Georgia on Our Minds: Interview with Aisha Yaqoob Mahmood, AAAF

By Eddie Wong. Posted Nov. 19, 2021

Songwriter Hoagy Carmichael gifted American popular culture with the unforgettable “Georgia on my mind” , expressing longing and love. Today, Georgia is on our minds as a battleground state where  progressives are under attack by reactionary forces led by the Republican Party. Voter suppression laws and partisan gerrymandering measures are aimed at diluting the voting power of African American voters and the combined forces of Blacks, Asian Americans, Latinx, Native American and white progressives.

 This coalition, anchored by African Americans, provided a 11, 779 vote margin for Biden/Harris propelling them into the White House. In January 2021, this coalition pulled off an upset double victory with the election of Jon Ossoff and Rev. Raphael Warnock to the U.S. Senate, thus bringing Democrats dead-even with Republicans and allowing Vice President Harris to provide the tie-breaking vote. Increased Asian American voter turnout in the counties surrounding Atlanta provided the surge needed to put the Democrats on top.

Thus, FOR THE FIRST TIME IN US HISTORY, THE ASIAN AMERICAN VOTE HAS PROVEN TO BE THE GAME CHANGER, NOT ONLY IN GEORGIA BUT ALSO IN PENNSYLVANIA AND SEVERAL OTHER STATES.  I’m writing in ALL CAPs here because this did not happen overnight; it didn’t happen simply because there’s been a huge growth in the Asian American and Pacific Islander vote. It happened because groups like the Asian American Advocacy Fund in Georgia and Asian Pacific Islander Political Alliance in Pennsylvania are doing YEAR-ROUND political education and community organizing to build the trust needed among first-time voters and potential new voters.

AAAF supporters at Georgia State Capitol. Photo by Kevin Lowery courtesy of AAAF.

The Democratic Party fell short in turning out the Democratic base and appealing to independents in Virginia and lost the gubernatorial race on November 2, 2021. They seem incapable of doing the day-in, day-out work of addressing people’s concerns and seem to only lecture people at election time. Although Republicans utilize misinformation and rightwing propaganda, they are arguing their case and organizing daily via a network of community groups and churches to consolidate their base.  Perhaps, our hopes lay with independent progressive organizations such as AAAF and API PA and other progressive groups while the Dems get their act together. 

I hope that East Wind ezine readers will rally support for the on-the-ground APA organizations that are doing the vital work in registering new voters, conducting political education, and getting out the vote.  They can’t do it with financial support, so please give generously by the end of 2021 to give them a running start into the fast and furious 2022 and 2024 campaign season. Our democracy is literally at stake in these upcoming elections.  Asian American, it’s time to ante up; we’re going all in for this is a battle for our future. – Eddie Wong, Editor/Publisher.

This interview with Aisha Mahmood was conducted on Nov. 9, 2021.

Eddie:  Please tell us a little about yourself and what led you to become Executive Director of Asian American Advocacy Fund.

Aisha:  My name is Aisha. I live in Rome, Georgia, but I grew up in Gwinnett County, Georgia which is the hub of the Asian American community. My parents are Pakistani American, and I was born and raised in the United States. Gwinnett became my home and that’s where I went to  college.

My first intro into this work was in 2014; I was getting interested and involved in the US Senate race. I remember trying to gather a group of friends to go watch a debate happening in middle Georgia and not a single person from my friends’ group or my young professionals group wanted to come with me. It made me realize how much of a disconnect there was between voting and interest and in the elections among the Asian American community and in the large communities of colors that I operated in.

Then I went to grad school to get my Master’s in Public Administration. While I was in grad school, I founded the Georgia Muslim Voters Project, which is a 501 c 3 organization dedicated to energizing and engaging Muslim voters here in Georgia and worked there until the end of the 2016 election. After that, I was recruited to join the team at Asian Americans Advancing Justice Atlanta and worked as their policy director and lobbyist for almost three years. Now I’m the Executive Director of their C4 affiliate the Asian American Advocacy Fund. (Note: 501c 4 organizations can endorse candidates and ballot issues.)

During that time while I was on the policy side, I also ran for office. So I had an opportunity to see both the partisan civic engagement space and the candidate facing work. Now I’m on the C4 side helping progressive candidates and building power for our communities here in Georgia.

Aisha Yaqoob Mahmood, Executive Director of AAAF.

Eddie:  Things have changed quite a bit from back in 2014. The amount of enthusiasm among Asian Americans seems quite high. What do you think accounts for that?

Aisha:  I think so much has changed since 2014. Our communities have grown quite a bit since then. Living in Gwinnett County since the early 2000s, I was one of the few Asian Americans in my school and now my siblings who graduated from those same schools were one of many.

I think what really changed was the investment in organizing from organizations like Asian Americans Advancing Justice Atlanta and newer groups like our C4 and other ethnic specific organizations that have popped up over the last few years. There is movement around making sure that communities of color are included in the political process and that was in big part due to the work of Stacey Abrams really elevating the needs of Black and Brown voters. It was her candidacy for governor in 2018 that really sparked a lot of interest for young people and people of color to get involved. Seeing her on the ballot was a reason I decided to run for office myself.   Our communities saw the impact of their voice and have continued to stay energized.

Eddie: We certainly saw energized Asian American communities in 2020 with the tremendous victories in the Biden/Harris and the Ossoff and Warnock Senate races. These were such close races, especially the Biden/Harris race in which the victory margin was 11,779 votes. The increased voter participation of APA voters, who went with Biden/Harris by 65%, made a crucial difference. What was behind that tremendous APA voter turnout?

Aisha: Asian American voters in Georgia were a major key in helping to elect President Biden and Vice President Harris and they were also instrumental in flipping Georgia and the Senate. It was Asian American first-time voters who helped swing Georgia’s 7th Congressional District, an area that has historically voted Republican, from red to blue. According to research released by the AAPI Civic Engagement Fund, 2 of 5 Asian Americans in the district were first-time voters. The research revealed that if Asian Americans hadn’t voted at all, Representative Carolyn Bourdeaux (GA-07) would have lost by 53 percent to 48 percent, making them critical to her win.

Eddie: Tell us more about how increased APA voter registration enabled a bigger GOTV effort. What was most effective in your voter outreach program? Given the pandemic, vote by mail was pushed heavily by the Dems and resulted in 1.3 million votes, 65% of which went to Biden/Harris. Was AAAF able to persuade APA voters to vote by mail?

Aisha: Thanks to nationwide and local educational campaigns around the pandemic, our communities took COVID-19 very seriously. One of our key strategies was using in-language materials like door hangers and mailers to reach most, if not all, Asian households in Georgia. We also had a strong on-the-ground strategy to meet communities where they were at. We had volunteers and canvassers knock on doors (in a COVID safe way), post flyers up at local markets and other public places sharing voter information and PPE kits. We were also able to reach people through texting and phone banking. If we weren’t on the ground, we made sure that we were online where most people can actively and safely engage.

Eddie:  Do you think that the campaigns made an effort to include Asian Americans on staff and in their outreach programs?

Aisha:  I think the first campaign that I saw do that was Stacey Abrams’ campaign in 2018. She worked very hard to building a base of supporters across the state including Asian-American voters. But she was a few and far between in 2018. Then in 2020 campaigns heard the call and they definitely knew that they had to do Asian American outreach and that it would be a key part of their strategy. But I felt that it happened too late. We did see some statewide candidates bring on Asian American outreach chairs or directors but often very late in the season. There’s still a lot more that they could do.

Eddie: You had mentioned earlier that two out of five Asian American voters were first-time voters so that means somebody took the effort to register them and convinced them to vote. What was effective in that in the voter registration work?

Aisha: The voter registration work that our coalitions have been part of over the last 10 years have really seeded that factor. At Asian Americans Advancing Justice Atlanta and a lot of the other C3 organizations that focus on voter registration work were going to naturalization ceremonies and helping people register. They provided information to people in their languages to make sure that they understand the voter registration deadline and voter registration process. They provided technical assistance for people who have issues with registering to vote. The role that the Asian American Advocacy Fund played this past cycle was the technical assistance space where voters would call our hotline and say “you know I thought I was registered to vote but I can’t seem to locate my voting location” or “I went to go vote and they told me I wasn’t registered.” We were supporting along that lines rather than actually helping people register to vote because that’s not the space that we exist in right now although I’ve done a whole lot of voter registration in my days.

Eddie:  Many people in the public don’t understand what a C3 organization does vs. a C4 group.

Aisha: Asian American Advocacy Fund is a C4 organization and we are affiliated with Asian Americans Advancing Justice Atlanta which is a 501 c 3 non-partisan organization. Some other 501 c 3 organizations that do some great work here in Georgia are the Muslim Voters Project, which I help to start, and the Center for Pan Asian Community Services (CPAC). They do some really great work in addition to providing public health opportunities for our communities. And there are folks who work specifically in refugee communities, folks who work directly with Filipino voters, Korean voters, Vietnamese voters, and Chinese voters. Every small community or professional group that does some level of civic engagement work has been impacted by the work of Advancing Justice and CPAC over the last 10 years ago and that builds a broad coalition of Asian American organizations.

Now that I’m more in the C4 space, I don’t necessarily interact with them as much. We are the only C 4 organization in Georgia that is working with Asian American voters.

My story tells the arc of our work because for so long I worked for 501 c 3 organizations. I did nonpartisan get-out-the-vote work, and when I ran for office myself that was my first time that I could proactively tell our communities “hey you should go vote for this person or you should go vote for that person.” Coming back after my election I really did not want to go back to just being non-partisan. Working on the C4 side has allowed me to stay connected and do community work, do power building for our communities but with the added benefit of being able to endorse candidates.

Then after the elections, we make sure that we’re holding elected officials accountable for the decisions that they’re making so it’s not just about electing Dems, not just about electing people, but making sure that we’re electing the right people and getting the policy wins that we need for our communities.

Eddie: What office did you run for?

Aisha: I ran in 2018 for a State House seat that no Democrat had run for in 20 years. My representative at the time was retiring and he had been in office since before I was born. It was an open seat and a great opportunity to just jump in learn the ropes and get my feet wet in that political space.

Eddie: I gather you did not win that office.

Aisha: No, it’s a very Republican seat and still is today.

Eddie:  One of the big motivating factors in 2022 for Asian and people color was the obvious hostility Trump had toward people color. Will people understand the politics broader than just Trump?

Aisha:  I’m a little bit nervous about all that to be very honest. I was aware of the Trump phenomenon and why people showed up in 2020 and why people continued to show up in the US Senate runoff in January because the Trump effect was still very much at the top of people’s brains. But what I just saw in the municipal elections from last week it seems like people are out of it. It seems like so many people have forgotten about the four years of heartbreaking policies and the four years of intense organizing that it took to get us here. I’m very concerned that in the next two years people are just going to be complacent and fall back into that same sort of comfort level that we were maybe in the Obama years. I am very cognizant of that and working very hard to make sure that we continue to organize year-round, that we don’t let people fall through the cracks because we had dismal turnout in our municipal races last week. (Note: AAAF had endorsed candidates for Mayor and City Council in John’s Creek and Marietta).

We know that the Republicans are working even harder to win races next year. We endorsed six candidates in municipal races and not a single one of them won because we were out worked by the Republicans. Going into 2022, we are very much aware of what we have against us, and this time it’s not just fighting the Republicans but it is also fighting the complacency of our own communities.

Eddie: What are some of the issues that really motivate Asian Pacific Americans to vote?

Aisha: A lot of community members are fired up about local educational issues: things that were going on at the school board level around Covid and returning back to school. We’re seeing a lot around the Critical Race Theory ban. We’re trying to engage folks now on Asian and ethnic studies at the local level and trying to make sure that the parents who really invested in their students’ education over the last two years in a very hands-on way have an opportunity to make an impact again going into the next four years.

Healthcare is still a huge issue for voters in Georgia particularly because our state has yet to expand Medicaid. We have hundreds of hundreds of thousands of people in Georgia who are uninsured, and we have hospitals that are closing left and right outside of the metro area.

Continuing the push on immigration reform is going to key. We’re fighting an uphill battle right now with Dems, with moderates, with our own representative who we helped to elect in Georgia with Carolyn Bourdeaux. I’m trying to make sure that she’s supporting us on the immigration fight in the U.S. House of Representatives. These issues will continue to be pieces of work that we will use next year to motivate our communities.

Eddie:  The Asian Pacific American population is centered in northern suburbs of Atlanta and increasingly in the south Atlanta suburbs. These are also multinational areas with heavy African American populations and some progressive whites. Do you think that Asians are more accepting of joining these broad coalitions?

Aisha:  In Georgia that’s the only way we’re going to win anything. We don’t have the population to just have an Asian slate of issues or an Asian candidate. We do have Asian candidates, but we can’t just be trying to elect people who are Asian American; we don’t have those numbers. It’s really about joining those broad coalition to make sure that we’re fighting for the same things as other communities because our power really is in those numbers. That was proven in 2020.  Black and Brown organizers worked to flip the state of Georgia. Counties like Gwinnett changed not just because of Asian American voters but also because of Black and Latino voters who have been living here even before Asian Americans moved there. We will support issue areas for the Black and Latino community members in our coalition.

Eddie:  Asian Americans on the West Coast or East don’t really know much about Asians in the South. What’s the nature of the communities?

Aisha: I’d love to host people who want to come because it’s very different than other places. Some key things to know: Asians do not live in Atlanta. Some of them live within city limits of Atlanta; it’s mostly younger professionals who are moving back into the city, but by and large, the communities that we’re working with are in the North Atlanta suburbs and in the suburbs around the city. That has made it harder for us to organize because we’re not just knocking on doors at apartment buildings or townhomes, we’re knocking on doors in suburban and sometimes rural areas. We’re walking miles to knock on doors.

Our communities are young in Georgia, and we have a growing number of Asian Americans who are born and raised here. They’re growing up very much like me where we’ve gone through the school system, gone through college here, and we’re having our first work opportunities in the state.

There’s an incredible opportunity for us to do a multi-generational organizing. A lot of what we do right now is work with young Asian Americans and get them to organize their families. I get them to have conversations with their elders and their family members around issues. In terms of who the Asian Americans are, we have Indian Americans, who are the largest Asian subgroup in our state, followed by Chinese Americans, Korean Americans, Vietnamese Americans, and then other smaller subgroups. (Note: AAPI population is 495,467 and make up nearly 5% of the state’s electorate. AAPI population grew by 138% since 2000. Source: APIA Vote.)

We’re also not a monolith so you’ll see professionals in all different areas; we have a lot of small business owners in our communities, and we have folks who just moved to Georgia. We have a booming tech industry here and so there’s a lot of interest in people moving in from other countries and other states.

Eddie: You mentioned doing the relational organizing within families. Does that require a different form of training because it’s not knocking on doors; it’s having deep conversations. What do you do to train people?

Aisha: We do the door knocking, phone calling, all the traditional campaign tactics you do during an election season, but by and large, our work year-round is about making sure that we’re doing the important political education needed to help our organizers and help our communities have those conversations. It’s about making sure that they understand what’s at stake, understand the policy issues that we’re working on, and understand how to relate to people. We’re not just knocking on someone’s door to say, “let’s have a deep conversation about anti-Blackness.” It’s about approaching people who you have relationships with whether it be folks from your church group or from your youth group. And I think the training begins first and foremost with an understanding of the political landscape around that the racial tension that we’ve all gone through and being able to examine the racial and class implications. It’s very involved; It can’t happen at the doors. We’re also actively building out our membership base right now and we’re hoping to bring a political education focus into our membership program.

Eddie: That sounds wonderful. Way back in the day, we used to do a lot of educational conferences for Asian American student organizing and community issues like Vincent Chin’s murder. Do you see that in the future too?

Aisha:  I don’t see us necessarily doing large conferences because for us the communities aren’t as large in Georgia. For us, it’s a lot of small group conversations. It’s also working with the student groups that are already in existence inviting them to our spaces or going to their spaces to have a conversation. So, we do a lot of outreach. We go to all the student groups. We not just recruit them to support our work, but we also try to make sure we do that important political education with them.

Eddie:  You have Bee Nguyen running for Secretary of State and quite likely Stacey Abrams running again for governor. It’s a tremendous opportunity and, of course, the GOP’s going to be organized against that. What are your gut feelings going into 2022?

Aisha: Having lived in Georgia for most of my life, I am cautiously optimistic. I know that if our communities show up again and if we have the right investment in our communities, we can win both the governor’s seat, Secretary of State and other statewide races. We can help re-elect Rev. Warnock to the US Senate because that is also happening in 2022.  But I think that is a big if and that’s dependent on the investment from communities, from our funders, from our donors or supporters to make sure that we have what we need to do that work. We’re not going to win those races if people don’t show up and so it’s going to be on us to do the hard work to not just remind people but mobilize them to get involved and to go knock doors and make phone calls.

We were sort of spoiled in the January 2021 run off with people wanting to make phone calls and coming down to help us knock doors. We’re going to be going to be in a very different position when there are important races happening all around the country in November. If we can get people out, I think we can win those seats, but it is really dependent on making sure we get people to turn out.

Donna Wong with campaign posters. Photo by Ken Sprague.

Eddie: It’s clear that the Republicans have resorted to their 2020 losses with new laws that would limit access to the ballot for working people and people of color. The 98-page printout of the new laws is staggering in scope and pettiness, e.g., cutting the time to request absentee ballots from six months to three months, limiting ballot drop off boxes, prohibiting mailing of absentee ballots to all voters, and prohibiting offering food and drink to people standing in line waiting to vote. How will some of the key provisions in the new laws affect APA voters?

Aisha: Georgia’s new voting laws are surgically accurate in targeting voters of color – particularly Asian American voters who have proven our electoral power. Cutting time to request absentee ballots and cutting down on early voting locations is particularly harmful to our communities considering that we voted by mail at the highest rate compared to other racial groups.

They know the statistics: 85% of AAPI voters cast our ballots early or by mail in the 2020 election. They wrote that new law with laser focus on that number.

Regarding cutting ballot drop off locations or prohibiting mailing absentee ballot requests to voters — these are all changes that seem small but have a tremendous impact on AAPI voter turnout. Changes that come too often, no matter how trivial, are a voting barrier to immigrant communities.

Eddie:  What changes will AAAF need to make to circumvent the hardships caused by these new laws?

Aisha: AAAF will work more closely to engage and provide more voting assistance to the AAPI community in Georgia, particularly with limited English proficient voters. We will continue to work with other Black and Brown organizations to fight back against attacks on our voting rights. It’s important that our communities know how these laws impact them directly and their voting power. And we also have to remind our communities that they still have the power to make their voices heard. All of that work during the general and runoff elections wasn’t for nothing. It just further proved that our communities will show up. These are just different circumstances we will adjust to. We hope to do more educational campaigns to engage the communities in a thoughtful way.

Eddie: There are huge Asian communities on the West coast and East Coast that have money and they understand what’s at stake here. How can we help?  What do you need in terms of support?

Aisha: I think one of the key lessons from this runoff was early investment, making sure that we’re not just sort of getting those donations during October or September of next year but making sure we have the investment early so we can hire the right staff, train them, and get them into the field early. It’s not just about knocking doors in October; it’s about knocking doors and having political conversations doing the education year-round. Some people just hear of us when a big election comes around, but the day-to-day, on-the-ground work is what plants seeds for us to be a contender in a decisive election.

For systemic change, we are constantly advocating for more inclusive laws for immigrants, such as our Freedom to Drive campaign, which would grant driver’s licenses for all Georgians, regardless of immigration status. We also have been working on educating and advocating for fair districting. We know that our AAPI population is increasing, and this year we demand that resources reach our communities.

An investment in PAC (political action committee) dollars would also be great. People were not shy about giving us PAC dollars to help elect Ossoff and Warnock and that’s the only way we were able to do some very hard independent expenditure work from our organization. We ran a ton of independent expenditures in ethnic media. We did a lot of organizing digitally across ethnic platforms. We sent out a lot of mail and fought the misinformation and Republican messaging. PAC dollars are very hard to raise, and the sooner people can give money to our PACs that would be highly recommended because we know some people can’t give to PACs. If folks aren’t U.S. citizens, they can’t give to our PACs. We recommend to people who can give to our PACs directly and give early.

Eddie: What is the name of your PAC?

Aisha: We have two PACs. We have the Asian American Advocacy Fund Independent Committee, which is our state super PAC that supports our statewide and local races. If you want to help elect Stacey Abrams next year and support our Asians for Abrams campaign, I would give to the Asian American Advocacy Fund Independent Committee.

Our federal PAC is the Asian American Advocacy Fund PAC, which is the entity where we ran Ossoff and Warnock campaign out of last year. We will continue to use the AAAF PAC to help re-elect Rev. Warnock in 2022.

Eddie:  That’s good to know because funding is so critical not only in Georgia but in  Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and other battleground states. Just on a personal note you guys are amazing. I was the National Field Director for the 1988 Jesse Jackson for President campaign, which was a grassroots, low-cost campaign, and you guys have a sophisticated operation with social media, you have enthusiasm and you have a lot of vision. I applaud you for that.

Aisha:  Thank you, we’re launching our end of the year campaign. Here’s how to support our C4 organization but also our state PACs:  AAAF and AAAF Independent Committee.  We want people to support our state PACs more than anything because we’ve got to start working on our primaries for next year because Bee Nguyen is  not going to be on the ballot for Secretary of State unless she wins her primary. We’ve got to play in those important primaries too.

Eddie:  When is the primary?

Aisha: Our redistricting is still happening right now in a special session. Our counties want to move the primary date by a month to give them enough time to see the redistricting process through. So much is going to change. Theoretically the primary would be in May, but if the counties get to push the primary back it would be in June. We have about six to seven months until the primary.

Eddie: Would you be willing to go on a speaking tour with other folks from Georgia to communities on the West Coast?

Aisha: I would love to. I’d love to come out and tell the story of our work.

Eddie: Absolutely, because people give money to people and not just the cause. We need to get people out here because you guys are great!

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All photos provided by Asian American Advocacy Fund unless otherwise noted.

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