By Mahlon Meyer
Northwest Asian Weekly
“When the U.S. wants to exert force, they send the Seventh Fleet,” said Mark Okazaki, former chair of Asian Pacific Directors Coalition (APDC).
“It is just a show, but it says, ‘We are here, we can mess with you,’” he said. “This is the power of our coalition.”
APDC, like the U.S. Seventh Fleet, represents a powerhouse. With over 170 members and more than 30 years of history, the organization’s purpose, among other roles, is to hold public leaders accountable for representing the needs of Asian Pacific Islanders (APIs).
Founded in the 1980s to provide mentoring for API youth and address the lack of APIs in leadership positions in government and education, the organization has consistently fought to implode the myth of APIs as the model minority and, in so doing, get their needs met.
“In general, the idea of having an organized, respected coalition that has been around for 30-plus years continuously is in and of itself a vehicle for change, because if it didn’t exist, for many of the policy makers, the issues wouldn’t exist,” said Okazaki.
“Over the decades, we have met with mayors, councilmembers, superintendents, sheriffs, and police chiefs to hold them accountable to the communities they serve,” said Michael Itti, co-chair of the Political Voice Committee. Itti is the executive director of Chinese Information Services Center.
Most recently, APDC has taken the Seattle School Board to task. In an open letter written in July to Seattle School Superintendent Denise Juneau and published in this newspaper, APDC chair Janice Deguchi lamented that while APIs are the third largest minority in the district, their representation in the district leadership is virtually non-existent.
Juneau had told them of a top leader who was an API. But he subsequently left, leaving a single API.
“We are alarmed by this, especially in the context of learning that many administrators of color have left the district, feeling marginalized, tokenized, or excluded,” wrote Deguchi.
“We also understand that although new positions and promotions are taking place, it appears from the outside that Seattle Public Schools is not an environment that retains, develops, or advances leaders of color,” she added.
Juneau read the letter aloud to her entire leadership team, Deguchi said in an interview.
While no changes have been made yet, Juneau has been on the job less than a year and elections are coming for some positions, said Josephine Tamayo Murray, another APDC veteran. Tamayo Murray is the vice president for Public Policy in Seattle.
History and community
APDC started as a way for directors of nonprofits who were APIs to meet and provide support and mentorship.
Deguchi, who took over leadership of Neighborhood House two months ago, credits the mentorship she received from APDC role models with her success.
“Membership in APDC is a process for the young leaders who have joined APDC over the years.
You can see them progress through their careers, and that has been the value of APDC, that mentoring of young leaders in our community where you now have API leaders in some significant organizations in government and education,” said Tamayo Murray.
APIs can share and develop ideas and identity when they might otherwise experience discrimination.
“The most common thing I hear from my other colleagues of color is that when you’re in a meeting in a majority workplace and you put an idea on the table and the group ignores it, but when a white person brings up the same idea and they congratulate the person,” said Tamayo Murray.
Over the years, APDC has expanded to address a variety of issues, from gentrification displacement to education, to social services to toxins present in the Beacon Hill area. Likewise, their membership has grown beyond the bounds of nonprofit directors to anyone interested in API affairs.
“It was intended to be for executive directors of nonprofits who are API, but we have a number of people who are mid-level managers, community volunteers, retirees, in the private sector who participate because they have similar interests,” said Okazaki.
The structure is intentionally loose.
“There is structure, but at the same time, we don’t stand on formalities, because I think there is an intentionality about not wanting to be so exclusive,” he said.
“Also there is strength in numbers as a coalition, so having a diversity of number makes the coalition,” he added.
Deguchi, as chair, said she maintained an ever-expanding email list and often invites people to join.
Seattle School District
With the Seattle School District, the APDC has three items that they want to have addressed.
First, as Deguchi wrote in her letter, they want more APIs in leadership positions.
“There are hardly any APIs in leadership positions,” Okazaki said.
“So it perpetuates the stereotype that Asian Americans don’t make good leaders.”
Second, they want the school district to disaggregate data on APIs. That will show that some ethnic groups within the broader API group are struggling. They may need additional attention.
“The tendency is to clump all of them together and it looks like APIs have no problem,” said Okazaki. “But when you disaggregate the data, you see a different picture.”
Third, APDC wants the school district to expand discussion of institutional racism. Currently, according to Okazaki, the district focuses primarily on issues between Blacks and whites.
“Anytime the school district talks about issues of race, they turn it into a Black and white issue,” he said.
“There is huge institutional racism that goes on for APIs that ties into the model minority myth,” he added.
“The model minority”
In the 1990s, the myth of the model minority—that Asian Americans are successful in countless ways compared to other minorities—prevented the city from seeing that APIs were in gangs.
“At the time, Seattle was deeply concerned about youth gangs and putting together strategies about gang intervention,” said Okazaki.
“The focus was on African American gangs, and it was to the exclusion of Asian Americans. But there were Asians involved in gangs—lots of them,” he said.
APDC worked with city officials to create programs for parents. The City of Seattle funded a program for API youth, which spun off into a nonprofit, Safe Futures, that still exists.
The coalition also organized discussions and career counseling with law enforcement personnel that targeted Pacific Islanders, Vietnamese, Filipinos, Chinese, Cambodian, and Laotians, according to the APDC website.
More recently, however, the same model minority myth obscured the fact that APIs still face some of the same challenges as other ethnic groups.
The shooting of Tommy Le, a 20-year-old Vietnamese high school student, by a King County deputy sheriff last year, became a major rallying point for APDC.
APDC regularly meets with community leaders, the Seattle mayor, and the King County sheriff.
During a meeting with the King County sheriff, APDC leaders discussed their concerns about the shooting, said Deguchi.
In December, APDC also holds an event for all API Washington state legislators.
“It’s a good networking opportunity,” said Deguchi. “Some people don’t have connections, some are new to the Seattle area.”
One challenge facing the APDC is the diversity of its constituents. Although it represents APIs from many different backgrounds, the cultural and social needs of each group can make it difficult to find unity.
However, in order to be a force that can exert sway over public policy, it is essential for it to retain its unanimity, said Okazaki.
“Part of the challenge within the API community is there are so many communities,” he said. “And each of those communities has unique politics and issues, however there is a challenge of achieving a critical mass that is big enough so that a pan-ethnic organization has a bigger voice,” he said.
But they work for all their members, he said.
“If there was some issue in the Vietnamese community that got to our attention and it’s clearly institutional bias, we will get in there and use all our institutional political energy to influence the outcome,” said Okazaki. “We will take it on.”
APDC will be honored at the Top Contributors award dinner on Dec. 6 at China Harbor Restaurant in Seattle, from 6–9 p.m. To purchase tickets, go to topcontributors2019.bpt.me.