Organizing in a Battleground State – Interview with Jennifer Chau – AZ AANHPI for Equity
By Eddie Wong. Posted May 9, 2022
Introduction: In our continuing series of articles about Asian American organizing in this crucial 2022 midterm election, we turn our attention to Arizona where Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders comprise nearly 5% of the electorate. In 2020, Joe Biden won Arizona’s 11 electoral votes with a .4% victory over Trump. Biden carried Arizona with 10,457 votes. The increased Asian American and Pacific Islander turnout in Arizona, which favored the Democrats, and a robust Latinx vote carried the day for Biden in 2020. In 2022, Arizona is a must-win for the Democrats to keep a Senate Majority.
In addition to Sen. Mark Kelly’s re-election bid, there will be a hotly contested governor’s race and hotly contested state legislative races aimed at breaking the Republicans’ one-seat majority in both chambers. Lastly, Arizonians for Fair Elections is seeking to qualify a ballot initiative to counter voter suppression legislation passed recently by the Republican legislature and signed by Gov. Ducey. So much is at stake in Arizona and that is why even a small minority such as AAPIs can play pivotal role in the upcoming tight races. We wish to thank Jennifer Chau for informing us about Asian American and Pacific Islander civic engagement work in Arizona. This interview was conducted on March 31, 2022. – Eddie Wong
Eddie: Tell us a little bit about yourself and how you got involved with electoral organizing.
Jennifer: My name is Jennifer Chau and I’m the Executive Director of Arizona Asian Americans Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders for Equity, that’s the C3 side and also for the C4 side which is AZ AANHPI Advocates. (Ed. note: C3 organizations are non-partisan, educational, and charitable organizations and C4 organizations are entities that can endorse candidates and ballot measures.)
I’m actually fairly new to Arizona. I’ve been here for about four years now, but I grew up in Chinatown Los Angeles. My parents immigrated from China in the late 1970s. Growing up, I just saw some of the hardships and disparities that come along with being an immigrant. Since they were in Chinatown, they really didn’t have a need to speak English much. Growing up as a child, I would have to go to all these spaces where I would have to translate for my parents in order to get medical care. Just being a child having to do that was hard because I don’t know the language that well to be able to translate medical terms.
Once I got into college, I learned more about Asian American studies and that really inspired me to be in the civic engagement realm. I’ve been doing civic engagement in the API community and youth spaces for 10 years now. I ended up moving to El Monte, which is 10 miles away from Chinatown, but I saw a lot of stuff that was being enacted from the city council level and it was harming our community. So I got my parents to vote for the first time during the Obama presidential race and that’s when I just turned 18 so I registered. I think a lot of AANHPI immigrant communities are hesitant to register and vote due to the trauma that they faced with the countries they fled. There’s a distrust in government from that experience. Even until this day my dad really doesn’t know exactly what I do for a living, but he knows that I work with elected officials. He fled the Chinese Cultural Revolution and the government really harmed his family. To this day, he still doesn’t really feel comfortable with me being in that government, nonprofit realm. But I think it’s really important for the AANHPI community to speak up, vote on issues they care about, and elect people who really will support our community. The Asian community has one of the lowest voting turnouts. When I came out here in Arizona, there was hardly any investments in organizations to mobilize Asian voters. In 2020 there was an investment in our organization to do the work, so you see the big difference in voter turnout.
Eddie: Arizona has a diverse Asian community: Filipino, Indian, Chinese, Vietnamese. Your organization is a coalition with many organizations. How do you work together?
Jennifer: We formed in 2019 as a Complete Count Committee for the U.S. Census which includes eight organizations such as, JACL-AZ, Island Liaison Inc., CANNA-A, Pan Asian Community Alliance, NAPAWF-AZ, ICNA-Relief-AZ, Arizona Asian Chamber of Commerce, and Asian Pacific Community in Action. We were trying to make it diverse. We knew the census and the elections were happening in 2020, so we wanted to build resources in order to maximize our work together. What was really eye-opening for me when I moved out here, there was very little funding for AANHPI nonprofits. Out of the 8 coalition partners, only one had funding for staff, the rest were all volunteer driven. Coming from an executive director and fundraising background, I was able to secure funding and disperse the funding to the coalition members to build capacity, obtain more resources to get in-language materials to their community members, create events and help with efforts even in the pandemic.
Sirah Javier, Get Vaccinated Y’all. AZ AANHPI for Equity. Sept. 25, 2021
Eddie: Did you start the C4 at the same time as the C3?
Jennifer: No, that came in July 2020. I was able to secure funding really late in the election. I obtained a consultant to do digital ads and mailers for our voter registration and GOTV efforts. We started the outreach efforts a little later than expected September and October, but I still felt that we were able to make some impact because we’re reaching out specifically to the Asian community via text banking and phone banking. I had two Vietnamese college students fellows and they went to Vietnamese businesses and distributed PIVOT’s (The Progressive Vietnamese American Organization) Presidential voter guide. I was a little worried for our college students when they went to the Vietnamese businesses, but I would say they went to 15 and I think three or four turned them down. I was expecting a little bit more rejection, but they were willing for us to hand out the voter guide in their business so that was good,
Eddie: You also do a lot of youth development work through the C3.
Jennifer: Yeah, that’s my favorite program. We have a civic engagement youth fellowship program geared toward high school and college students. We have an average cohort of 24 fellows, and we trained them on organizing 101, story of self, history of voting rights, voter registration, advocacy & activism, redistricting, art activism, and AANHPI contribution in the U.S and Arizona . I added a racial justice component to the program that included workshops on unpacking your bias and colorism which the youth mentioned that was an impactful workshops.
Eddie: Tell us about AAPI communities in Arizona? What do people do for a living? What are the key issues? Is it true that half of the AAPI population is in the Phoenix area?
Jennifer: It’s in Maricopa County but the bulk of them are in the East Valley: Gilbert, Chandler, Mesa, and Tempe. That’s where all the tech jobs are at and all the Asian restaurants.
Eddie: Is the population younger, older, or a mix?
Jennifer: I would say it’s a mix. We did a community needs survey after the 2020 election and we had over 500 respondents. The top three issues were discrimination, healthcare and education.
Eddie: Is it primarily an immigrant community or mixed?
Jennifer: It’s a mix. We have a lot of international students and international business owners. They’re able to streamline their visas and immigration process if they spend a certain amount to start a business. There’s a lot of international students in Arizona State University as well as an influx of new Asian communities moving out here from California. It’s like a 50% difference in the cost of living from California, so I see why people would want to move out here.
Art & Film Showcase, March 2, 2021. AZ AANHPI for Equity.
Eddie: Is a lot of your work in language?
Jennifer: Yeah, we do. It depends on the program. When we do outreach on vaccines, we have it in Vietnamese. My program manager is Vietnamese, and she’s been able to place Vietnamese ads in magazines, newspapers, and live stream. When they see someone who speaks their language, we were able to get a good amount of people to call and get appointments for vaccines. A lot of elders don’t speak English and only speak Vietnamese, so they feel comfortable for us to pick them up we take them to get vaccinated.
Eddie: You mentioned that discrimination is a big issue and anti-Asian hate is on the rise everywhere but also in Arizona. What do people see doing about it?
Jennifer: Right after the Atlanta shooting (March 16, 2021) within three or four days we were collaborating with different organizations to host the vigil at the state capitol. Over 300 people showed up. It brought camaraderie not only in the Asian community but also among different, communities. We are able to build allies that way.
With our youth, we did a create-a-thon where we created digital content on issues like discrimination. What they created is very relevant to our community. The messaging is on point so that’s how we’re able to create a lot of art and digital content from our community members.
AZ AANHPI Advocates. March 27, 2021
Eddie: I’d like to turn to your political work in 2020. What were some of your biggest gains?
Jennifer: We did very well with building volunteers into our phone banking and text banking. I don’t know if you know this statistic but in 2012 voter turnout in Arizona’s Asian community was 30%, 2016 was 42%, and then in 2020 it was 72%. But if you look at those years, there was really no outreach the community. There was a survey conducted to Arizona Asian voters and only 30% of those that took the survey said they had been contacted by any political party or national organizations. In 2020, we did mailers, text banking, phone banking, relational organizing, and hosted events even though we’re in a pandemic. If you’re able to talk to voters or even just send a little simple text like “oh, remember to vote,” that can be pretty successful. I think we registered over 800 people through text banking or even through our digital ads. Outreach efforts do make a difference.
Eddie: Was there a lot of vote by mail?
Jennifer: Asian communities used the PEVL, the permanent early voter list, which means you could vote by mail, vote early at the early voting locations, or drop the ballot off in one of the voting sites The Asian community used it the most; 85% out of all the Asian voters use that PEVL.
Eddie: And have the Republicans responded by trying to restrict access to vote by mail?
Jennifer: They did it yesterday. The governor signed a bill where they’re going to purge a lot of voters. They’re usually purging communities of color. If you don’t have sufficient proof that they’re citizens, they’re going to be purged from the voting rolls. They’re doing everything you can possibly think of to make sure that our communities are not going to be able to vote or make it harder to vote. There is a bill in the pipeline to demolish the early vote mail-in ballots. It’s just really weird; Republicans use early voting too. They’re just so fixated that there’s fraud. We are in talks about doing litigation with yesterday’s bill. We’re trying to figure out all that different strategies that we can implement in order to combat those is really bad bills.
Eddie: There’s an initiative in the works to reject all these suppression laws. Could you tell us a little about that? Are you involved with Arizonians for Fair Elections?
Jennifer: My Democracy Defender Director, May Tiwamangkala knows more about that.
Eddie: You talked about being in coalition with others and the Latinx community is a huge part of the vote in Arizona. Some of the groups have been almost legendary and built work from the ground up. What’s your relationship with them?
Jennifer: AANHPI for Equity is fiscally sponsored by One Arizona. They are the premier civic engagement, people of color organization. They started 12 years ago and they’re the ones that registered millions of Latinx and Black voters. They started out as an Latinx org but now that there’s 30 plus table partners. Not only do they fiscally sponsor us they also provided all the tech tools and resources such as text banking, data, and funding support.
Eddie: Looking back at 2020 it was such a close election in Arizona and of course that’s why Trump is returning all the time talking about how it was stolen. There was also the election of Mark Kelley to the U.S. Senate. What role did Asians play in that election?
Jennifer: Asian voters turned out to vote for Biden and Kelly. In 2016 the Asian population actually voted for Trump more than Clinton. Things were different in 2020. For example, I just had voter reg forms on me when I was picking up food at my favorite Asian restaurant. I asked them if they had registered to vote. They’ve been citizens for 10 plus years, but I asked them, “Why do you want to vote this time around,” and they said, “Trump.” What he’s saying about the Chinese people is harming the Chinese people. I’m afraid to walk the streets and stuff like that because of fear of getting hurt and they just don’t think that he’s a good leader. I think that was a really big motivator for them to register to vote and having orgs like us. They said, “Oh yeah a white person asked me to register to vote before, but I didn’t want to.” But they said that they trusted me since I was a regular customer and I spoke their language, Toisan. Trust is the top thing in our community when we do outreach efforts like this because you know voting is still a really scary thing for them.
Eddie: In 2022, Mark Kelly is up for election, but you also have a hotly contested governor’s race with two women Katie Hobbs (D) and Kari Lake (R). Will turnout match 2020 because of these hot races? Is Kari Lake in the lead?
Jennifer: Four to five months ago she was in the lead, but they say that the recent polls says her support has been stagnant. But at the same time, we still feel like she might win the primary. She is pretty in line with Trump. She wants to do surveillance in all the schools. Even Republicans say we don’t even want that, why would you? (laughs). Kerri Lake is a really an outlandish right-winger, so it’ll be really scary if she gets elected.
Eddie: What are your plans for 2022? It sounds like you have to grow your capacity a lot in order to meet this challenge.
Jennifer: Yeah in 2020 I was by myself, but now I have four full-time staff, a field director, a program manager, a democracy defender director, and a youth outreach director. I’m going to be able to build the capacity that I didn’t have in 2020, even though I felt that we did well in mobilizing voters.
I feel like the midterms are important. We have the governor’s race, and we’re going to work on the C4 side on two legislative districts that have a pretty big Asian population. We really need to flip some seats in order to get rid of all these bad bills because Republicans hold each chamber by one seat. If we just flip a few seats, it could make a big difference. You won’t see all these really horrific bills like the anti-trans, the anti-abortion and voter suppression bills that are constantly being passed it’s because of the Republican majority.
AZ AANHPI Advocates, April 21, 2021
Eddie: Are there any Asian candidates?
Jennifer: We have one in the Senate. She’s running in the South Phoenix/West Valley area. Her name is Junelle Cavero Harnal. I’ve met her several times and she is really passionate. There’s really not that many API candidates and if they are, they’re usually Republican. Junelle is a Democrat which is just refreshing because Kimberly Yee, our State Treasurer, is hardcore Trump supporter.
Eddie: For November 2022 are you asking people to come volunteer?
Jennifer: Oh yeah, I would say the reason why we were pretty successful was that we had 80 volunteers to do our phone banking and text banking. Our coalition members also helped mobilize their volunteer base. This year we have a field program for voter registration for the C3 side. Our goal is to register 5,000 eligible voters. We’re hiring canvassers to do the work, but we’re really trying to partner with the schools because only 11% of eligible high school students are registered to vote. That’s super low. There’s an opportunity to get people to register if we connect with schools. I am starting the digital ads sometime next month for voter registration. The major difference that we’re going to do 2022 vs 2020 is hiring canvassers for the C3 and C4 side.
Eddie: Are there any other things that you want to add about any aspect of your programs or work?
Jennifer: It’s important to highlight being able to reach out to our community in language and just having that contact as a key to our success. In terms of lessons learned from 2020, I really wish we did canvassing more for the C4 side. In the two elections that we worked, we didn’t flip it to a Democrat. We only did canvassing for the last two to three weeks prior to the election, but if we had more time and resources it might have made the difference. Republicans were out there canvassing versus the Democratic Party wasn’t, so I think that that makes a big difference.