Interview by Eddie Wong. Posted March 7, 2022.
Intro: Asian Americans are the fastest growing population in North Carolina with a 65% growth rate over the last decade. Along with population growth is growing political empowerment as the AAPI vote increased by 52% between 2016 and 2020. North Carolina Asian Americans Together is at the forefront of efforts to organize and educate the AAPI community in this crucial election year when North Carolina could elect a Democrat to the U.S. Senate. Chavi Koneru, Co-Founder and Executive Director of NCAAT, tells us about what led her to this work and the development of Asian American civic engagement in conjunction with building a multi-racial, progressive alliance in North Carolina. This interview was conducted on Feb. 23, 2022.
Eddie: How did your family come to North Carolina and what led you to legal work and then forming NCAAT?
Chavi: My dad came to the US at 17 on a boat. I think his experience impacted the way I grew up a lot because he spent a lot of his formative years in America and had to figure things out for himself. After they married in 1980, my mom came over. The huge difference in how he saw the world and how she saw the world gave me a unique perspective growing up; while he was very progressive and protested the Vietnam War, she was a conservative, traditional Indian mom.
Chavi Koneru. Photo by Jonathan Fredin in Cary Magazine.
I was raised in the Bay Area in California until I was seven when my dad got a teaching job at Duke University as a professor in the Asian language and literature department. He’s a filmmaker so he would go back and forth to India and make these films; Probably his most famous one is about the partition of India and Pakistan.
Moving to North Carolina was a pretty big culture shock for me. I grew up in the Oakland/Richmond area which was diverse, a little bit more low-income and immigrant. Here, there were not many Asian people — and far less Indian people — around. I remember there was one other kid in my elementary school who was Indian and everyone just assumed we were cousins because how could there be more than one family, right? (laughs). I did not know what race I was until I came to North Carolina. I had to go home and ask my parents because my community in the Bay Area had been so diverse; we just kind of took it for what it was.
We didn’t have a lot of family here, so I sought out that Asian community in college. It was wonderful to be surrounded by people who look like you, but I realized that didn’t mean we were aligned on our values and interests. I know you spoke to Aisha Mahmood and one of the things I connected with her early on was treating political debates like sporting events: I want to get my friends to watch together. But nobody else wanted to do it; it clearly was not the cool thing to be doing.
I do think I was privileged in having a parent who understood the ways democracy was supposed to work and talked about it at the dinner table. Still, I did not know how to make these ideals really happen. After college, I went to law school, interested in civil rights law. Law seemed like a very specialized skill; I thought if I could gain that skill, I could just help everyone. It was extremely naïve. Doing legal aid work, I realized there are always more people in need than you could possibly help.
Seeing how the law stacks cards against marginalized people, I developed an interest in policy—how can we change the laws? Unfortunately, I’m a very impatient person; I want things to happen like this (snaps her fingers), but big, grand political changes happen slowly, especially in a place like North Carolina.
I spent some time in DC and found all those people who wanted to get together and watch the debates at a bar. It was my dream come true. I was surrounded by so many people like me who had developed these specialized skills to do something better, but we were all in this one place. That prompted me to return to North Carolina.
Seeing the growth in the population on my return, I saw that there’s a lot you can do in a place like North Carolina, that you can’t do in the West, or New York or in DC. Here you have so much more power to make a difference.
Eddie: Did your mother have a difficult time adjusting since she came at a different time and place than your dad?
Chavi: Definitely. She had a very difficult time adjusting. The first thing we did moving up in the economy was we got a satellite dish. Now we know what’s happening in India, and she’s still watching Indian TV shows. Now when I’m canvassing community members and going door-to-door, I’m always thinking about my mom on the other side of that door because she’s the one who’s still watching Indian TV shows. If I can connect with someone like her then I can connect with that generation.
Eddie: Is your father still making films?
Chavi: He is. The pandemic has slowed that down and he just turned 80 so I’m hoping he slows down a bit, but he’s definitely still doing it, still working at Duke, still teaching.
Eddie: Tell us a little about what led to the formation of North Carolina Asian Americans Together.
Chavi: When I came back to North Carolina, I wasn’t sure exactly what I wanted to do next. I had done some litigation work and some voting rights work in DC. I was trying to find that balance between seeing just one client through a win and working on voting or civil rights cases that can take 10 years before you see change. That led me to the North Carolina Justice Center where I wrote some articles for their policy think tank. I met my co-founder Ricky Leung, who came to Greensboro with his family in his early teens; we had very similar experiences of growing up in North Carolina and similar visions for change. We would get together at lunch and strategize how to form a coalition of organizations across the state. We wanted to volunteer our time to raise money and phone bank on the weekends to realize this coalition. As we got deeper and deeper into this idea, we realized there weren’t enough established organizations already doing that work in North Carolina.
There is a wonderful organization in Charlotte, the Southeast Asian Coalition, that had been around for about five years when we started, and we had a lot of conversations with them about what they were doing. They do a lot with Southeast Asian and Black communities, but we couldn’t find an organization that was letting people know that an election was coming up. We were one of the first people who said, “Hey civic engagement matters!” We worked on this survey with Advancing Justice LA that showed us 70% of Asian Americans in the South and North Carolina had never been contacted about an election. That was a mind-blowing number. We had to do something.
Eddie: It’s noted that among Asian Americans in North Carolina the predominant group is Indian and then after that Chinese. People on the West Coast have no idea that there are Asian Americans in the South let alone in North Carolina. What do people do? Where are they based? What are their concerns?
NCAAT volunteer 2020.
Chavi: North Carolina, especially the Raleigh-Durham Triangle area, is a growing hub for technology. Now more than ever, the West Coast is starting to recognize Raleigh as a place where they might be starting up new branches. It was the universities that first brought folks over; a lot of people were doing graduate degrees at Duke or University of North Carolina or North Carolina State. The Triangle offered engineering jobs and the Charlotte area became a site for the banking industry. Where one family resides becomes a location for other folks from their communities back home. Along with family-based immigration, the Asian American community has grown.
What’s important to note about North Carolina is that while there is a huge Indian population, North Carolina’s South Asians include Pakistani, Bangladeshi, and Nepali people. There is also a very large Southeast Asian refugee population in Charlotte and the rural counties between here (Raleigh) and Charlotte. Sometimes I hesitate being the face of the organization. There’s a perception that Indian Americans have done well; in North Carolina, Indian Americans and Chinese Americans have gained socio-economic and educational power, but other ethnicities are still struggling. For NCAAT, it’s important to be lifting up all parts of the pan-Asian community. It is really important for Chinese and Indian communities to come together to uplift the resources needed for the entire pan-Asian community.
Eddie: You mentioned in your 2020 work that you did a lot around a voter registration portal and a lot of work in Asian languages. Can you talk more about that? Why is it so important to do in-language work?
Chavi: In-language work is where we got started. Our first ever NCAAT event was a Saturday phone bank. We were just starting out, so the volunteers were my siblings, my partner and Ricky’s family and some other friends. Many of us were bilingual speakers, so when we started making calls, it was natural for us to switch languages, especially when talking to elders. The way we greeted them carried respect. These were the most positive conversations that I’ve ever had in my entire life. People were inviting us in for dinner and saying, “My daughter is going to college; is it cool if she talks to you about what you’re doing?” And I would say, “Yes!” We were starting from a common understanding.
We’ve always led with language access. Even when I was doing voting rights work, what I noticed the most was how the lack of language access has become a huge barrier for the Asian American community. This is true for other communities, but because of our diversity in languages, the barrier is higher for Asian Americans. Our work has always prioritized leading with in-language, culturally competent work; that cannot be an afterthought. For the 2020 election, we ran the first-ever election protection hotline in North Carolina in 13 Asian languages. Our hotline was connected to the national 1-800 election protection hotline, so anyone calling for North Carolina would be transferred to Democracy North Carolina and, if you pressed 3 for any Asian language, the callers would be with us. That was a huge achievement because we want civic engagement to be easy. Being able to reach out to someone in-language about where polls are should be part of everyday life.
Eddie: What issues came out on top when you spoke with Asian American voters?
Chavi: We have a very large number of unaffiliated voters in North Carolina. We led from a place of non-partisan work because we just wanted their voices heard whether we agree with them or not. From our conversations, we realized people don’t want us to do non-partisan work; they want to be having those partisan conversations because that’s what impacts their lives and their children’s education. That’s why we created this C4 entity in 2020. (Ed. note: C4 is an entity that can endorse candidates and participate in partisan political campaigns.) It gave us the ability to say there’s this candidate here who would impact where your children go to school or what kind of resources you get.
Some of the issues that were most important to people were education and healthcare. We still don’t have Medicaid expansion in North Carolina, but for us probably what we talked about the most was immigrant rights issues and immigrant justice. People are concerned a lot about family-based immigration; from 2016 to 2020, a lot of immigration policy passed that made it very difficult for families to reunify. In North Carolina there have been many laws passed that directly impact immigrants like 287(g) and on language access. That’s what we’re focused the most around right now.
Eddie: North Carolina is known for its activist tradition especially in the African American community. I worked in the Jesse Jackson campaign in 1988, and we worked with State Senator Dan Blue, Sr. How do Asians fit into the equation now that you have a Latinx community and a longstanding African American community as well as progressive whites? Is there a sense of coalition?
Chavi: Totally. We fit in seamlessly, and I would say this a thousand times: we absolutely would not be here if it wasn’t for the work that the African American communities and organizations have been doing for a long time and the coalitional work of Latinx communities and organizations. I had the great fortune of having professors like Julius Chambers who was a big part of the desegregation cases in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. Just seeing this very rich history around us made me think, “What can we really contribute?” These organizations and leaders helped us get to where we are.
A lot of our work moved quickly because we haven’t had to reinvent the wheel. We’ve built on the work they’ve done. They have welcomed us into their coalition, and in the South, it is really important to be working in cross-racial coalitions. There is no winning unless we’re all winning, and everyone who works in this movement understands that deeply. I know it may be different in other states, but in the South, I feel very bonded with the folks with whom we work in coalition. We’re building this cross-racial movement that’s going to help us get to the change we’re all looking for.
Eddie: In 2022 an African American woman is running for US Senate and she’s the leading Democrat in the race. It looks like one of those great moments for significant change.
Chavi: Cheri Beasley is a force. I think having this entire coalition of folks behind her is going to make such a difference. Rep. David Price is retiring this year, and his seat has been solidly a Democratic seat for quite a while. There’s a very competitive Democratic race for that seat. One of the candidates is a young Muslim woman whose family is South Asian. It’s exciting to see this younger generation, and I feel like if these two women of color were to be elected, it would just be enormous for North Carolina as far as the changes they could make.
Eddie: I think today, Feb. 23, was the deadline for the three-judge panel to rule on redistricting. Have you seen the new maps?
Chavi: I have. At the very beginning of the redistricting hearings, we were very engaged in looking at the data. Obviously redistricting always has the greatest impact on the African American community, but there were also lines being drawn in ways that diluted and packed the Asian American vote. (Ed.note: packing means aggregating voters of one ethnicity into one district to restrict the number of districts which could then be competitive.) The new map is a little bit better, but changes are happening so frequently. At this point I’ve probably looked at 30 different versions of the maps. (laughs).
Eddie: The Republicans have until 5 pm (today Feb. 23) to appeal so we may see something else too. It was interesting that the North Carolina Supreme Court said, “No, this is blatantly illegal gerrymandering.” Many people still don’t know what gerrymandering is and now there’s a chance to raise that issue. (Ed. note: North Carolina is almost evenly divided between Democratic and Republican voters, but the state legislature initially drew district lines that would favor the GOP to win 10 of 14 Congressional seats.) What are your hopes for 2022 in terms of NCAAT’s work?
Chavi: 2020 was a huge year for Asian American turnout. It’s not our only job, but voter turnout is a clear, nationally understandable metric of success that shows the power of the Asian American vote. In 2020, we were most proud of first-time voters who were registered pre-2020. I think a lot of campaigns seem to disregard them because they haven’t voted before. We made a point of keeping all Asian American voters on the rolls and would have really exciting conversations with people registering. I remember having a conversation with a guy who had registered a decade ago who was voting for the first time because no one had reached out before. It was really as simple as that: connection. We have to keep that momentum going.
In North Carolina absentee voting laws changed in 2020, making it a lot easier for folks to vote by mail. The Asian American community, more than anybody else, took advantage of that. Making sure that we still make voting accessible in that way maintains those high turnout numbers is really important.
The youth vote was really high in 2020 in a time when people say that young people are not as engaged in electoral politics. It’s about how we’re framing the conversation. People are interested in what’s happening because electoral politics impact them in very real ways.
In 2021, all of our municipal elections got moved, so we have an incredible number of elections on the ballot in 2022. We have to make sure people really understand what the races are, know who their candidates are, and are able to vote for people who are going to support their values.
Eddie: How big is your staff and what are your growth plans?
Chavi: It’s 12 full-time staff members now, which is huge. This sort of work isn’t a common path for Asian Americans. There’s often the argument made that you can’t be successful in this way. Also, non-profit work burns people out, as people tend to be underpaid and overworked. The benefit of being a new organization is you get to set the rules; we have 12 full-time staff members with full-time benefits. We try to have work be 40 hours per week for a good work/life balance. We don’t believe in having contract folks who we just keep on for a little bit and then let go. We want people to have job security. It requires a lot more investment in terms of growing our team. By the end of this year, we would like to get to 15 full-time staff members.
Right now, we are interviewing for a communications position. We’ve been doing all this really incredible work, but we haven’t been able to get the word out as much because we don’t have someone uplifting that.
The other thing we recognize is hiring people from the community who know the community but may not have campaign skills. And if that’s the path you’re going down, you have to take time to build up those skills and to invest in those folks which is what we’re doing. It is much easier to hire people who have campaign experience, but they don’t share the Asian American experiences needed to connect with our folks and get them to turn out to vote. We have set aside a big part of our budget on training our staff members and our lead volunteers. We’ve had some amazing older folks from the community who are retired and they’re 100% in on this work. We provide them with extra skills and resources and the opportunity to really learn how to do this work.
NCAAT staff and volunteers in 2020.
Eddie: I looked at your website and you have a lot of emphasis on storytelling. In a way it’s a community building exercise and I thought that was very innovative. What led you to do that kind of work?
Chavi: We were doing some of it pre-2020, but it was really the Atlanta shootings, that rise in recognition of anti-Asian hate that led us to making this a priority because the storytelling work that we do is in collaboration with some Black-led and Latinx-led groups. We create these environments where folks can both tell their stories but also learn from others. And in the wake of Atlanta, it felt like there was a lot of racial tensions that came up particularly between the Asian and Black communities. This felt like an opportunity to help people uplift their needs and tell their stories. Ultimately our goal is for them to be able to create the change that they need and not lean on an organization like us but to be able to do it in that cross-racial solidarity space. That was our response to this rising anti-Asian hate, and it’s continued. We had four or five cohorts of folks and we’re trying to expand the storytelling work.
Eddie: It’s been inspiring talking to you, Aisha, Mohan and I’m talking with Laura Misumi in Michigan soon. You have formed a network together. Tell us a little bit about the AAPI Power Network.
Chavi: It happened very organically. We all happened to be at a conference in March 2020 a week before the world shut down. We were excited to connect with other folks in these battleground states that were dealing with a lot of the same barriers. And then the pandemic happened. The last connections we made turned into monthly check-in, leading us to realize what we had was uniquely beyond parties. We wanted to have this independent infrastructure for a combined voice on what we want to see happen nationally.
I think what else is great about the group is that we are all folks from these states who are coming together. I would never speak for what’s happening in Georgia or what’s happening in Pennsylvania or what’s happening in Michigan; they have the pulse on that. There’s an important freedom in not being associated with a party in terms of being able to say what we need to say to make the changes that need to occur. That’s an important, exciting part of this power network. A lot of other groups are more closely tied to parties, and it’s hard for them to be honest and transparent. (Ed.note: check out the Asian American Power Network)
Eddie: It is exciting. I’m from another generation where we were really disconnected. I mean we met some people through the Jackson campaign, which was very exciting, but that was 38 years ago. It’s amazing that you guys are out there doing it now. Is there anything else you’d like to cover?
Chavi: We started off with the civic engagement work, but the very next thing we did was build up a very strong youth leadership program. We started a competitively paid internship program in 2020 that allows folks who are in college to get that electoral experience and pursue this as a career path. We’re not supporting just Asian American candidates, but we are supporting Asian American and Black and Latinx candidates. It’s great to be able to have opportunities to offer those skills to the next generation and to have them really think about what it looks like to truly represent the community.
This interview was conducted by Eddie Wong, editor and publisher of East Wind ezine. For more information about North Carolina Asian Americans Together and to donate to support their programs, visit NCAAT.
Ricky Leung, Chavi Koneru (co-founders), and volunteer.