a polyptych of the AAPI logo

Traveling Mural Symbolizes Connection within Duke’s Asian American and Pacific Islander Community

(Duke News, Bernadette Gillis) —  May is Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. The Duke Asian American and Pacific Islander Affinity Group will kick off a month of celebrations with the unveiling of a unique traveling mural at Duke Regional Hospital on May 3. The unveiling is the culmination of several events that brought together employees from across Duke, symbolizing the sense of belonging and inclusiveness that the affinity group strives to create.

Made up of more than 300 wooden blocks, the mural depicts the affinity group’s logo and is 4 feet by 6 feet when put together. Over the course of a year, the AAPI affinity group held five events where the Duke community was invited to paint the individual blocks.

The first community painting event, held during the group’s AAPI Heritage Month celebration in May 2023, was the first time members of the affinity group had a chance to come together in person. Prior to that, the group, which was founded in 2021, had held meetings and other events by Zoom.

The painting events, which were also held at Duke Health’s three hospitals and Duke TechExpo, were special in that they offered a chance for members to connect and create a sense of community, said Rebecca Lee, one of the affinity group’s founders and a SharePoint Developer II with Duke Health Technology Solutions.

Suephy Chen and others working on the AAPI polyptych
Amy Lee, MD, Donna Parkinson, Rebecca Lee, and Suephy Chen, MD, working on the mural in front of the Duke South Dining facility.

The idea for the AAPI mural first came about after Lee saw a mural that Brandon Johnson created in 2022 for DiversifyIT, a staff-led community that works towards awareness and support for all identities in IT at Duke. The DiversifyIT mural was also created as a community-building event where employees came together to paint the individual blocks.

“With the DiversifyIT project, we found that it was a nice way to build connections between people, so I wanted that for our group as well,” Lee said. “It was very important to us to build these connections because we are stronger together, and it’s been a great partnership.”

Lee asked Johnson to partner with the AAPI affinity group. An IT analyst at Duke who enjoys woodworking as a hobby, Johnson described the mural painting events as “art therapy meets the water cooler.”

“People are able to get to know one another and sit beside people that they normally wouldn’t have any interaction with on a day-to-day basis, outside of passing them in the hall,” Johnson said. “It facilitates connection.”

Suephy Chen, MD, chair of the Department of Dermatology and one of the AAPI affinity group’s founders, said the mural has created connection for AAPI employees and their allies. She said it was especially meaningful to partner with Johnson and others in the process.

“I thought it was quite symbolic of that partnership with our allies, and given how beautiful the mural is, it is more than the sum of its parts,” Chen said. “The fact that we’re having it as a traveling mural is symbolic of its inclusivity. We really want everybody to be able to enjoy it and to understand it.”

Duke Employees working on the AAPI Mural
Duke Employees working on the mural. 

The AAPI logo depicts a lotus flower and the Polynesian wave tattoo symbol. Lee said those images were specifically chosen to represent the group’s intention to be inclusive of all AAPI communities.

“The lotus flower is a symbol of rebirth and rejuvenation in a lot of East Asian and South Asian cultures,” Lee said. “And water connects all the Pacific Islands. The wave tattoo is a rite of passage in a lot of Polynesian and Pacific Islander cultures.”

The AAPI Affinity Group mural will be on display at Duke Regional until the fall, after which it will continue its travels to other parts of the Duke campus. Lee said Duke Clinic has offered to provide a permanent home for the mural in the future.

Learn more about upcoming AAPI Heritage Month events hosted by the AAPI Affinity Group.