By Janice Nesamani
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
In an earlier life, Scott Oki helped Microsoft conquer the world. Today, in addition to owning several golf courses, Oki throws his weight and wealth behind charities and contributes his time as an advisor and board member for different organizations and nonprofits.
One of his latest causes is the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Victory Alliance Think Tank, which will focus on cultivating actionable policies, rooted in data, that impact the community under the leadership of Executive Director Varun Nikore.
Formerly known as AAPI Progressive Action, the AAPI Victory Alliance was started in 2017 by several of President Obama’s commissioners under the White House Initiative for AAPIs.
“During the Trump years, these former appointees felt the need for an organization to help protect the rights of AAPIs when it seemed like there was an onslaught of negative rhetoric towards the community in actions that were trying to limit our freedoms in this country,” Nikore said.
“Our mission is to communicate to the AAPI community year-round agnostic of election,” Nikore said. The organization works to ensure AAPIs get the information they need to civically participate in the political process. It is also an activist organization that asks members to lobby for pro-AAPI policies to help democratize AAPI citizenship further.
“The Think Tank was an idea formulated last year, in 2021 we are trying to fill a gap in our political ecosystem and infrastructure for AAPIs in this country,” Nikore said.
“We have never had an AAPI Think Tank before and it was extremely important in the ecosystem because we need to come up with white papers and policy papers through an AAPI lens that could turn into legislation at the local or state level.”
The AAPI Victory Alliance was introduced to Oki by former Gov. Gary Locke in 2017.
“We approached [Oki] and asked him if he would be willing to open up his rolodex and house, and he and his wife Laurie were generous and kind enough to agree to host the fundraiser on Sept. 14,” Nikore said.
“They are very committed to the AAPI cause. See we are in the early days of the AAPI movement, and know that keeping the movement propelled with momentum needs ideas and policy prescriptions that could help serve our community better because the basis of anything we are trying to achieve in the country—to do more and learn more about the AAPI in the community,” Nikore said.
Pandemic fears that soared at the start of 2020 fanned flames of hate directed at Asians across the United States. While the Okis were fortunate not to have experienced hate directly, Scott was hit hard by a story he read in the New York Times.
“The paper reported an elderly woman was attacked on the streets while no one came to her assistance,” Oki said. “That, to me, was a real eye opener. How could someone just stand by and not do anything?”
So, when Nikore called Oki and told him about the AAPI Think Tank, Oki was interested.
“I don’t know what my ongoing role is going to be. I’m getting old and my batteries need recharging, but I am getting involved in ways that surprise me,” Oki said.
For example, former congressman Mike Honda asked Oki to get involved in a committee that will sponsor a new bill on education.
“I have always cared about reforming public education,” Oki said.
In 2009, Oki wrote a book called “Outrageous Learning: An Education Manifesto.”
“If you read my thoughts in that book, you will realize that nothing has changed in the public education system since and that is unfortunate.”
A reason for his involvement with the AAPI Victory Alliance Think Tank is to ensure the same doesn’t happen with AAPI issues.
“We need a unified vision and that is not going to happen by itself,” Oki said. “It’s going to take an organization, hopefully the AAPI Victory Alliance Think Tank, that not only provides a unified vision but a well-articulated strategy.”
As someone who predicted and grew Microsoft’s international business, Oki said, “In my business days, I always said that without a good strategy, achieving goals will be elusive. This Think Tank can provide the vision, strategy, and the goals.”
One of the ways the Think Tank plans to do this is through promoting innovative, data-driven policies that focus on topics that AAPI communities care about.
While claiming his knowledge of technology is ancient, Oki thinks today we have tools at our disposal that will help in promoting innovative data-driven policies.
“First, we have all these high-tech platforms, whether it’s WiFi, cellular, or the internet, improving and increasing throughput which makes data transfers much faster.”
“My son Nicholas works as a computer programmer for Tableau, which is a part of Salesforce.
Tableau captures data and presents it in an easy-to-see fashion,” Oki said. “Tools like these certainly help present and develop policies that are data driven,” he added.
Speaking about the fundraiser, Oki noticed it was attended by the broader AAPI community, which included Korean, Chinese, Japanese, and Indian ethnicities, among others.
“I invited these people knowing not everyone was from the left or right of the political aisle. Yet, they all cared about issues facing the AAPI community and concluded that we need a think tank to address things like hate,” Oki said. “That alone shows this is not a left or a right issue, it affects both sides of the aisle.”
Oki observes anti-Asian sentiment is based on a four-letter word: hate.
“It is a very visceral word and is unacceptable in any context,” Oki said. “It doesn’t matter which minority you are dealing with, not only within the Asian community but more broadly the Hispanic or Black community. There simply is no room for this four-letter word.”
Oki hopes vision, strategy, and putting data behind the issues to help achieve well-articulated goals will help Asian individuals run for office.
“I would like to see more diversity in public office. They are the ones who have the ability to shape policy that impacts the broader community.”
Nikore feels that a core embodiment of leadership is really knowing who your community is, understanding how to speak to various members whether they are Pacific Islanders, native Hawaiians, Iranian Americans, or Chinese Americans, to know who they are, how they think and their drivers for civic engagement.
“Today, we are interested in four areas of research—misinformation or disinformation, voting rights to learn continued impediments to further voting and how voting rights restrictions will impact our community, climate change and gun violence prevention,” Nikore said.
“The last two and to an extent voting rights—are not typically viewed as core AAPI issues but they are starting to change,” Nikore said. “We’d like to have a seat at the table and provide more input on how climate and guns affect our community members.”
Oki feels a great education plays an important role and he offered an opinion on the education system in the U.S.
“It’s unfortunate we still have to import so many H1B1 people to fill many high-tech jobs. If you don’t have a math background, you’re not going to get very far in the high-tech sector.”
He feels that if someone wanted to tackle our public education system, it is a huge undertaking, but the rewards would also be huge.
“It’s a big if. If we can do things, that will result in an insanely great public education system.”
He points out that today, among the 25 largest education systems in the world, the U.S. ranks dead last, and we should be ashamed of that, but people are unaware of so much.
“How many people know that about half of the teachers that teach math and science in our schools don’t have degrees in math and science?” Oki asked. “While Costco operates on a 10% overhead, our public school system operates on a 30-40% overhead. We have plenty of money in the system—it’s just ill spent.”
He opines that quality education is a cornerstone for long-term positive effects.
“If we don’t change public education, the future in my opinion is very bleak.”
As for helping the AAPI Victory Alliance Think Tank gain momentum, Oki feels the easy thing to do to get involved is to simply donate. you can make a donation on the organization’s website at aapivictoryalliance.com/think-tank.
The AAPI Victory Alliance Think Tank hopes to raise a million dollars by hosting fundraisers across the U.S.
Oki said, “It’s going to take money. It is the organization’s hope to raise a million dollars to begin the process of hiring the people who can think through some of the issues that need to be addressed.”
Janice can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.