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Learning From Our Past & Strengthening Our Future

Daphne Kwok marks Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month by telling the stories of Japanese Americans and of newly-arrived AAPI families.

In 1990, Congress voted to have the month of May designated as Asian Pacific Heritage Month.  That means that for the past twenty two years, the accomplishments, the tragedies, and the triumphs of this vibrant and diverse community have been recognized as essential to the identity of this great nation.  As Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month turns 22, it is an opportunity for us all to reflect on other notable milestones that define our past, informed our present, and will shape our future.

I want to tell the story of two different AAPI communities in order to illustrate our resilience and the continuing challenges of integrating newcomers to our country. One community, Japanese Americans, has undergone decades of strife and turmoil in order to emerge as a community with a national voice. Another set of our community has just set foot in America in the last few years, and they are struggling through pressing challenges that test our nation’s ability to build another generation of new Americans.

Seventy years ago, on February 19, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 which led to the internment of Japanese Americans during WWII.

During the past 70 years, we have learned that, despite the mistakes of its past, the United States of America is a great nation that is willing to acknowledge its past mistakes and embrace a more hopeful and tolerant future.  We have learned that Japanese Americans, who had every reason to withdraw from American society for the tragedies they suffered, instead had the fortitude, courage, and belief in the core values of this nation to remain and become engaged.  Their dedication and perseverance saw them through to the passage of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, which provided an apology and compensation to the thousands of Japanese Americans whose constitutional rights were violated during World War II through forced exclusion and mass incarceration.  Today, Japanese Americans are part of the fabric of American society, with an influential presence in business, entertainment, and politics. The Japanese American experience serves as an inspiration to all AAPI communities.

In the past decade, the United States has welcomed tens of thousands of immigrants and refugees from Burma, Bhutan, Tibet, and Mongolia now undergoing incredible struggles to become Americans.

This past Saturday, I had the honor of collaborating with local Oakland area community groups at a Town Hall for emerging communities. The convening focused on connecting federal agencies with recent refugees from Burma, Bhutan, Tibet, and Mongolia. The discussion focused on the resettlement process, health and language barriers, challenges in finding employment, job training, and housing and public safety problems, all which compounded the ongoing physical and mental health challenges, depression, isolation, and violence within families coping with post-war trauma. The main takeaway for federal partners and community leaders was that we needed to build strategic partnerships with these communities in order to overcome severe cultural and linguistic barriers.

The two stories I just told of our Japanese American brothers and sisters and the newly-arrived AAPI families may seem vastly different. In actuality, their journeys reflect the same message of tolerance, of perseverance, and of justice. As we enter this month of celebration in our community, let us embrace this shared past—highs and lows, positives and negatives, tragedies and triumphs—and move forward together to a bright future.

Daphne Kwok serves as the Chairperson for the President’s Advisory Commission on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.