By Jessica Kai Curry
Northwest Asian Weekly
Michael Itti just settled into his position as executive director of the Chinese Information and Service Center (CISC). On the job since early September, his office barely looks lived in. This is probably because he’s been spending all of his time diligently working to fulfill the wide-reaching goals of a nonprofit organization, where providing information and service to the community equates to a lot more than just handing someone a list of helpful phone numbers.
Says Itti, “I’m really excited to work with the dedicated and professional team at CISC…It’s an incredibly dedicated team that understands the importance of serving immigrants and their families. I’m really excited to help expand and broaden the services we provide here at CISC.”
A quick tour through the CISC facility, hosted by knowledgeable, welcoming staff, demonstrates that vital activity is taking place. As Itti relates, CISC has been in operation since 1972, when it was started by a group of volunteers that saw a need to provide resources to Chinese and Chinese American senior citizens.
Today, CISC has grown to include not only the main office in Chinatown-International District, but also three additional branches in Redmond, Bellevue, and Kent. At the same time, the clientele served by CISC has grown to include not just senior citizens, but all age groups, and not just Chinese and Chinese American residents, but those in need from Russian, East African, Southeast Asian, and Latino communities.
Over the decades, CISC’s mission has expanded in order to provide immigrants and their families with information and services to assist them through daily life in the United States. Be it Tai Chi classes, after-school tutoring, English language lessons, help filling out forms, or assistance in seeking linguistically and culturally appropriate in-home care, Itti and his staff strive to address the wellbeing of the entire individual in order to give that individual — and thereby the community — a sense of empowerment and belonging. By helping people navigate language and cultural barriers, and easing access to resources and information, CISC provides peace of mind in tumultuous times.
Itti comes to CISC from serving as executive director of the Commission on Asian Pacific American Affairs (CAPAA) in Olympia. Prior to CAPAA, Itti was the program coordinator for the Asian and Pacific Islander American Voices in Education Initiative at Win/Win Network, an educational advocate for the League of Education Voters, and a communications specialist for the state house of representatives. He is a past president of the board with Asian Pacific Islander Americans for Civic Empowerment, a former board member of the Greater Seattle Chinese Chamber of Commerce, and currently the vice president of the Seattle Chinatown International District Preservation and Development Authority.
Itti brings to CISC his connections and experience working with community-based organizations.
“My experience…in terms of working in government, public policy, and advocacy, is about helping to communicate the needs in our communities, as well as addressing any disparities or inequities.”
Itti has always had an interest in government and public policy. It’s the reason he chose to attend George Washington University, in Washington, D.C., to obtain a degree in Business Administration. Itti says he has seen firsthand “the importance of empowering people in our community to be…active in their local schools, to vote consistently, to learn about the issues, and to speak to government about the needs in our communities.” A big part of Itti’s role at CISC will be to act as a spokesperson.
Born and raised on the eastside, Itti’s parents are from Thailand, and his grandparents immigrated from China. Itti understands Thai, but does not consider himself bilingual. English was the language spoken at home. His ability to relate to and work with diverse, immigrant populations, arises in large part from being the child of two immigrants, and from his experience working with organizations and coalitions to strengthen Asian and Pacific Islander communities.
Itti lives in Seattle, and enjoys hiking and taking advantage of the sights and scenes of the International District.
“I love to be able to experience Hing Hay Park, and to support local, small businesses here.” He encourages everyone to get behind the nonprofits in the area.
“There’s a lot of history here…there’s a lot of communities that helped build this neighborhood, and that are continuing to fight today to make sure that we maintain the vibrant, unique neighborhood where immigrants first arrived and made a home.”
Itti sees CISC’s main challenges today as addressing insecurities surrounding the current administration and its hostile approach to immigrants and immigration; being available to clients who may have been forced, due to cost of living, to move further away from urban centers; and expanding to address unmet needs in non-Chinese immigrant communities. Itti and his staff are already stepping up to meet these challenges.
Those seeking help from CISC can be assured that CISC will meet as many of their needs as possible under one roof.
Additional branches assist those in outlying neighborhoods, and CISC also provides staff at mini city hall in Bellevue Crossroads Mall and at Redmond’s Together Center. In addition to staff fluent in Chinese (primarily Mandarin, but also Cantonese and Toisanese), CISC has personnel that speak Russian, Vietnamese, and Spanish. They work closely with community partners to make sure efforts are maximized, and to provide up-to-date information.
Knowledge and a sense of belonging help defend against uncertainty. CISC clients are able to discuss recent developments in Washington, D.C., to find out how they are impacted, and bond with others who are similarly impacted.
They are able to access the resources to which they do have a right, when trends in government make them feel they do not. Can this Washington affect the other Washington? Itti says yes.
“This Washington has been setting an example. We have tremendous leadership here…as nonprofits, we have to continue to work closely with our governments and our communities to make sure we continue to speak up against any injustices that we see, and continue to educate people…We are trying to be a part of this system that ensures that everyone has an equal — and equitable — opportunity to succeed and thrive and achieve their dreams in life.”
Jessica Kai can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.