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Asian American organizers are developing pathways to civic and political participation that are centered in empowering their communities. More than simply looking to expand the electorate, organizers and advocacy organizations are focusing on helping people take ownership of civic participation in their communities.

A recent report from Pew Research found that Asian Americans are the fastest growing segment of voters by racial or ethnic group—but they’re more than just a cool data point. As the American electorate becomes more diverse (i.e. less white), affinity-based organizations are expanding access to systems that for a long time seemed unattainable to the average person.

Civic engagement and progressive political organizations create opportunities for individuals to interact with the political system in their local communities as well as the state and federal level.

Organizations like Asian Americans Advancing Justice (AAAJ) have a long history of fighting for expanded civic engagement and justice. Splashed across its home page, AAAJ states its mission as “fighting for civil rights and empowering Asian Americans to create a more just America for all.”

Direct voter engagement often combined with in-language organizing and materials, as well as culturally relevant conversations contributed to expanded participation by Asian and Pacific Islander (API) voters in the 2018 election. Reflecting on his work with AAAJ’s Atlanta chapter, Raymond Partolan pointed to the organization’s investment in community capacity-building in the past several years. “[AAAJ] really developed a great reputation in the community for being an advocate for folks,” said Partolan. “The work that Advancing Justice does on the ground is not transactional. It’s not ‘go to the polling [place] please cast your vote.’”

Among the organizers featured in the PBS POV docuseries And She Could Be Next, Partolan also organized with Asians for Abrams in 2018 in an effort to expand Asian American participation in the 2018 election and support for the Democratic gubernatorial nominee Stacey Abrams. A Filipino DACA recipient, Partolan is unable to vote but still prioritized helping others access the ballot. For Partolan, being involved in the political process takes many forms.

“One of the things that I often hear in this type of work is that voting is the most powerful way that you can get involved in the community,” said Partolan. “And I think that is a little exclusive, because there are tons of folks in our communities that want to get involved but they don’t have the right to vote…Getting involved in the community is not just about going to the polling place and exercising your right to vote.”

Expanding opportunities for community participation and civic engagement has been a driving force for the work of Asian American Midwest Progressives (AAMP). Growing out of a need to provide more direct political engagement around candidates and elections, a team of organizers set out to create an advocacy space that would give voice to Asian Americans in Chicago while advancing progressive issues. While organizations like Asian Americans Advancing Justice are organized as 501(c)(3) nonprofits limited to issue education, as a 501(c)(4) organization, AAMP can directly engage communities around particular candidates. AAMP’s director of movement politics, Grace Pai, explained the need for having different types of organizations engaging with communities.

“I think with the growing political awareness, our community leaders were really interested in getting involved in the political process, and having an Asian American organization,” said Pai about the organization’s start in the 2019 Chicago municipal elections. “Chicago is a very political town and it’s a big community organizing challenge. There are a lot of different organizations out there, but I think a number of people that are involved with us really are interested in building community with other Asian Americans and kind of exploring that political identity.”

While there is strength in a collective political identity, Pai reflected on the importance of respecting and lifting up the diversity within the Asian American community. For example, political engagement involves providing opportunities for in-language organizing. “I think the language diversity of the Asian American community is a beautiful part of what makes our community what it is,” said Pai. “[We] do our best to reach out to voters in the language that they’re most comfortable. We encourage candidates to produce in-language materials, [and] we do that by recruiting multilingual volunteers.”

A part of building collective political power and leveraging organizing collectives also involves challenging political strategies and framings that unjustly marginalize entire voter blocs. Pai was one of eight co-authors of an open letter to the Biden campaign challenging an ad earlier this spring for the way it fed into xenophobic imagery of Chinese people and the spread of COVID-19.

“The thing that really struck me about the ad is that the Biden campaign was repeating Trump’s own talking point,” said Pai. “In the context of this added violence and harassment and racism towards Asian Americans, the organizers [who] came together to write this letter were just deeply concerned about how this escalating rhetoric between the campaign would impact Asian Americans.”

For Sayu Bhojwani, the founder and president of New American Leaders, beyond needing to balance concerns of marginalizing entire voting blocs, political candidates and campaigns need to change the way they consider engaging groups of voters. “We really need to be thinking about voters in intersectional terms,” said Bhojwani. Bhojwani directly challenged the way campaigns will disaggregate white voters but lump other racial groups together as if they were a monolith.

“I think that there’s a value to looking at the impact of change that the API electorate has had in places like Virginia,” said Bhojwani, pointing to mobilization efforts in 2017 and 2019. “People are willing to disaggregate groups of white voters but say, ‘Oh, the API electorate is too diverse and hard to reach.’ In fact, we know that’s not true because we’ve seen how they’ve been mobilized in places of Virginia.”

Bhojwani has supported new Americans (defined as first or second generation immigrants who are citizens) in engaging in the political process. A part of that process is building pathways for voter engagement instead of relying on vote shaming.

“I always feel the conversation for voters has to be about what they stand to gain by participating, and we often talk about it in terms of what we have to lose,” Bhojwani said.

Bhojwani also honed in on the way the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed issues in state and local governance, noting how “[a] lot of the mess that we’re seeing frankly has been created by state and local leaders.”

She stressed the need for more representation in elected officials and unseating incumbents, pointing to the need to elect more API state electeds such as Georgia Reps. Sam Park and Bee Nguyen, and New York Assemblymember Yuh-Line Niou. A recent report from New American Leaders evaluated the gaps in representation of New American electeds and the corresponding voting population, finding underrepresented in 46 out of 50 states. The report also pointed to a noticeable trend with most New American elected officials identifying as Democrats.

“I think there’s a huge opportunity to motivate Asian American voters,” said Pai. “Asian Americans are trending increasingly democratic. And I think the 2018 midterm really showed that we’re an increasingly important community especially in the battleground state.”

Anoa Changa

Anoa Changa is a journalist and organizer focused on innovating electoral justice coverage. Follow her on Twitter at @thewaywithanoa.