As part of Asian American and Pacific Islander Month in May, and of an ongoing panel series in partnership with Microsoft, Assunta Ng, the Weekly’s publisher, met with six “rising”—or already highly risen!—members of the local AAPI community to talk about the importance of community involvement for all people of color.
“The panel is what I call a dream team,” Ng said. “They get things done. They represent the best of our leaders.”
The “dream team” included Sam Cho, who recently became president of the Seattle Port Commission, and who is “the first person of color and youngest commissioner to be president of the port since its founding in 1911,” Ng pointed out. Along with several other panel members, Cho previously worked for the Obama administration, and has held multiple impressive roles, but maybe not (yet) as many as Gary Locke, the next panelist, with “four remarkable titles, including former governor, U.S. Secretary of Commerce, U.S. ambassador to China, and now a college president,” Ng stated, following up to laughter with, “I Googled it.”
Ng posed separate but related questions to each pair of panelists. For a start, she (we!) wanted to know what got Cho and Locke into politics in the first place? Cho described a circumstance common to many AAPIs—not being encouraged by parents to be political.
“My mother in all her wisdom told me there are three things in life that I should never do. The first one is gamble. The second one is drugs. The third one is politics.”
Both Locke and Cho started at lower levels of government before the passion for change became too strong to hold back.
“If I really care about the issues, I want to be at the table helping set the policies that affect the people in my area and the people similar to me, Asian Pacific Americans,” said Locke, who continued by saying that you don’t have to run for office—there are other ways to affect the community. If you’re not at the table, though, someone else will be, and could make decisions you don’t like, “so here’s an opportunity…to take your lived experiences, your background, your mindset, your values…to help shape the public policy that affects all of us.”
Next to be introduced were Michael Byun, executive director of Asian Counseling and Referral Service, and Christina Shimizu, executive director of Puget Sound Sage and Sage Leaders. Ng asked them why it’s important for AAPIs to “build alliances” with all people of color. The answer, in a nutshell, was “because what happens to one of us happens to all of us.”
Shimizu added details about her family life.
“I grew up seeing a lot of injustice…like my dad being called the gardener in his own yard…like the way my family wouldn’t talk about Japanese incarceration.” Elaborating on a common theme, when Shimizu, “as a person confused about identity, confused about the injustices,” looked to elected leaders, she did not see many that looked like her (although she identified Locke as one of her inspirations). The historic lack of AAPI representation in U.S. politics stems from institutionalized racism and also from traditional AAPI upbringings where “we are uncomfortable rocking the boat.” And yet, Shimizu pointed out, “there’s a lot of healing that can come through this process” of “putting words” to what happens to us, and understanding “we can have a seat at the table and…effect change.”
Effecting change doesn’t have to be from any one position, Shimizu explained. It could be letting everyone know via social media when the next event is. It could be knocking on doors or attending marches. It could be running for office.
“We need that full spectrum of engagement.”
Like Shimizu and the other panelists, Byun’s life today “has been informed by my own lived experience as an immigrant child.” Byun’s parents came from Korea to the U.S. in the 1970s and had “little formal education.” He explained that “at one point, my mother and father were selling luggage out of a cargo van” and he “would tag along and help out.” Therefore, “understanding what it means to be Asian American within the broader context of America, I definitely felt very strongly the importance of…lifting up the voices of marginalized communities.” Byun highlighted “the power of collective unity among communities of color.”
Next up on the panel was Shasti Conrad, chair of the Washington State Democrats, the first woman of color and youngest person in that role. Conrad, who was adopted from Calcutta by a single mom, is “the first South Asian woman to lead a state party organization anywhere in the country, and the first AAPI chair in the U.S. mainland.” Alongside her in the discussion, entrepreneur Kelly Ogilvie, founder of multiple Seattle companies, has worked on “numerous national and local political campaigns,” including that of Jay Inslee and Locke.
The question posed to Conrad and Ogilvie was what obstacles do Asians face in developing their own voices? Ogilvie, whose heritage is mixed race, Japanese, Filipino, German, French, and Spanish, told his story of being asked to stay in the shadows, so to speak.
“My Japanese grandpa used to say to me, ‘The nail that sticks out gets hammered down.’” In other words, “Don’t bring attention to yourself…I didn’t listen. I got involved in politics.” Ogilvie said to Locke—for the first time on this day—that Locke’s running for office inspired him to show up at Locke’s office asking to be an intern. He stressed that it’s not just about representation but also about the quality of the representation, and credited local AAPI heroes like Locke for setting a precedent.
“They helped us find a voice by carving out a pathway for us to have that voice in the first place.”
Conrad corroborated that, for many AAPIs who want to become involved in politics, there is no “roadmap.” Well-meaning immigrant parents, who sacrificed so much, don’t want their kids to struggle, and so advise them to choose safer paths to success.
“A lot of us have come into the United States being told to be grateful for what we have, not to stick our heads up.” Plus, in many AAPI home countries, “being outspoken about politics could be a death sentence” and so, “we carry that sort of baggage.” Because of this, Conrad finds it “powerful” when an AAPI steps up to be heard, and she is particularly happy to see many AAPI women doing just that.
Next, Ng posed questions to which panelists were asked to agree or disagree. For example, did they think that the rise of powerful Asian Americans in politics was a cause of increased anti-Asian hate crimes? The conversation became more visceral, touching upon the history of discrimination in the U.S. as far back as colonization and slavery, and suggesting that increased activism amongst AAPIs is not necessarily the (only) reason for anti-Asian violence, but is a reason why anti-Asian violence is being publicly spotlighted more nowadays.
No one suggested a return to silence.
Ng said, perhaps jokingly, perhaps not, that the next panel discussion would be about how to convince AAPI parents to encourage rather than discourage their children to enter politically active positions. Until then, Ng exhorted everyone to “be loud and proud—for all the AAPIs.”
Kai can be reached at email@example.com.