THE WOMAN PROJECT INTERVIEWS:
- What inspired you to get involved in politics and public policy? What advice do you have for aspiring activists who want to make a difference but don’t know where to start?
After graduating with my undergraduate degree, I served a year as an AmeriCorps VISTA at the Asian Community Development Corporation (ACDC) in Chinatown Boston; it was an experience that changed my life. I was incredibly inspired by Chinatown, the residents, and the community activists that built the community. In my service year, I gained tremendous experience in non-profit management, civic engagement, and grassroots community organizing; and I was given the opportunity to be creative, to fail, to succeed, and to be forever humbled by a community.
After my service year, I was truly inspired, and I wanted to create change through public policy, that’s when I decided to run for office for a position on the Woonsocket School Committee. I won both of my elections in 2009 and 2011. As a young Asian American woman, I challenged the status quo just by sitting at the decision-making table. It was a difficult time in Woonsocket, we came very close to bankruptcy and tough decisions were made. Despite our financial woes, many of us fought for change. We were able to push for a family planning program in our high school, which provided contraceptives in to students in our school based health center. We worked on policies that allowed students to receive credits outside of the traditional classroom through partnerships with non-profits. The progress we created was a result of strong and intersectional coalitions, input from stakeholders, parents and residents, and the political will of the school committee.
For aspiring activists, I would recommend that you find a community that you really love and want to change for the better. It can be your hometown, your new hometown, the Southeast Asian community, the education community… Get rooted in that community; listen to the members of that community; work with stakeholders in that community; show up for that community—and most importantly, be patient, stay humble and realize that this is not about you. Respect the movements; they don’t happen because of one person or overnight—they are a result of years of advocacy by community activists, and broad coalitions and partnerships.
- Not all Rhode Islanders are aware of the history of the Southeast Asian community in Rhode Island. What kinds of needs do Southeast Asian American Rhode Islanders have and what resources or organizations exist to support this community?
There are over 30,000 AAPIs living in Rhode Island, about 17,000 of them are SEAs. Like my family, many of the SEAs living in RI came as refugees as a result of political persecution in their war torn home countries. The AAPI community is large and diverse, comprised of over 50 ethnicities, speaking over 100 different languages. Many of the issues that the SEA community faces are overlooked because of the “model minority myth”– that Asian Americans as a whole have statistically been seen as overachievers, from education to economic prosperity, but when data are disaggregated, it tells a different story for SEAs.
According to the SEA Education Needs in Rhode Island Report by the Southeast Asian Resource Action Center (SEARAC):
- SEAs have lower rates of education attainment when compared to the Asian population and total population in RI. According to the American Community Survey (ACS), 4.6 percent of Cambodian and 10.4 percent of Laotian Americans over the ages of 25 had a bachelor’s degree compared to 18.5 percent of the total population and 23.2 percent of Asian respondents;
- The majority of SEAs in RI face extreme language barriers and lives in poverty. According to the ACS, 21.1 percent of Cambodians and 19.4 percent of Hmong American families lived in poverty in RI, compared to 8.4 percent of total families in RI.
Additionally, SEA immigrants, many of whom obtained green cards after arriving here and seeking safety as refugees, have been among the most affected within the AAPI communities by the harsh policies of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigration Responsibility Act (IIRIRA) enacted in 1996. Over 2.5 million SEAs live in the US, and almost 16,000 of them have received final orders of deportation. The threat of deportation among SEAs not only tears families apart but also negatively impacts their economic stability, employment, and reproductive choices.
There are amazing organizations in RI like the Providence Youth Student Movement (PrYSM) and Alliance of RI Southeast Asians for Education (ARISE) fighting for the resources to improve the SEA community in RI. However, the state must invest more into language access and culturally appropriate services, and there needs to be more people in leadership positions in state and local government that reflect the SEA community.
- Your career path has recently taken you to Washington, DC. What have you have been working on as the Policy Director for the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum?
NAPAWF is the only national, multi-issue AAPI women’s organization in the country. Our mission is to build a movement to advance social justice and human rights for AAPI women and girls. The best part of my job is the intersectional work I get to participate in. As the policy director, I have the awesome responsibility of leading our legislative agenda that includes advocating for issues of reproductive justice, economic justice, and immigrant rights for over 10.7 million AAPI women in the US. We believe that social justice will be achieved when all members of the AAPI community have the economic, social, and political power to make decisions regarding our bodies, families and communities. We infuse this vision in all of our reproductive health, economic justice, and immigrant rights work.
- While the Woman Project has been focused specifically on state legislation that would codify the tenets of Roe v. Wade, we are aware of our place in a broader human rights movement that must include women of color, other marginalized women, and trans people. What is reproductive justice and how do reproductive justice issues impact Asian American and Pacific Islander women, girls, and trans people?
The term “reproductive justice” was first coined in 1994 by a group called Women of African Descent for Reproductive Justice, who believed the mainstream reproductive rights and feminist agendas did not meet their needs. The reproductive justice framework adds an intersectional lens to the traditional pro-choice movement by recognizing that each person’s reproductive choices are uniquely affected or limited by various racial, sexual, physical, economic, social, institutional, and religious factors that surround them.
Reproductive justice operates under three principles that center and support a woman’s decisions to:
- become a parent, along with the conditions under which to give birth;
- not to become a parent, including access to all of the options for ending or preventing pregnancy be treated with dignity; and
- parent a child she already has in safe, supportive communities free from violence and oppression.
For AAPIs a reproductive justice framework acknowledges the diversity within our community and ensures that different aspects of our identity, such as ethnicity, immigration status, education, sexual orientation, gender identity and access to health are considered in tandem when addressing our social, economic and health needs.
- The Reproductive Health Care Act was perhaps the highest profile bill relating to abortion during the last session in the General Assembly. However, every year there are numerous pieces of legislation designed to curb reproductive freedoms. Is there other legislation that impacts Asian Americans in Rhode Island we need to know more about?
In 2017, a racist abortion ban, H5158 was introduced in the Rhode Island legislature. The bill would make it illegal for a doctor to perform an abortion if they even suspect their patient is seeking an abortion due to sex preference. This is fueled by harmful and inaccurate stereotypes about AAPI communities and women of color. Politicians cite Asian countries like China and India, and cloak this sexist and racist bill in the language of “non-discrimination” as a means of advancing their own anti-abortion agenda.
- We understand reproductive rights not only in terms of choice, but access. What barriers exist for Asian American and Pacific Islander people nationally and in Rhode Island? Is there legislation in Rhode Island that could improve access to reproductive and sexual health services, including access to safe and legal abortion?
AAPI women need access to safe and legal abortion. Despite the fact that a strong majority of AAPI people and people of color believe that women should have access to safe and legal abortion, policy makers at the federal and state levels continue to create anti-choice legislation that shames women and undermines their decision-making abilities. In order for reproductive justice to become a reality for women of color, anti-choice policies such as the Hyde Amendment must be eliminated.
Health insurance coverage should be expanded, not restricted. We believe that healthcare is a human right. AAPI women need health care that is affordable and accessible. Current immigration-based restrictions are unnecessary and harmful to AAPI immigrant women and their families.
Health care for AAPI women must be culturally and linguistically appropriate. A reproductive justice approach to services such as maternal and birthing care would integrate non-western practices and beliefs and dismiss restrictive policies that rely on racist, sexist, or anti-immigrant stereotypes such as sex-selective abortion bans.
Disaggregating reproductive health data for AAPI women helps target resources. Despite the fact that AAPI women have incredibly varied experiences in accessing reproductive health services, in many surveys and data collection efforts AAPIs are lumped together as a whole or altogether omitted. In order to reach the most marginalized communities, data must be disaggregated by ethnicity and gender identity whenever possible.
AAPI women need comprehensive reproductive and sexual health care that supports them throughout their lifetime.
- Many Rhode Islanders got to know you as the Assistant Director of Common Cause Rhode Island. As someone who was on the front lines of promoting open, ethical, and accountable government in Rhode Island, how do you think our legislative process impacts the fight for reproductive rights in Rhode Island?
We all know that it is difficult to pass any legislation in RI because of the enormous amount of power that the Speaker of the House holds, with the ability to kill or pass a bill. Knowing that can be discouraging, but the 2017 legislative session reminded me of the power of the people.
Besides fighting for open government, another aspect of my position was empowering Rhode Islanders to understand the state’s legislative process; it was my favorite part of the job. Through our Demystifying Democracy series, we were able to educate hundreds of Rhode Islanders about the legislative process, and with that information ordinary Rhode Islanders were able to advocate for issues that mattered the most to them, whether it was the environment or reproductive justice. I think the most important part of passing any legislation—federal, state, or local is understanding the process. Once you understand the process, you can build your campaign around it with a path to victory.
For example, between 2016-2017 I worked on a campaign for data disaggregation for SEA students in Rhode Island’s education system called the All Students Count Act. The first year was a learning experience: drafting legislation, registering as a lobbyist, getting sponsors to introduce the bill, subcommittee hearings, having the bill held for further study without explanation… In the second year, we worked harder at targeting key legislators, finding progressive champions who would make it a top priority, bringing in more community and youth voices, building a stronger coalition of intersectional organizations, lobbying the crap out of legislators until our bill got a vote in committee, and then on the floors. All of it was intimidating at first, but when I understood the process and built the right campaign around it with the right people involved, the bill was signed into law in it’s second year.
- What will it take to make progress and win reproductive health care legislation here in Rhode Island?
In order to win reproductive health care legislation in Rhode Island, there must be more women of color running for office and winning. Many legislators in the RI general assembly have not faced a competitive primary race in years, and that’s why they keep getting reelected. Recently we’ve seen that when incumbents are challenged, they do not do well. Incumbents need to be challenged for the sake of democracy, and they need to be challenged by folks who are more reflective of Rhode Island’s diverse communities. If Rhode Island can run more progressive candidates (and not more white men), who support a reproductive justice agenda, it will be a great indicator of progress and it will change the conversation on our issues.
- A lot of our supporters and volunteers started getting involved recently, after the election of Donald Trump. As someone who has long been an organizer and self-described “rabble-rouser,” what do you say to people who are discouraged by the slow pace of progress and the monumental and sometimes overwhelming battle for freedom and justice?
I have had very unique experiences in community organizing and politics. I’ve been called many names, I’ve been fired from a position for being “too ethical” and demanding transparency, I’ve been tokenized, I’ve been mocked for being too optimistic and young, I’ve been dismissed and micro-aggressioned by white people over and over again, I’ve been disappointed by government leaders and politicians, I’ve been yelled at more times than I can count, and as a result of all these experiences, my skin is thicker, I am smarter, and I am more determined to fight for a world that I want to live in. That’s why when we get involved in this work, we have to be committed because it isn’t just something you wake up and decide to do. If you want to be part of this fight, you have to be inspired and passionate about the work, because if you aren’t you won’t last. So much of my work comes from a personal place, from being raised by two refugee parents, from growing up in Woonsocket, and from recognizing my privilege and using it to create change.
It’s so easy to feel so small when the issues are so big. And it’s going to take a long time to fix our broken democracy, but it can be done. It can be done in our city halls, state houses, and on Capitol Hill. Our democracy only works when people are engaged and fight for the world they want, we can’t be complicit. Ordinary people have to realize that they are the most important part of our democracy; that their voices matter, that government is supposed to work for them. We’re seeing that happen, here in DC and in every level of our democracy; people are fighting for what they believe in, we are taking the streets, and showing up. All of it matters. Keep fighting, keep voting, keep showing up, keep organizing, celebrate all of the wins, and be patient—it might take time but I have no doubt we’ll create the change we want to see.