Last Thursday, July 9th, over 150 Asian American and Pacific Islander college students from across the nation convened at the White House for the 2015 White House Initiative on Asian American and Pacific Islanders Youth Forum. It was an engaging full-day conference that exceeded the usual program of speakers, workshops and panels to become a lasting community with a unified purpose. And while I came in not knowing a single person out of the 150 students there, by the end of the conference, I had joined a coalition of friends and fellow college students advocating for the social and economic advancement of our people and our generation.
A highlight from the event in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building came from the advice of keynote speaker Parag Mehta, the Chief of Staff to the US Surgeon General. He emphasized that we needed to look inside, outside and around the AAPI community to be inspired and to incite change, saying, “We are no more AAPI without the PI than LGBTQ is without the T.”
Although many use the term “Asian” colloquially to refer to people of Chinese, Korean or Japanese descent, it is crucial to remember that the AAPI community also includes those with backgrounds from India, the Philippines, Laos, Federated States of Micronesia, Hawaii and many more regions. Coalition building, or creating solidarity among groups, was one of the key themes throughout the conference.
The forum emphasized the need for AAPIs to extend outward and stand in solidarity with others such as African American and Latino communities in order to support and strengthen each other as allies in all causes rather than just our own. This message really struck me – at the core, all marginalized groups are fighting for the same thing: for our voices to be heard and our lives to matter.
I came to the conference as a young AAPI person, but also as a representative for my organization, the Center for Community Change (CCC). Community Change is a key force in bringing movements together and bringing new leaders to those movements—particularly leaders from low-income communities of color.
The Fair Immigration Reform Movement (FIRM), one of CCC’s leading projects, is a coalition of 30 diverse immigrant rights organizations across the nation that fights for the rights of all immigrants, including AAPIs who make up the fastest-growing immigrant population in the U.S. Community Change exemplifies the power of coalition building, from supporting a petition for labor rights for Indian immigrants, to teaming up with the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus (CAPAC) as part of the Keeping Families Together campaign.
But even with support from organizations like CCC, AAPI issues are often put on the political backburner as other groups overshadow the small yet rapidly growing community. This Forum provided a spotlight for AAPIs to voice their concerns among our community and the responsibilities we have to make them heard with louder volume.
One issue addressed throughout the conference was the “model minority” stigma – the belief that all AAPIs are successful, and even more so in some cases than their white counterparts. Asian Nation reports that while Indians have the highest rates of college degrees out of all ethnic groups, Cambodians, Hmong and Laotians have the lowest high-school graduation rates and the lowest rates of higher education degrees of any ethnic group. The model minority stigma is a disincentive for people, both outside and inside the AAPI community, to help AAPIs, even those who need it the most.
My friend who went to the notable Stuyvesant High School in New York described to me how the large population of AAPI students from low-income backgrounds face discrimination in the school system because their parents speak broken English causing a disconnect with school faculty, and they lack the resources or interest many other parents have in supporting their children’s education. Meanwhile, faculty at Stuyvesant often assume that all the Asians are smart enough to be self-sufficient, leaving many AAPI students who are in need of support to fend for themselves.
This lack of understanding among groups is troubling, and the call for coalition building echoed throughout the day’s events. Though AAPIs face discrimination, ostracism and oppression, we are not alone in those struggles and in the fight against them. There are numerous other groups that are fighting for the same freedoms as we are. What’s key to any of our successes is that we need to empathize with each other, trust and support each other and push forward together. As today’s youth, we must put our passion for social justice to that cause.
The Forum’s focus on coalition building among groups and inclusivity within our own AAPI group makes it so fitting to learn from one of my favorite quotes, by W.E.B. Dubois in The Souls of Black Folk: “Herein lies the tragedy of the age: not that men are poor, –all men know something of poverty; not that men are wicked, — who is good? Not that men are ignorant, –what is Truth? Nay, but that men know so little of men.”
Pictured above: Community Change intern Angela Zhao, second from right, poses with other participants of the 2015 White House Initiative on Asian American and Pacific Islanders Youth Forum.