By Mahlon Meyer
Northwest Asian Weekly
At a time when distrust of the democratic process has reached new heights within the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community, along with the rest of the population, two organizations within the community have adopted somewhat different approaches to voter education and registration.
That such widely divergent methods and philosophies are necessary suggests just how diverse are communities within the broader AAPI bloc, and how different their needs are, particularly at this moment.
A tale of two communities
The Chinese Information and Service Center (CISC) strives to empower its clients, who require services in languages that are not English, to make informed decisions. As a result, CISC offers voter education wrapped into other services, holds special events, and is routinely asked to serve as a mediator for government and other agencies seeking to reach the populations they serve.
“The most important aspect is the trusted relationship that providers have with the community they serve,” said Michael Itti, executive director of CISC. “When clients come in for services, we include information about civic affairs, the importance of being involved, and make sure their voices are heard.”
The Filipino American Political Action Group of Washington (FAPAGOW) also does voter registration through special events but is focused on strategizing to shape its message to reach a wide range of perspectives and generations in its communities, one of the largest Asian American groups in the state.
Unlike CISC, FAPAGOW offers endorsements of candidates, and considers issues such as religion and generational allegiances, both of which complicate potential voters’ interests.
“There is a definite concern about growing mistrust of government and a diminished faith in the democratic process in the Filipino American community and beyond,” said Ador Pereda Yano, president of FAPAGOW, which he describes as progressive but non-partisan. “We have not figured out how to engage all different perspectives, but we want as many as are qualified to register.”
For CISC clients, traditional ways of getting information about voting, which are in English, may be inaccessible.
These include “all the mailers, television ads in English—it’s all in English,” said Itti.
So CISC invites clients to “ballot parties.” These are groups of dozens of clients who often meet in the organization’s senior activities’ room. There, staff members share information in their native language.
This includes reading ballots and candidates’ statements aloud, which King County Elections translates into multiple languages.
It also includes instructing clients in the use of the City of Seattle’s Democracy Voucher program. Using this program, any permanent resident or voter of the city can donate up to $100 to a candidate of their choice.
During one ballot party, a staff member showed a powerpoint to a group of 30 clients about the program.
“Many had questions,” said Itti.
On Oct. 30, CISC is joining with the Chinese American Citizens’ Alliance (CACA) for an annual rice drive, which will include an opportunity to register voters.
But Itti emphasizes that clients come in every day for issues such as help with understanding a piece of mail.
And caseworkers may use these opportunities to share information about voting.
“We encourage eligible voters to register as participation is an important basis of the democratic process,” said Itti.
FAPAGOW held its most recent voter registration in Mill Creek in early October in partnership with the National Federation of Filipino American Associations.
But one of its main components of outreach is endorsement of candidates.
Its board spent years aligning its principles with what it considers are the varying perspectives of the Filipino American communities in Washington state.
These include an emphasis on climate and environmental justice, racial and economic justice in education, employment, and contracting, and culturally and linguistically accessible and affordable health, human, and housing services.
FAPAGOW has recently also acted in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement and sent letters to local and state officials calling for them to change policing to provide the unsheltered with mental health professionals, increase Black community oversight of government, and focus on the populations hardest hit by COVID-19, which includes Black, Native American, and people of color communities.
Using these principles, the organization has endorsed candidates who may vary wildly in policies, but share common priorities of helping immigrants and communities of color.
“For instance, U.S. Rep. Kim Schrier and U.S. Rep. Pramila Jayapal have different policy foci, Rep. Jayapal is more progressive, but they have enough shared interests, such as human rights and social justice, that we endorse both,” said Yano.
CISC, like other community groups that work with clients whose primary language is not English, is often called upon to act as a bridge between government and its clients.
“Every city seems to be emailing us to do civic engagement,” said Itti. “Still, we’re just one of many that governments should reach out to.”
Family associations, the Asian Counseling and Referral Service, and other stakeholders all can and do connect policymakers with the community, he said.
According to Itti, community engagement has five levels, starting from the most basic and progressing to the most empowering: inform, consult, involve, collaborate, community-led.
CISC, in working with outside agencies, however, is sometimes limited by its capacity. It is well-staffed in languages such as Cantonese, Mandarin, and Taishanese. For Vietnamese and Spanish, only a handful.
At the same time, it is easy for people to walk into its location in the Chinatown-International District (CID), and hundreds do weekly. But for its other locations, clients mostly need to ride the bus or drive, which makes it comparatively difficult.
The solution, Itti suggests, would be for governments to engage in long-term outreach rather than one-time or “transactional” efforts.
“We could do more outreach of this kind and would be even more effective with ongoing engagement since that would allow us to build more capacity,” said Itti.
For FAPAGOW, it is a balancing act reaching out to one of the largest communities of Asian Americans in Washington state—there are 170,000 to 200,000 Filipino Americans in the state.
Religion, generational differences, and changing perspectives among members of the community means that “FAPAGOW hasn’t figured it out, it is very difficult to characterize the different political orientations,” said Yano.
“Some families have been here since the 1920s or 1930s, others may belong to the group of new immigrants that mostly arrived since 1965,” after the Marcos regime came to power, said Yano.
While most Filipino Americans are Catholic, depending on their generation, and other varying experiences, views on such sensitive topics as reproductive rights may vary widely.
“This is a challenge,” said Yano.
FAPAGOW leaders have also found challenges in reaching out to a younger generation—both those whose families have lived here for centuries and those more recently arrived from the Philippines.
While they are focused on issues in the U.S., they are also passionate about the Philippines.
“As we seek to engage the younger generations, we find that those who have come here to study are interested in the Philippines, helping to overcome injustices and inequities in the Philippines,” he said. “But also those in the younger generation who are born here want to be in touch with the motherland, in terms of finding their own identities and their heritage. So both groups have a passion for protesting human rights abuses that should be mitigated.”
Dolores Sibonga, the first member of the Seattle City Council of Filipino ancestry and a current advisor to FAPAGOW, wrote in a blog on the organization’s home page about the importance of reaching out to the younger generation.
“You’d think that at my age—89—I wouldn’t be concerned about youth. And yet I worry that young people will sit out the November election, and we will lose whatever vestiges of democracy that remain today,” she wrote.
Sibonga said younger voters could unite around issues such as universal health care, the green new deal, and economic justice.
“And just to show you how much your one vote can count: For about the last 100 years, one of every 100,000 votes in U.S. elections and one of every 15,000 votes in state elections “mattered.” They were cast for a candidate that led or won by one vote.”
To view FAPAGOW’s full list of endorsements, visit fapagow.org.
To learn about CISC’s upcoming rice drive in partnership with CACA, visit cacaseattle.org/index.html.
Mahlon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.