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Unprecedented Government/Community Engagement

The White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders engages with AAPIs across the country, from Hawaii to New York, Minnesota to Florida.

I am honored to serve in this Administration’s White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, which is grounded in the fundamental premise that no community is invisible to its government.  When President Obama re-established the Initiative, we embraced our charge to engage Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPIs) nationally and connect them with federal policymakers and resources.

I have grown up in and around grassroots organizations that have molded my consciousness – community health centers, AAPI legal advocacy organizations and places of worship – institutions that are leading, innovating and building strategies in alignment with federal agencies’ priorities to improve the health and wellbeing of the community.  These organizations are effectively leveraging the unique cultural and communal assets that already exist within AAPI communities as tools to inform and empower.

At the Initiative, we faced a series of daunting tasks: How do we link these organizations and individuals with the federal government?  And how do we understand what obstacles are systematically creating barriers for community members to gain access to federal resources?

We started by looking at the disparities that exist across AAPI communities and engaging them on public policy.  To build bridges in these communities, we convened roundtables, town halls and summits across the country with federal agencies in 25 states with over 25,000 community members. 

From a Silicon Valley summit connecting budding AAPI entrepreneurs with federal programs to expand their businesses; to a New York City summit on bullying prevention targeting AAPI youth, teachers and parents; to a Honolulu philanthropy summit on investment in indigenous communities; to Los Angeles; Seattle; Jacksonville; the Twin Cities of Minnesota; Oakland; Fayetteville; to Salt Lake County, Utah, the second most populous county of Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders in the continental United States; and recently to Atlanta, where more than 500 individuals came together from across the Southeastern states, and with assistance from Korean, Vietnamese and Nepali interpreters, they met with Administration officials about federal programs and issues facing geographically dispersed, immigrant communities.

And we have responded to the community.  After the BP Oil Spill struck, I joined the federal disaster relief efforts in the Gulf Coast, where 44%of shrimping vessels with a federal permit belong to fishermen with Vietnamese surnames.  We met Southeast Asian Americans, along with French-speaking Native American shrimpers and Spanish-speaking Latino seafood workers, and advised the federal agencies on how to best serve these diverse communities.  As a result, the first federal-wide language translation clearinghouse was created – providing materials in languages including Vietnamese, Cambodian Khmer, Lao, Spanish, French and Haitian Creole.

In California, one community member said it felt like for the first time, instead of having to go to the mountain, the mountain was moving towards the community.  And AAPIs have gained visibility with federal officials responsible for the policy impacting so many of their lives.

Through these and many other efforts, community leaders continue to provide crucial feedback to federal officials designing policy and programs.  This has been instrumental for the agencies in creating and implementing a historic twenty-three federal agency plans to increase AAPI access, charging forward under the mandate of our Initiative. 

Models within the community effectively align with federal agency priorities and will continue to be a vehicle to broaden the reach of government’s responsibility.  Our Initiative has worked to ensure that government and all our institutions are accountable to the people, holding true to a firm belief that as a society, we are stronger when we all work together. 

Miya Saika Chen serves as Senior Advisor in the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.