Home Agenda Racial justice tops agenda for young AAPI candidates

Racial justice tops agenda for young AAPI candidates

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For young AAPI women, finding our way in politics or government is about owning our power.

Bee Nguyen was elected the first Asian American Democratic woman to the Georgia General Assembly in House District 89, the seat once held by Stacey Abrams. (instagram)

A 20-year-old sophomore in college, Zainab Khan began working at the Georgia State Capitol as a legislative aide to former state Rep. Brenda Lopez-Romero in 2018 — she had high hopes of finding his way. She was eager to help shape the future of her Muslim community, but often found herself the only AAPI woman and person of color in the room. The meetings with lobbyists who refused to shake his hand, the racist comments and the microaggressions exhausted him. Eventually, she had had enough and left.

Khan’s story reminds me of mine. When I got my first job out of college as a legislative assistant at the Massachusetts State House, I remember telling my dad that I had landed my dream job. Instead of being excited for me, he said, “You’ll never be one of them.” His response stung, but I understood that it was rooted in his experience as an immigrant – the feeling of not being seen or heard, of being silenced in order to survive and fit in in a country that never seemed accept it.

I started the Asian American Women’s Political Initiative (AAWPI) in 2010 to ensure Asian American and Pacific Islander women have a voice in our democracy. Asian Americans are the fastest growing racial populationgrowing by 81% between 2000 and 2019. We represent 6.1% of the country, but only 0.9% of elected. Asian American and Pacific Islander women represent less than 7% of women in Congress, 2% of all female state legislators and 4% of mayors in the 100 largest cities. In the corridors of power and influence, I have seen how AAPI women were rendered invisible. Yet all of these crucial government decisions impacted our families, our communities and our lives.

When I talk to AAPI women about getting involved in politics, I hear similar stories about how they didn’t grow up in families discussing politics at the dinner table. We were encouraged to work hard, lay low and not commit. AAWPI ensures that AAPI women have the mentorship and deep community in this work to help cultivate our authentic political voice and show us the way, so that we don’t have to do it alone.

In the corridors of power and influence, I have seen how AAPI women were rendered invisible. Yet all of these crucial government decisions impacted our families, our communities and our lives.

I am grateful that members of the AAWPI community like Zainab and other AAPI youth can now see reflections of themselves in women candidates across the country who are putting racial justice at the top of their agenda. One of these leaders is Georgia State Rep. Bee Nguyen, running against Brad Raffensperger for Secretary of State. Since becoming the first Asian American woman in the Georgia legislature when she took over the seat from Stacey Abrams in 2017, Nguyen has been a ardent defender of the right to voteespecially for people of color and immigrants targeted by Republicans’ voter suppression tactics.

Daughter of Vietnamese refugees, Nguyen is a member of the New South, a rising coalition of young black, Latino and Asian American progressives who have transformed Georgia from once a Republican stronghold into a battleground state. If Nguyen is elected, she will become the first Asian American to win statewide political office in Georgia history.

AAWPI is the nation’s only political leadership organization for Asian American and Pacific Islander women. We have recruited, trained, mentored, and supported over 100 low-income Asian American and immigrant women in Massachusetts. Like Zainab, few believed in their own leadership before founding AAWPI. They are dreamers, anti-eviction activists, LGBTQ rights advocates, artists and nonprofit entrepreneurs advocating for racial, economic and gender justice and transforming the political landscape and reimagining what is possible.

Today, the AAPI community is in the midst of a transformation, given the ongoing anti-Asian hatred and racism amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the Atlanta mass shooting last year, and the role of the AAPI community in the broader call for racial justice. AAPI women can no longer afford to be invisible, especially when statistics show that 63.3% of anti-Asian racism stalks women AAPI. Increasing representation and building political power are essential to solving our nation’s critical issues: racial justice, economic justice, gender justice, climate change, the right to vote, and protecting our democracy.

In this AAPI history month, I want to affirm to young AAPI women that our voice and our leadership matter. We must take up space and own our power. We need to rise to this moment: to engage our community, help elect AAPI women, and maybe one day run for office. Our immigrant parents and young AAPIs deserve to see themselves reflected in politics and leadership positions and to know that they are seen, worthy and powerful, because we belong.

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