Building A Pan-Asian Community and Multiracial Solidarity in Michigan: Interview with Jungsoo Ahn and Regina Tsang of Rising Voices
By Eddie Wong. Posted Oct. 9, 2022
Introduction: The midterm election in Michigan on Nov. 8, 2022 is hotly contested as Democratic and progressive voters gear up to beat back the extreme right by re-electing Gov. Gretchen Witmer, who has stood up to the MAGA election deniers. Proposition 3, the reproductive rights measure, will also stimulate voter participation by women, young people, and all people concerned about a woman’s right to choose. A small but critical part of the progressive coalition in Michigan are Asian American voters. Interim Executive Director Jungsoo Ahn and Field Director Regina Tsang tell us about how Rising Voices organizes among Asian American women and in solidarity with African Americans, Latinx and other progressive communities. This interview was conducted by Eddie Wong on Sept. 26, 2022.
Eddie: Tell us about how Rising Voices formed in and what you currently do.
Regina: I was the first full-time staff and joined Rising Voices in 2020. It was formed in 2019 with a fully volunteer board. Laura Misumi, the founding director, and I came on at the same time and we jumped in and immediately started doing community outreach through meeting folks where they are and having some intimate conversations with folks who are very connected in the community. I think one of the potlucks that we still talk about before we were shut down by the pandemic was in Warren, Michigan with a group of the Bangladeshi women – moms and their children running around – and we were able to be in these women’s homes and talk to them about civic engagement and getting them ready to be more involved. We were doing a voter registration drive. It was a big year with the U.S. Census as well as the looming elections.
Jungsoo: I think one key point about Rising Voices that makes us unique in the landscape of Asian American power building is that we’re specifically focused on Asian American women and families because we really see women as the storytellers of the community. And in that way, they actually have a lot of power over the narrative that goes out about who Asian Americans are. The other thing is that we work explicitly in multiracial and multi-ethnic coalitions, and we don’t just say this, but we share a Super PAC (Political Action Committee) with Detroit Action, which is the Black working-class political organizing organization.
Rising Voices Feast of Resistance Potluck, 2020.
We focus on women, but we also do cultural organizing and we’ve held Artist Series in the past. We also have a political education called DIY POWER which is basically like a series which explains how one can participate in the political process, how one can civically engage, and all these videos are in language and should be accessible to the public.
We also did a little bit of rapid response work during the pandemic, but that’s not the crux of our work. The crux of our work will be an education campaign that will launch next year but from now until the end of the year we’re focused on this political electoral cycle, leading with reproductive justice. This issue resonates with our community our target Community are women. But education justice will become a focus for us because one thing that is noticeable in the state of Michigan is our proximity to whiteness. There are areas in Michigan where you don’t see a person of color for miles. People don’t realize how we rural and red Michigan actually is. Even though there are these blue spots, the actual state is red. We recognize that if you want to build power for Asian Americans, we must form a pan-Asian identity. A lot of our work is on public education with our communities first and for people to realize all the harm that we’ve had to endure we did not have to endure. Our children don’t have to endure that either. It is something that actually Jasmine Rivera, our communications director, has coined as our Vote for Our Family’s Campaign, which is a multi-year campaign which begins this year with a focus on just getting people out to the polls and to recognize that Asian Americans do have power in the state of Michigan. We will turn out in the way is that we did in 2020 and 2021 and then to keep on building on that through public education and then an education justice campaign.
Rising Voices For Our Families Celebration, June 2022.
Eddie: What kind of work did you do in 2020 to get out the vote?
Regina: Everyone was still remote. We started making calls with wellness check-ins before we went into the electoral work. And then we formed our PAC and made calls statewide to API communities and focused on specific House and Senate races as well. (Ed. note: According to the HIT Strategies January 2021 report to Michigan Asian American Progressives, the previous incarnation of Rising Voices, Asian American eligible voters grew by 139% in Michigan from 2000 to 2020. Sixty-one per cent of Asian American voters who were polled supported Joe Biden in 2020.)
Eddie: The Asian American population is very diverse in Michigan: Indian Americans, Chinese Americans, Filipino Americans, and Korean Americans. Is most your work done in language?
Regina: When we started, we hired folks who had language capacity focusing on the community that had a lot of limited English proficiency (LEP) needs, e.g., Bangladeshi community, Chinese community and we also had Urdu speakers, Hindu speakers, and Korean speakers. We had a feedback loop where folks who needed a call back in a certain language, we would call them back in that language.
Eddie: Had people ever been contacted before about voting?
Regina: I don’t think so. We started our canvassing work in 2021 and the response to someone speaking to you in your mother tongue language is completely different. I was in Novi, Michigan and would try to talk to somebody and then realized that’s they spoke my language and they would start speaking in Cantonese. It would just open up a conversation. I don’t think folks have been getting outreach in language and especially not in the C4 capacity. We’re talking about specific candidates and not just that you should vote. (Ed. note: A 501 C4 organization is allowed to endorse candidates, provide funds in partisan races, and educate voters on candidates and ballot measures. Donations to C4 organizations are not tax-deductible.)
Eddie: This year you have Proposition 3 which protects reproductive rights. Tell us about how you’re planning to campaign in the Asian community and specifically to Asian women about that ballot measure.
Jungsoo: We are holding a few events to have discussions around this topic with Asian American women and with a pan-Asian community. These discussions have not been had before. This is a critical issue that is going to impact Asian Americans LEP communities in very harmful ways. From what we have seen from the data, our communities are invested in this. Men and women believe that women should have a right to their own bodies.
Regina: I want to add that we’ve been doing deep canvassing around reproductive justice and we are planning on two mailers around this issue that will go out like the next few weeks. There is a study by the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum that 7 out of 10 Asian women nationwide support legal abortion. It’s about sharing information, being able to even talk about an issue that I feel has been cloaked in a lot of shame. We’re really framing it around the freedom of how to shape your family, freedom to start your family or to have a family. It’s your freedom of choice and it’s being able to have that choice not be taken away by politicians. It’s about maintaining that freedom of choice and having control of our own bodies.
Eddie: Are you optimistic about the outcome of that proposition?
Regina: I’m pretty optimistic. We’re seeing that kind of energy on the ground both from the API community and collectively with other BIPOC and even non-BIPOC communities. I’m pretty hopeful.
Jungsoo: At the same time, I don’t want to jinx ourselves. The reproductive rights ballot was stalled at the board of canvassers, which is evidence that the right has many subversion efforts in place. While we can be optimistic because of what we see on the ground, I think that we should not underestimate the power of other side.
Regina: We know our folks support it (Prop. 3); we just have to mobilize those folks.
Eddie: Is the campaign bringing forward more young Asian women who want to get involved in organizing? If so, how do you go about training them?
Jungsoo: I think ideally what we would have liked to see is that it did, but even among our younger generation there’s still a fear to get engaged in politics. A lot of Asian Americans in the state of Michigan don’t really see themselves as political people because there is at present no visibly united pan-Asian community in which to be civically engaged. They don’t really see the power of it yet. The killing of Vincent Chin in the 1980s did spark a Michigan pan-Asian community response, but that kind of united movement must be maintained. There are a lot of power building efforts that need to take place; we need to scaffold up to that point where we see Asian Americans say, “yeah, I want to work for Rising Voices; I want to be an organizer and do this for my community.” We see a little bit, but we don’t see nearly enough.
Regina: I’ve been really surprised at how many young Asian American women have been stepping in. One of my organizers who works with older Bangladeshi woman and moms have teenage daughters who are reaching out to us and want to canvas with us specifically around reproductive justice.
Rising Voices Field Team Canvass, October 2021.
Eddie: You talked about doing a lot of work across nationalities. Are you having to overcome unfamiliarity with other nationalities about Asians and Asian issues?
Jungsoo: Sometimes there’s some old-world trauma that makes its way over here. For example, we will not endorse any candidate or support anyone who supports Hindutva. That’s Hindu nationalism. It’s everything that’s happening under Modi right now. We believe in our Muslim sisters. You’re seeing fascism and Trumpism abroad. Some of that stuff is hard to overcome and the pan-Asian identity is a really hard one to identify or define. But at the same time, we see beautiful pockets of success like where we held this event, that was the Vote for Our Families launch, where we got over 150 members of our community together Bangladeshi, Chinese, Korean…everyone across the spectrum of Asians in the state of Michigan. It was lovely. These are the people who are also called Asian American but also probably have a very different experience than I do and at the same time similar experiences. There’s a lot of nuances in this identity. Many of us have experiences where we are the lone Asian in white schools. It’s a community that we have always been longing for.
Eddie: One of the things that is not unique about Michigan but is more pronounced here is that you have a very strong right rightwing that tried to take over your capital and tried to kill your governor. For Asian communities, many of whom are immigrant, that’s very triggering. How do you how do address that?
Regina: When we talk about those extremists, I go back to kind of the reason why we have just put a lot of power behind Macomb County, which is self-declared to be like the home of Trump Republicans. Trump won it by 48,000 votes in 2016. Yet that county itself is almost 20% BIPOC. We have in this one district in Macomb County that has a seven or eight percent of API population. Asian Americans are exponentially growing in this area. When we’re confronted by this right-wing extremism, we’re reaching out to the folks who are at ground zero and equipping them with the knowledge of what’s going on. It’s really a matter of reaching out to our people and mobilizing them, sharing that information and empowering them. The outreach hasn’t been there from the progressive side.
Jungsoo: Regina described the strategy where we’re really focused on Macomb County and are going to hit it several times because we believe that we can actually flip it in 2024 just with the API vote alone.
We’re also thinking about the fear from the governor being potentially murdered or something else that triggers Asian American communities. Our approach is really grounded in disseminating joy and love. That’s actually our superpower as an organization, and it’s not like this fluffy “oh, yeah let’s hold hands.” We’re out on the doors every single week. We’re aggressively hitting our community and making them aware of these issues. There’s already way too much fear in our communities about living in this a predominantly white area. It’s Insidious where you feel it in your body, and you don’t know why. The Insidious part of it is not having a community and not seeing people around you who look like you. I think to combat that sort of fear and those triggers let’s bring everyone together and let’s move together as one because there’s already way too much fear. Let’s provide the safe space for our community so we can move as one.
Organizer Dim Mang speaks to the crowd Rising Voices For Our Families Celebration, June 2022.
Eddie: That’s beautiful. My last question is what do you hope Rising Voice will become in the next 5 years 10 years? What kinds of support do you need?
Jungsoo: We need talented people who can come in and who have some grit. This work is not easy.
Regina: I think you just hit the nail on the head. I think we have great plans, but it’s been hard to execute because of hiring.
Jungsoo: In terms of the five-year vision, it’s first to form a Pan-Asian Community, the one that we’ve always wanted, and then for this Pan-Asian Community to really be leaned in and focused on the well-being of their families collectively. Not like the model minority myth but really looking out for each other. The thing that will ground us is voting for our families, caring for our families, loving our families. There will be a focus on children and thinking about how our children, our next generation, can be seen and be heard in schools in the ways that we were not. If Rising Voices can really influence whether our children are seen in schools in the next five years, I think that will be a great success for us.
From Rising Voices Facebook page: Oct. 8, 2022: WE’RE DOING THE THING! It’s the Rising Voices Weekend Canvass Blitz, and our volunteer crews are out today, knocking on literally THOUSANDS of doors in Macomb County to get out the vote for Aisha Farooqi for State House District 57 and our endorsed candidates (see the complete list at www.risingvoicesaaf.org/ma). We’re engaging with and activating the Michigan Asian American community, making sure our elected leaders represent or are responsive to our communities. Join us for our next weekend Canvass Blitz at www.risingvoicesaaf.org/volunteer #MichiganAsianAmericans #AsianAmericanPower #CommunityBuilding #WeHaveThePower #WeWillDecide