As the Asian US population reaches towards 20 million, it has become the fastest growing immigrant community in the US. Despite the increasing growth and visibility of the Asian community, there remains a severe underrepresentation of Asian-Americans in leadership roles in government, media, corporate, and non-profit sectors. With the void of Asian Americans in leadership roles, the Asian communities have continued to face issues that are often overlooked and marginalized on a broader, mainstream scale.
On Saturday, Feb 20th, I was able to attend the Asian American Leadership Forum (AALF) conference organized by Asian-American Advancing Justice – Chicago (AAAJC) at Columbia College. I joined a few of my Khmer colleagues from KSGC (Khmer Support Giving Circle) courtesy of i2i (Invisible 2 Invincible Asian LGBTQ of Chicago) and NAPAWF (National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum ) The 1 day conference brought folks from various professions in the Asian-American community, both locally and nationally, to come together on how they can create healthy, responsible leadership to combat the racial / religious discrimination and hate crimes, and the “Asian Model Minority” myth that harms our communities.
I connected with many of the familiar faces in the Asian community organizing circle from AAAJC. Through the organization’s long-held devotion to social justice, they have worked to dismantle many of the barriers associated with the “Model Minority Myth” through their workshops, projects, and conferences in Chicago, and on a national level.
At the start of the conference, Vi Ray-Mazumder, Youth Civics Program Leader with AAAJC, offered a reflective take on the recent Asian issues in Illinois and nationally, while reminding the audience of the significance of the upcoming Presidential election this year. With the election year in mind, Vi spoke of the hate crimes that have targeted the Muslim / Sikh / South Asian communities since 9/11 which has only increased during this year’s election campaign. High school senior and youth activist, Maleesha Chughtai shared her experiences as a Muslim-American in her school and community, and her goals to advocate for social and educational equality moving forward.
Sally Richmond, Community Organizer from AFIRE (Alliance of Filipinos for Immigrant Rights & Empowerment) shared her experiences as a former nanny, and delivered an impassioned speech about the importance of domestic care workers who provide care for children, the elderly, and folks who are disabled. Tears were shed among audience members as she asked them to think about a person who cared for them, then asked who will be there to take care of their children, or provide companionship when their parents are dying in their final moments, or who will help us walk as we get older. She has currently been lobbying before Springfield to campaign for the Domestic Worker Bill of Rights which gives protection and fairness to domestic care workers in Illinois.
Rebecca Ozaki, AAAJC staff member & Japanese-American, spoke in remembrance of the 74 year anniversary of the Japanese-American internment in which all Americans of Japanese ancestry (110,000+total) were forcibly removed from their homes and into internment camps under President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Executive Order. She spoke of her grandparents’ experience being in the camps, and having to deal with the emotional scars that came from that ordeal in the years since. She beamed with pride and joy when she lovingly spoke about her grandfather who recently passed away of the contributions he has made to help Japanese-Americans in the Chicago community, and for our current and future generations to recognize the inhumane treatment that their community suffered during WWII.
Keynote speaker, Taz Ahmed, co-host of the podcast show “#GoodMuslimBadMuslim”, poet, essayist, activist, and Campaign Strategist from the Asian American New Media site, “18 Million Rising”, echoed many of the concerns addressed about the Muslim / SIkh / South Asian communities in America. She spoke about her courage to become an activist, and the inspiration she sought through art in order to create positive, radical-leading movements.
Myself on the far left with my friends in the Asian community organizing circle
During the lunch hour, folks were actively networking with one another while there were a few tables of local Asian-American groups eager to talk with potential new members. There was an opportunity for guests to sign up for the “Get Out To Vote” phone-banking to Asian-American voters for the upcoming March 15th primary elections in Chicago.
The conference included workshops from the following: Grassroots Fundraising: Effective Individual Donor Cultivation, Midwest Asian American Academic Advisory Council, Professional Leadership Development, KINETIC Youth: The Movement.
I chose to attend the Professional Leadership Development workshop. As a kid growing up, and going further into my adulthood, there weren’t many visible Asian American leaders on the mainstream level that I could find. Going back to my younger self, it was important for many Asian youths to see the work that is being done for their community, and a positive reassurance that they too are able to achieve leadership roles in any sector they choose.
The Professional Leadership Development workshop were facilitated by Linda Akutagawa from the Leadership Education for Asian Pacifics, Jean Kim from US Foods, and Maria Ofiamar Racho from Allstate Insurance. There was a timeline of Asian-American history since the early 20th century left mostly blank in the front room. The facilitators asked us to think about important events which also included part of their family history that were impactful to them, and to jot them down on the timeline. Sitting next to two of my Khmer friends, we both wanted to include the Khmer Rouge takeover of Cambodia in 1975, our family’s arrival to the US, and the opening of the Cambodian Association of Illinois. Folks were lining up writing down events laid out in the timeline. When we were finished, I was astonished to see a good part of our history that was never covered such as the “First Asian American to run or hold this public office” “First Asian to invent…”, “The hate-crime death of Vincent Chin in the early 80s”, the anti-immigration laws in 1996 to seeing family arrivals to the US. From the timeline, we discussed of how much history there is from our Asian communities, how we must achieve visibility through these significant moments, and to sustain our success for the community. My personal takeaway from this dialogue showed how many barriers that many Asian folks face in those struggles to achieve visibility, and how our history can impact our personal and professional goals.
Writing our Asian American history in the timeline
Throughout the workshop, we were given opportunities to introduce ourselves to people in our space, and reflect on our professional / personal experiences. I met with a wide range of folks from high school, college, young to mid professionals, and felt the eagerness among them as they wanted to share their experiences with one another. The topic of language learning and identity issues came up during the debrief in our discussion. Some people shared their struggles coming to terms with their Asian identity because of the pressures their parents put on them to learn English and succeed in school without giving much time to learn about their cultural history. Other folks chimed in about the shame of not learning their parents’ native tongue, and that even as an American, they are not made to feel valid by their non-Asian peers. Hearing about these experiences from my peers resonated deeply with me, as I also share the guilt of not being able to speak in my parents’ native tongue (Khmer and VIetnamese), and having to hear the shaming from both of my family’s community that I should be more “Viet” or more “Khmer.” This, while I was facing the pressures from my family to indoctrinate myself to the American culture as my path to succeed both academically and professionally.
I was able to bring up my own personal experiences, one of which I had never brought up to anyone, until this discussion. I recalled a specific moment in my life when I was pursuing journalism / creative writing, and starting my internship with Comcast SportsNet Chicago as an undergrad 10 years ago. For myself, the internship was a grand opportunity to prove that an Asian-American deserved to be in the sports media world, which was largely devoid of any. In that workspace, I was the only Asian person in the company among a few hundred employees in a predominantly straight white male environment along with the upper-class privilege they had. When I had lost out on one of their opening positions, my dad told me, “they’ll never hire people that are Asian.” It was his words that infuriated, and would soon devastate me. I began to feel the pressure of the idea of being “the FIRST Asian at…” along with fighting off the stigma that Asians can’t succeed in other fields outside of the medical / science profession. That thinking along with my dad’s proclamation carried with me through many of my unsuccessful job interviews with other major news outlets, and would lead me to change into a different professional direction. The dialogue triggered a lot of those past memories and current anxieties when I let my own perceived weakness over my identity get in the way of my personal ambitions.
The 2nd half of the workshop featured a panel of Asian business professionals that shared their experiences on how they overcame personal barriers, what they consider valuable in their leadership role and collaboration with other Asian and non-Asian colleagues, and recognizing and embracing their own ethnic identity in their professional life.
The Khmer Chicago community members
As the day concluded, the AALF conference aimed not only to bring a diverse group of Asian-Americans together, but to recognize the various layers of challenges that each Asian group has in order to achieve solidarity as a whole to create movements to counter harmful policies and legislation that serve to jeopardize our communities. Coming out of the conference, we learned a valuable lesson that started with a quote from Jose Rizal emphasizing, “No History, No Self. Know History, Know Self”