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Engaging the South: White House Initiative Southeast Regional Action Summit, Atlanta, Georgia

Kiran Ahuja, Executive Director of The White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, notes the progress made at the Southeast Regional Action Summit in Atlanta and reflects on her own childhood experiences in Georgia.

On March 16, the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPIs) held its first ever Southeast Regional Action Summit in Atlanta, Georgia, where community leaders met with government representatives to draw out a plan for AAPIs in the South.  As I return to the state where I grew up, I cannot help but marvel at the tremendous growth of the AAPI population.

The state of Georgia now boasts more than 300,000 AAPIs, from schoolchildren to business owners and professionals in science and the arts.  The growth has been robust, and with time, the expanding AAPI population will make its voice heard more and more.

With images of my days at Spelman College still in mind, this summit was a kind of homecoming for me.  As I walked the same streets that I did growing up, everything felt so familiar – yet with significant growth in the AAPI population, I know it is not the same.

Growing up in Savannah, I had always felt different.  Though I desired to fit in with others at school, everything about me and my brother stuck out: we looked different, our names sounded different, and no one else understood what it was like to be Indian American.  My parents spent much of their time in the inner city running a medical clinic, and as I began to better understand their work, it dawned on me that perhaps others around me felt just as different as I did.

My parents’ clinic provided more than just medical necessities – it was a hub for social services to underserved African Americans.  From working with the local housing authority to filling out SSI forms to advocating in court, my parents served important needs through their clinic, striving to help their patients overcome not only medical challenges, but economic and social barriers as well.  Following their model, I became involved in advocating on behalf of the African American community as a college student at Spelman College, a historically black women’s college.

Poverty, employment discrimination, health disparities, and barriers to education – these were some of the issues that affected those around me every day.  And today, they continue to affect diverse communities of all races, including AAPIs in the South.  Of the total AAPI population 25 years and older, more than 13% do not have a high school diploma.  The number of bilingual AAPIs has also risen, and the U.S. Census has noted that 37.6% speak English “less than very well.”  With a growing population comes an urgency to address the needs of these Americans.

The 2012 White House Initiative Southeast Regional Action facilitated valuable exchanges and made strides in amplifying AAPI voices in areas like civil rights, small business, housing and health.  As members of the community convened in Atlanta, the rich civil rights history backdrop is a reminder that there is still work to be done, and that the fight for equal access and opportunity is a continual process that requires passion, commitment, and the collaborative effort of relentless individuals.

Kiran Ahuja is the Executive Director of the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.