By Amy Van and Jintana Lityouvong
IE Guest Columnists
Former director of the Commission on Asian Pacific American Affairs (CAPAA) Ellen Abellera said that one of the best things that happened during her term was receiving funding from the state Legislature for the 2008 studies on the achievement gaps of Asian and Pacific Islander (API) students in Washington’s public schools.
Commissioner Frieda Takamura eagerly supported this effort Abellera helped jumpstart. Takamura’s extensive background as an educator and education advocate made her the perfect candidate to chair CAPAA’s education committee having taught junior high and high school, and worked on the Human and Civil Rights Coordinator with the Washington Education Association.
Takamura, who joined the Commission in 2008, credits the foresight of individuals like Abellera and Representative Sharon Tomiko Santos who saw the need to uncover API achievement or opportunity gaps by requesting two separate studies, one for Asian Americans and one for Pacific Islanders. By examining educational data of API students in Washington at a disaggregated level, the researchers found hidden and invisible opportunity gaps among Southeast Asian and Pacific Islander students.
“Now after that study, the government cannot generalize or stereotype or lump Asian Americans into one,” Abellera said.
The data dispelled the “model minority” myth of APIs in the education system and helped push for legislation to create the Educational Opportunity Gap Oversight and Accountability Committee in 2009, to which Takamura now co-chairs. The committee works to engage community members and policymakers alike to resolve the opportunity gaps for all students.
The community engagement piece is pivotal to developing strategies that work, Takamura stresses. “The community informs the legislators, who in turn create policies; laws and policies help create civil rights.”
For Abellera, civic engagement is vital to bringing about change. Before Gov. Gary Locke appointed her executive director in 2003, Abellera was a community volunteer for 10 years. As the president of the Filipino American Political Action Group of Washington (FAPAGOW), Abellera had experience in voter registration and engaging people in the voting process.
“We have a reputation of not really going to the polls,” Abellera said. “We need to be politically aware of what’s going on. We need to be a part of the political process with a big number of us.”
In Commissioner Debadutta Dash’s view, influencing policymakers has never been an easy task for the API community.
“Because of the language barrier, because of the lack of understanding, people may think that they’re on their own, that nobody is there to help them,” Dash said. “So that’s what we do. We help them with the state government.”
As chair of the Economic Development Committee, Dash works to support and connect with small, minority-owned businesses. Despite language and cultural barriers, he finds APIs to be incredibly enterprising people.
“When I see the lack of finances is a major bottleneck for them to start a business, it really hurts,” said Dash, who was appointed in 2009. With the slowdown of the economy and lack of programs, small businesses have had challenges in getting the funds to even start.
CAPAA has been working to assist minority business owners in accessing state resources and services. The Commission often refers small business owners to the Office of Minority & Women’s Business Enterprises (OMWBE), which works to ensure equity and opportunity for minorities and women.
Dash, like Takamura, has observed the large growth in the API community in Washington in the last decade, particularly among South Asians and Southeast Asians. With large disparities among the different communities and stereotypes of financial and academic success, both commissioners hope to change these generalized perceptions that are often harmful.
In the past decade, CAPAA’s work has spanned from assisting Hmong refugees acquire farmland to holding a health disparity summit in 2004, followed by a diversity business summit to help small businesses compete for state contracting opportunities.
Most recently, the Commission released the first report to comprehensively describe the state of APIs in Washington and partnered with community groups in 2012 to convene two summits to raise the voices of Southeast Asian and Pacific Islander students and families in improving education.
As the Commission looks toward a future that promises to bring significant demographic changes, community leaders hope to see the tradition of community-driven leadership continue.
“Change will happen and I feel CAPAA and other community organizations and nonprofits have a role to play. They will be the catalyst for changes,” Dash said.
Abellera said it is important for more APIs to “adopt a culture of activism and volunteerism, because then they will not feel like someone is just telling them to do it. It’s coming from their inner core. They will claim ownership of that.”
“I see so much in our younger generations, especially in their ability to say aloud, ‘this is good, but is it good enough?’” said Takamura, who already sees that hope materializing. “The structure of CAPAA is unusual, how fortunate are we to have a body of representation, written in law, to bring voices of APAs at the decision-making level?”
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.