By Amy Van and Jintana Lityouvong
IE Guest Columnists
Since 1974, more than 100 community volunteers have made a pledge to serve as a commissioner for the Commission on Asian Pacific American Affairs (CAPAA).
That pledge is to work toward one mission—to improve the lives of Asian Pacific Americans. Individuals ranging from school teachers to doctors, business owners to retired professionals, have all served on the Commission. These individuals bring to the table an understanding of the unique needs of their communities and a desire to apply their knowledge and experiences to give APAs a voice in government.
Commissioner Cynthia Rekdal served in the 1980s and reflected on her growth in her role as a community leader. “You can’t change things if you stay in the same circle,” Rekdal said.
While many APAs focused on influencing and diversifying political leadership, Rekdal was hard at work introducing diversity into another institution: education.
In 1984, the same year she was appointed as a CAPAA commissioner, Rekdal was leading the Renton school district as the Director of Multicultural Education for their Learning Assistant Program.
With a passion for education, Rekdal helped lead CAPAA’s education and affirmative action committees during her term.
“Multicultural education was almost nonexistent [in the ’70s and into the ’80s],” Rekdal said. “It became very strong that there was something wrong with a system that was teaching about white America and leaving everyone else [out]. We were really pushing at that time to look at the curriculum in a deeper and broader sense of the word.”
Rekdal and many others responded to the need for multicultural education at a critical juncture for Washington’s APA population, which has increased from 110,000 in 1980 to 675,000 in 2010 and is one of the fastest growing in the country.
Van Dinh Kuno emphasizes the importance of inclusion when speaking of her own experience as a CAPAA commissioner beginning in the late 1980s. After settling in Minnesota as a refugee from Vietnam, Kuno earned her degree in biochemistry and worked in research before moving to Seattle.
“During the time I was searching for work, I saw a lot of Southeast Asians newly arrived in Snohomish, Skagit, and Whatcom areas, without [access] to any services.” With no formal experience in social work, aside from assisting her own family, she nonetheless took on the role to help struggling community members.
That was when she befriended Maxine Chan, one of CAPAA’s original commissioners, who assisted Kuno in her efforts and later encouraged her to apply as a commissioner. Kuno then became a member on CAPAA’s outreach committee, where her mission was to bring awareness to community members about the resources that existed.
Her outreach efforts allowed her to hear the concerns of members from various ethnic communities. In one instance, Kuno heard the concerns of community members regarding the lack of mental health services directed towards the APA community. This prompted her to work with the area’s mental health provider to set aside funding to specifically focus on APA mental health issues. “Even though you’re Asian, you think you know the Asian culture, and we have a lot of things similar, but we have a lot of things different from each other, and that opportunity to do outreach was rewarding,” Kuno said.
Like Kuno, it was Vang Xiong’s unique experience as a first generation Hmong refugee that allowed him to witness these social challenges first hand, and subsequently become involved in shaping the quality of life for his community.
When he arrived in Hawai‘i as a teenager from Laos, Xiong went from top of his class in Laos to having no familiarity of the English language, the American culture, and the societal systems in the states. These challenges made him see the difficulties that other Hmong dealt with to greater extent.
“We did not have positive media coverage,” Xiong said of the Hmong community. “A lot of the media coverage made Hmong people look primitive. The ‘mountain people’ misperception led to the discrimination of Hmong people from entry into places like the workforce.”
Realizing this, Xiong became involved as a community leader to bridge communication between APAs and the mainstream to dispute the negative misrepresentation of Hmong people. Along with other community members, one of Xiong’s first endeavors was to equip Hmong refugees with the skills to read and write in not only the Hmong language, but in English as well. By utilizing Hmong youth as volunteers, a self-sustaining model was created in which community members were able to become educated and adjust more easily to life in the United States.
Xiong continued his advocacy for the Hmong community in Spokane and first became a commissioner in 1983. While he was a commissioner, he spoke up about federal cuts to social programs that supported newly arrived immigrants and refugees. Xiong also provided assistance to the National Office of Refugee and Immigrants to strategize the relocation of Hmong refugees that was overwhelming California and Wisconsin at the time.
There’s an urgency that reverberates in each individuals’ voices when speaking on the future of the APA community. “You can’t do it alone,” Rekdal said of her most valuable lesson in her years of community service. It is the same reason why Kuno and Xiong stress the need to cultivate future leaders of our community.
Whether multigenerational or newly arrived, CAPAA’s commissioners serve under the same vision of giving voice for APAs in government and society. With more than 47 distinct APA ethnic groups, commissioners strive to respond to the unique challenges and transformations that each community has endured throughout generations. This led to Kuno, Xiong, and others becoming part of the Asian Pacific Islander Coalition, which formed in the 1990s to counter anti-immigrant policies.
This series of op-eds are written to celebrate, reminisce, and highlight the Commission on Asian Pacific American Affairs 40th Anniversary. The anniversary celebration will take place on May 15, 2014. Please visit http://www.capaa.wa.gov/about/40.shtml for longer articles and for more information.