism.”
Tanaka said Riley was a great role model to her children and other youth on the issues she worked especially with racism. “She showed them how to continually ask the challenging questions in facing down her opponents and inciting her peers,” she added.
In addition to her social and human rights work, Riley enjoyed organizing the Hawaiian and Pacific Islander community with events that help teach the language, culture and history of the Native Hawaiians and the Polynesians.
To her last days she was yet organizing another campaign to address what she called non-Native Hawaiians and non-Pacific Islander groups emulating these cultures through arts, music, hula and storytelling.
Riley has said some groups were presenting to the public as the cultures they were co-opting from in the interest of profit – and to her it was as insulting as the universities and professional sports teams that still use the Native American mascot for their teams.
“We have lost a fearless and a stalwart leader,” said Tanaka. “We have lost a warm and open friend. We have lost a quirky, gloriously undefined and uncontrolled force for justice.”
Riley’s family said their matriarch reminded them often that to truly learn and grow to think for themselves they must find answers to their own questions and curiosities. Otherwise, others will speak for you and voice your matters and that this is not enabling.