Seize the Moment: Building AAPI Power

by Timmy Lu. Posted Aug. 8, 2018.

Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders for Civic Empowerment Education Fund (AAPIs for CE EF) is a recently formed organization that has played a crucial role developing grassroots community organizations’ ability to build power inside and outside the electoral arena. This is a modified version of remarks prepared by AAPIs for CE EF director Timmy Lu for a gathering of AAPI organizations in February, 2018.

This article first appeared at and is republished with the permission of the author.

At no point in the history of the continental US is there a greater opportunity for AAPIs to influence U.S. politics than today. To put this moment in context, in the 1960s (when the term “Asian American” was first coined), there were 1 million AAPIs, reflecting merely half a percent of the US population. In the 1980s when Southeast Asians arrived in large numbers, AAPIs still represented less than two percent of the US population at 3.5 million. Today, there are over 20 million Asian Americans and 1.5 million Pacific Islanders, at nearly six percent of the total US population. By 2065, demographers predict that the entire US will be 14% AAPI, with a total population of 61 million. For the first time, AAPIs represent a significant political constituency in national elections. And barring significant shifts in racial identity or immigration policy, over the next four decades that significance will only grow.

In just the last ten years, AAPI grassroots organizations have grown significantly in scale and sophistication. These organizations play leading roles in progressive municipal and statewide alliances, anchor issue-based coalitions focused on both policy-making and fundamental transformation, and are innovating intersectional politics. A small number of these organizations have formed parallel 501c4 organizations, allowing for unlimited lobbying and candidate campaigning. These developments have created opportunities for organizations to experiment with candidate endorsements, campaigning for and against candidates, and progressive governance. Rather than replacing existing political machines, these organizations are transforming the political process by engaging long-ignored communities in radical democratic practices. These new organizing strategies mirror work in Black, Latinx, and Native American communities, where influential grassroots organizations are mobilizing tens of thousands of voters and defining “governing power” through practice.

This paper looks at the development of integrated voter engagement (IVE) in AAPI community organizations. Integrated voter engagement is year-round community engagement using base-building and electoral mobilization to build the political power of historically marginalized communities. Organizations have taken up this approach because they understand that elections are crucial moments to engage large numbers of our community members, but that we also need to build an independently organized base in order to have real political power.

From the Rainbow Coalition to the New American Majority

Grassroots AAPI organizations have a long history of deploying electoral tactics to build power and fight the right. Given the great diversity of the AAPI community, there’s no single “origin” story of AAPI civic engagement, but there are some important historic turning points. In the 1980s, Asian American Movement activists connected to Left organizations made important contributions in the fight against Reaganism. These activists played key roles in the campaigns of Black mayoral candidates and the historic Presidential campaigns of Jesse Jackson in 1984 and 1988, helping craft Jackson’s “Rainbow Coalition”. They won reparations for Japanese Americans incarcerated in WWII, also launching the careers of several Japanese American national office holders who would later become staunch civil rights advocates.

In the 1990s, young AAPI organizers helped lead the fight against a wave of national anti-immigrant, racist, anti-youth policies. Communities in California were hammered with ballot initiatives that took away rights and blamed immigrants, people of color, and young people for the economic downturn. Nationally, welfare and immigration reform further criminalized poor people and refugees, exposing many to deportation. These fights radicalized a generation of young Southeast Asian organizers across the country confronting the intersections of xenophobia and criminalization. Long-standing youth organizations like Khmer Girls in ActionAYPAL, and Providence Youth Student Movement formed in this period to respond to this and the rising violence in their communities. The 2000s and the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks saw the emergence of influential and innovative South Asian civic engagement projects and grassroots organizations like Desis Rising Up and Moving. That period also saw the emergence of a new generation of AAPI candidates for office, often building from their ethnic base to appeal to non-coethnic voters.

In the last decade we have seen these and other AAPI organizations mature, as base-building groups began to integrate their leadership development, policy advocacy, and grassroots mobilization tactics with non-partisan, issue-based voter mobilization within 501c3 fiscal structures. Activists also experimented with volunteer organizations, parallel 501c4 organizations, and multi-racial, multi-issue coalitions capable of endorsing candidates in local races. Much of the leading and most innovative (intersectional) organizing has been within youth, queer and trans, Arab and Muslim and Southeast Asian communities.

The future projected by demographers to arrive in 2065 is already the reality in some states. Nine states are over 5% AAPI: Hawaii, California, Nevada, Washington, New Jersey, Alaska, Maryland and Virginia. In many local jurisdictions in these states, whole elections are won and lost on the basis of AAPI voters. And the states with the fastest growing populations have national political significance as battleground states: Nevada, North Carolina, Georgia, Virginia and Arizona. Given these numbers – and provided we can ensure an accurate census count – AAPIs are now an essential component of any kind of progressive “Rainbow Coalition” or “New American Majority” electoral strategy. Traditional electoral strategies emphasize persuading moderate and swing voters. Focusing on the New American Majority means dramatically increasing turnout amongst communities of color and low-turnout but likely progressive constituencies like young voters.

Photo courtesy of AAPIs for CE

In addition, at the local and state levels we see AAPIs making a significant political impact. For example, Virginia’s 2017 gubernatorial race, a spike in people of color turnout narrowly put the Democratic candidate over the top; turnout in districts with at least 20% AAPIs was 15% higher than predicted. In these special elections, local AAPI organizations anchored voter outreach in their own communities, driving turnout. In tight races, these numerically small communities can have a major impact given the scale of local elections.

Contemporary Challenges

In some ways, the AAPI community has been and continues to be a political battleground. Prior to Trump’s primary campaign, the Republican Party seemed poised to learn from its defeat in 2012 by moderating its anti-immigrant stances and appeal to business-friendly AAPIs. It banked hard-right instead, emboldening conservative AAPI groups like Chinese Americans for Trump and Hindus for Trump. While numerically small (AAPIs a whole supported Clinton by a wide margin), these groups softened Trump’s image and made some inroads in Chinese and Indian American communities. Right-wing Hindu nationalists aligned with Trump’s anti-immigrant, Islamophobic messages. At the local level, conservative Chinese have had success mobilizing against affirmative action and data disaggregation. Republicans in Orange County have been very successful in cultivating a pipeline of conservative Vietnamese and Korean candidates and political operatives.

On the other hand, we know through polling that AAPI voters lean progressive without strong party identification. When polled on specific issues, poll after poll finds that AAPI support environmental regulation, increased taxes on the wealthy and increased government spending on health care and social services. Yet AAPI voters are largely ignored by political parties and campaigns. In the fall 2016, 70% of AAPI voters reported having no contact from any political party. Anecdotally, unless a ballot initiative or candidate campaign has AAPI staff or organizations agitating for it, most campaigns invest little to no resources in reaching AAPI voters. The diversity and complexity of the community is one oft-cited reason. Another is the high level of language and cultural competence needed to reach AAPI voters. Outside of states with large numbers of AAPI people, few jurisdictions are covered by Voting Rights Act requirements for language access. And AAPIs’ progressive opinions are not linked necessarily to strong party identification, as a majority of AAPI voters decline to identify with a political party, thus leading some to see them as politically unreliable.

There are also significant variations amongst AAPI communities. And there are  variations in how AAPIs participate civically: in California where ⅓ of all AAPIs live, Pacific Islanders show near the highest in participation in public meetings and Asian Americans the lowest. Pacific Islanders also make campaign contributions and sign petitions at a much higher rate than Asian Americans. Post-election polling in 2016 showed Hillary Clinton supported by 69% of those polled but Chinese and Vietnamese voters had the highest levels of support for Trump while Bangladeshi, Pakistani and Cambodian voters had the highest support for Clinton. Hmong Voters were least likely to report being contacted by political parties or non-partisan voter outreach. And Filipinos, Chinese, and Vietnamese trend most conservative on a range of issues, with Pacific Islanders, Hmong and South Asians most progressive. Immigration, LGBT rights and affirmative action/data disaggregation are wedge issues where conservative Chinese have been successful in eroding support for while other AAPIs show strong support. These differences point to the need for concerted strategy and building a broader and more coordinated AAPI civic engagement and integrated voter engagement within and with other communities of color.

New Practices from the Grassroots

AAPI grassroots organizations are uniquely positioned to lead efforts to organize AAPIs year-round, and mobilize AAPI voters. Integrated voter engagement strategies are time-consuming, resource intensive, and rely on the development of organizers over time. The emphasis by grassroots groups on leadership development and membership growth offers opportunities to train a whole new generation. Grassroots organizing provides an important venue for understanding deeply what moves AAPI communities. Regular person-to-person outreach sharpens interpersonal leadership skills. Translating complex policy for community members trains effective campaign messaging. Leading democratic decision-making structures with community members practices governance and navigating inevitable contradictions. And building a mass base means organizing the people power necessary to counter money in politics.

Effective “integrated voter engagement” pairs the depth of grassroots organizing with the scale of civic engagement tactics. In practice, it looks like organizers doing policy education and campaign development with grassroots members, those members then taking active roles in engaging other community members and also voters, and then building a base with the skills and policy expertise to talk to large numbers of voters. It reaches people who may not be familiar with organizing, and facilitates a process of our organizations engaging new people. This organized and visible engagement in the electoral process, combined with continued engagement of new voters in our organizing efforts after the election, leverages community power on elected officials who are often the targets of our campaigns. Integrated voter engagement also creates a new center of gravity for community leadership. Oftentimes, unelected, unconnected, and unsympathetic “community leaders” are quick to speak for our communities and represent interests that don’t in fact benefit the community. How can we limit the influence of these self-styled leaders to lift up the grassroots? Elected officials typically flock to such figures, but integrated voter engagement is one way counter their image with our reality: an organized base whose voice is impossible to ignore.

The multi-lingual voter guides are effective voter engagement tools. Photo courtesy of AAPIs for CE.

Integrated voter engagement also overcomes some of the limitations of traditional civic engagement or electoral programs that focus on registration and GOTV. Such programs typically center citizens as the primary agent of change. But because IVE is about building a base of organizers engaging others, it is an important way to lift up leadership of young people, undocumented people, and other people denied to right to vote. This is important: taking an inclusive approach to leadership development and electoral engagement reflects our sense of who matters in a democratic society.

Most IVE programs also include issue-based campaigns as secondary reasons for voter contact. The assumption here is that simple GOTV is insufficient to engage our communities in politics. Many IVE programs pair GOTV with grassroots lobbying (getting community members to talk to their elected officials), issue surveys, membership drives or fundraising, and petition drives. These are all basic campaign functions that IVE strategies can augment and bring to scale.

There is also much to learn from the handful of social service and health organizations pioneering service provision and voter mobilization strategies. While grassroots and service-based groups can sometimes have differing political aspirations and risk tolerances, developing long-term alignment offers opportunities for grassroots groups to lead from the left, while still building a popular front on broadly impactful issues. For example, while increasing taxes on the wealthy is itself an incremental reform towards economic justice, it also serves as place to align with health clinics who would stand to benefit from increased investment in the social safety net. Elections, where most people are introduced to politics, can be an arena for both organizations and grassroots members to see tangibly and immediately their values reflected (or not) in candidates for office or ballot initiatives.

Building an AAPI Electoral Strategy

The examples named above hint at a challenge of integrated voter engagement strategies: the need for an ecosystem approach to building power and changing the current arrangement of political power where AAPI communities are largely absent. In the continental US, there are very few jurisdictions where an AAPI-only engagement strategy is either desirable or effective. Long-term strategic alignment with progressive and people of color-led organizations build the movement conditions necessary to campaign at an effective scale (citywide or statewide for example). These kinds of alliances start with basic field coordination, sharing messaging, and can develop into spaces to plan joint campaigns, write and advocate for legislation, and share resource development. The most high-functioning of these networks coordinate joint assemblies, where the organizations’ respective memberships come together for political education, training, and campaign decision-making. These alliances can also be effective for training field staff in coalition work and establishing consistent standards of field organizing. Examples include defining what a “positive identification” is, sharing best practices for training volunteers, aligning workplans, and communications coordination.

These alliances can be taxing for an organization’s leadership structure, as director-level staff tend to hold these relationships. In my discussions with AAPI civic engagement leaders nationally, they’ve noted the problem of developing and maintaining mid-tier staff capable of both executing effective field organizing campaigns and representing the organization in alliance meetings needing greater political leadership. To train the hundreds, if not thousands of organizers needed to respond to today’s political threats, it is imperative that AAPI grassroots organizations invest in forming pathways to train AAPI integrated voter engagement leaders. For example, the Seeding Change Fellowship has for the last several years trained young adult activists in grassroots organizing, political education, and civic engagement. Many participants have continued their activism in staff positions at grassroots AAPI organizations. An important component of the program’s success is placing participants at organizations where they get hands-on organizing practice. A similar fellowship program could focus on training new field organizers in the skills needed to be effective field managers: team supervision, data and targeting, cultural competency, administration and budget management. Each of these areas should also be infused with social justice values so we’re not simply replicating traditional campaign structures but building new kinds of political organization.

Election cycles, though, are difficult to plan for. While there has been significant investment in the last few years in AAPI civic engagement, the infrequency of elections means carrying lessons from one campaign to the next relies on the commitment of individual staff and not institutional memory. Thinking big, however, can work in our favor. For example, in California, AAPIs for Civic Empowerment Education Fund was formed with the intention of sharing our most valuable resource: staff civic engagement capacity. For new organizations, the support we provide in training, planning, technical expertise, and strategic thinking can make or break campaigns. We also aggregate fundraising, facilitate long-term planning, and make strategic investments in organizational capacity building. No single organization can sustain the myriad positions needed for an effective electoral campaign year round, but by pooling resources, grassroots groups can better weather the highs and lows of electoral campaigning.

A family at the Women’s March January 2018 in San Francisco. Photo: Eddie Wong

This is where national grassroots networks, like Grassroots Asians Rising and Southeast Asian Freedom Network can play an important role. It took three years to develop the political alignment necessary for AAPIs for Civic Empowerment Education Fund to be the leading AAPI integrated voter engagement formation in California. For AAPIs to have a national influence in politics, it will require the capability for grassroots organizations to align on an agenda, shape local activity around that campaign, and then have that work reinforced by shared campaign staffing and resources. Only with a high level of political and operational unity is this possible, and better to build from existing relationships.

To reach the scale and size necessary to shape mainstream politics, organizing based on a shared AAPI identity may be a useful tactic. Of course, it isn’t without contradiction itself, as the term has been used historically to overshadow the specific histories and concerns of Pacific Islanders, Southeast Asians, and many others. Yet as a political identity grounded in coalition-building and social justice values, I believe there is potential to build unity and mutual understanding among AAPI ethnic identities for the purpose of building electoral power locally, statewide, and nationally: power that is closely aligned with electoral projects in Black, Latinx and Native American communities.

Daring to Hope

For AAPIs, the present moment has intensified long-standing political struggles. Poor and working-class AAPIs can expect their already limited social safety and worker protections be shredded under onslaught by all three branches of federal government. The rights and benefits of unionization, healthcare, and social security are all under imminent threat. Similarly, the right-wing sees the demographic growth of people of color (into an eventual electoral majority) as an existential threat to hundreds of years of white political domination. The attempts to ban Muslim entrants to the US, sharply limit work visas and family “chain” migration, limit voting rights, expel refugees, and label public welfare recipients as “public charges” and thus eligible for deportation, all point to attempts to limit the growth of AAPI and immigrant communities in the U.S. by limiting migration and citizenship. Put together, these policies aim for the U.S. to continue to be a white nation in culture and demographics.

This is also a global crisis for AAPI communities as the Trump administration destabilizes the whole Asia-Pacific region. Many AAPI communities in the U.S.  are intimately familiar with imperialism, colonialism, war, and genocide: these are often the very reasons we are in the United States. We risk repeating history: Trump’s saber rattling threatens millions of lives in the Korean Peninsula, Guam, and other US Pacific territories. His support of President Duterte facilitates the Philippines’ slide into fascism and martial law. The willful denial of climate change magnifies the existential threat towards island nations in the Pacific by rising sea levels. And the perpetual War on Terror threatens lives abroad in the name of fighting ISIS, the Taliban, Iran, alongside increased surveillance and targeting of Muslim, Arab, and South Asian communities. Here Trump finds common cause with India’s Hindu nationalist Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Even if Trump had not won the presidency, Trump’s far right policy positions would still have emboldened right wing assaults on our communities and conservative elements in AAPI communities. Fighting Trump in the short term now requires us also to fight Trumpism over the long term.

Women’s March, January 2018 in San Francisco. Photo: Eddie Wong

But there is much to hope for, if we dare to. Black liberation is again a household discussion as Black people and allies take to the streets against police violence. Native American peoples are leading a resurgent environmental movement. Women of all class backgrounds, from domestic workers to Hollywood actresses are demanding an end to sexual abuse and harassment. Young people are more and more skeptical of capitalism and are open to other economic systems. Activists with disabilities inspired millions of others by literally throwing their bodies to stop Trumpcare. Trans- and gender non-conforming people are demanding visibility and justice. Thirteen million people voted for democratic socialist candidate Bernie Sanders. Just as important, Sanders bucked the traditional Democratic Party establishment and financed his campaign at the grassroots level, showing that it is possible to run a Democratic campaign disentangled from Wall Street. Non-black voters of color are starting to join Black voters as the electoral firewall against right-wing politics. None of these movements emerged overnight and took decades of patient organizing to make possible their convergence today.

At the US Social Forum in Detroit in 2011, I heard Grace Lee Boggs urge us, a group of AAPI activists, to “stop thinking like a minority, and start thinking like a majority.” As long as AAPI organizers think that the boundaries of our influence is with winning justice for only our own communities, I believe we are missing a key lesson from Boggs. We, the majority, already have the power to change the world. Even at the local level, elections are an arena that has tremendous impact on people’s daily lives. What kinds of social and political transformations are possible if the electoral system is a place movements can build power, and not just be disempowered? It really is up to AAPIs, people of color, and all oppressed peoples to build the coalitions necessary to challenge and dislodge current political leadership at all levels.

Women’s March January 2018 in San Francisco. Photo: Eddie Wong

AAPI grassroots organizations have consistently been in the forefront of defending AAPI communities from attack. However, with the stakes this high, it will take grassroots organizations using every tool at their disposal to respond. Moving from defense to offense will need a whole new level of grassroots infrastructure to effectively respond. It will also take a recognition that AAPI communities are no longer outside of traditional politics, and we can expect that AAPIs will be fiercely contested for by the right-wing. Already we see conservatives organize under the Asian American banner to advance policies against the interests of all AAPIs. Elections and IVE offers a pathway for AAPI grassroots organizations to interact with a broader set of issues, engage with a wider set of community members, and build coalition among AAPI identities and across communities of color. Beyond single issue campaigns, we need to build up an AAPI electoral base of power that is fighting for justice and cannot be ignored. Our base will be a critical voice of the progressive majority and a force to be reckoned with.

Timmy Lu is the founding director of AAPIs for Civic Empowerment and AAPIs for Civic Empowerment Education Fund. He was the State Organizing Director at Asian Pacific Environmental Network and led its integrated voter engagement programs in contacting tens of thousands of voters. He serves on the board of the Chinese Progressive Association Action Fund in San Francisco. A second-generation ethnic Chinese refugee from Vietnam, he lives in Oakland and is a new father.

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