A Call to Action: Addressing the Historic Underfunding of AAPI Communities
BY LI LU
This piece was published in the 32nd print volume of the Asian American Policy Review.
The rise of hate against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPIs) since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic has drawn attention to the need to better support AAPI communities across our country — communities that have historically been drastically underfunded and under-resourced. This article focuses on how the philanthropic community and beyond can close critical gaps in support for on-the-ground organizations and contribute to a larger process of building the infrastructure needed to better support, protect, and celebrate the 23 million AAPIs living in the US.
Anti-AAPI Hate amidst COVID-19 and the Formation of TAAF
In early 2020, the world was just starting to wake up to the realities of COVID-19. As we familiarized ourselves with what was happening and how we were supposed to respond, most of us learned for the first time what it meant to socially distance, wear a mask in public, and quarantine. However, we also learned that not all communities were experiencing the pandemic the same way, even from its earliest days.
I saw headline after headline detailing attacks and hate incidents targeting AAPIs across the country. With a great sense of concern in my heart, I started to talk to some of my friends, including Jerry Yang, Josh Ramo, Peng Zhao, Rick Niu, Joe Bae, and Joe Tsai, who were also seeing these stories unfold. As we kept the conversation going, this group eventually became key partners in the formation of The Asian American Foundation (TAAF). I also got on the phone with Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), who informed me that ADL was tracking the data behind the gruesome reality we were seeing on the news. ADL has set the gold standard for how to identify and root out hate, and Jonathan has been instrumental in leading the organization’s invaluable efforts. ADL’s data showed that these incidents were not isolated events, but rather symptoms of a crisis in which AAPIs were being blamed for the novel coronavirus.[i]
We know now that those early indications of hate were just the beginning. Anti-AAPI hate reached stunning heights as a consequence of anti-AAPI sentiment expressed by prominent figures that allowed AAPIs to be scapegoated for the pandemic. In fact, Stop AAPI Hate reported that of the 9,081 anti-AAPI hate incidents flagged from March 2020 to June 2021, 48.1 percent included at least one anti-China or anti-immigrant statement.[ii] Of the reported hate incidents that involved verbal attacks towards the victims, over 20 percent featured language that explicitly blamed people of Chinese descent for causing the pandemic.[iii] The hate was so strong and so prominent in American cities that a March 2021 study by the US Census Bureau found that AAPI households were more than twice as likely as White respondents to report food insecurity because they were afraid to leave their homes to get groceries.[iv]
While the rise in hate has been astonishing, anti-AAPI sentiment is not new. Our country has a long history of racism and xenophobia towards AAPIs, including the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, the internment of Japanese Americans in the 1940s, the post-9/11 rise in hate incidents against South Asians, and what we’re seeing today.[v]
In addition to experiencing hate, issues facing AAPI communities such as income inequality[vi] and underrepresentation[vii] across American society are perpetually overlooked. While the model minority myth has led to the perception that AAPIs are financially secure and well-represented, the truth is that our communities are diverse and have a wide range of disparate needs. Based on data from 1970 to 2016, the distribution of income among AAPIs went from being one of the most equal to being the most unequal among America’s major racial and ethnic groups.[viii] This jarring trend both illuminates the diversity of economic realities across AAPI ethnic groups and stands contrary to reductive, misplaced stereotypes about AAPI communities’ financial prosperity and success.
For me, this was all very personal. When I came to the United States as a young man, I was welcomed with open arms. I was able to complete my education here, become a businessman, and live the American Dream. But the hate that was spreading as fast as COVID-19 made it clear that that dream was under serious threat for the millions of AAPIs living here. I couldn’t bear that any person from my community would be denied the same chance I got to pursue my dreams.
After my phone call with Jonathan, we knew something needed to be done. Jonathan Greenblatt, Josh Ramo, Jerry Yang, Peng Zhao, Rick Niu, Joe Bae, Joe Tsai, and I gathered a group of business and philanthropy leaders to figure out how we could make the greatest impact. We wanted to address not only the growing hate in light of the pandemic, but also these broader, systemic challenges facing our communities.
As we got to work building what would eventually become TAAF, we became increasingly aware of just how deep-seated philanthropy’s underinvestment in AAPI communities has been. We learned that, shockingly, AAPI communities have historically received less than 0.5 percent of charitable giving from foundations.[ix] This lack of investment has serious human consequences and hinders the ability of organizations to effectively serve our communities. While these statistics were startling to hear, they demonstrated to us that there was enormous opportunity to make real progress if we built the right kind of organization committed to closing these gaps in resources and building the infrastructure needed to better support, protect, and celebrate AAPI communities.
In May 2021, after a year of planning and fundraising behind the scenes, we publicly launched[x] TAAF as a convener, incubator, and funder committed to accelerating belonging and prosperity for AAPI communities. Thanks to contributions from foundations, corporations, and individuals, our launch marked the largest philanthropic commitment in history by Asian Americans fully focused on supporting AAPI causes.
TAAF’s Strategic Priorities
In our first year as a public organization, we have been hard at work building a lasting infrastructure and bringing to bear more resources for AAPI communities than ever before. To start, we’ve grown the focus of our work to cover several priority areas:
- Unlocking Resources. AAPI communities and organizations are severely under-resourced by the philanthropic sector. From its inception, TAAF sought to play an important role in solving this perennial issue through making historic investments across our communities. Upon our founding, members of TAAF’s Board including myself, Joe Bae, Joe Tsai, Jerry Yang, Peng Zhao, and Sheila Lirio Marcelo personally committed $125 million to be invested in AAPI organizations and causes over the next five years — the largest philanthropic commitment in history made by Asian Americans fully focused on supporting AAPI communities.[xi] In addition to our Board’s initial commitment, TAAF launched the AAPI Giving Challenge urging leaders from business and philanthropy to make a five-year commitment to supporting AAPI communities and causes.[xii] Just after launch, TAAF announced that we raised $1.1 billion of donations and in-kind commitments to date.[xiii] This was an astounding breakthrough that has created strategic partnerships consisting of organizations and individuals standing up and saying they’re willing to do more for AAPIs. Now, TAAF is working with some of those partners to deploy their commitments effectively and offer other philanthropic organizations a model for how they can support AAPI issues.
- Anti-Hate. As hate and violence targeted at AAPIs persists at alarming rates, TAAF is committed to keeping our communities safe now and in the future. This is why we’ve invested resources intocreating tools such as the Decoding Hate Tracker[xiv] — an open-source hate incident tracker developed in conjunction with Stop AAPI Hate and Asian Americans Advancing Justice (AAJC) to monitor attacks on our communities on social and news media. This tracker continues to serve as a cornerstone of our anti-hate efforts and seeks to develop streamlined data reporting standards for AAPI communities. TAAF has also supported the development and design of other tools such as a Rapid Response Toolkit[xv] and Documenting Anti-AAPI Hate Codebook[xvi] launched in partnership with Stop Anti-AAPI Hate, as well as InterFaith Youth Core’s interfaith mobilization toolkit[xvii] for college campuses. TAAF also launched our Anti-Hate National Network[xviii] in 2021 to provide greater coordination and collaboration between a diverse set of organizations working to combat anti-AAPI hate by assembling them as part of a shared effort to better ensure resources get to where they are needed. The network includes AAPI Action Centers[xix] led by on-the-ground partner organizations that will serve as hubs for addressing hate in Chicago, New York City, and Oakland. It also includes TAAF’s AAPI Emergency Relief Fund in partnership with GoFundMe, which drives the quick deployment of resources to victims of anti-AAPI hate and violence. All of these efforts aim to create new models for individuals, community advocates, nonprofit organizations, and government officials to mobilize around tackling hate at both the local and national level.
- Data and Research. The lack of disaggregated data and research on AAPI communities has undermined attention on AAPI issues for far too long. In order to solve for this, TAAF seeksto develop common data collection standards that better track incidents of hate and violence targeting AAPI communities. Simultaneously, we hope to fund research that clearly reflects the AAPI experience for future policy making, advocacy, and philanthropy.In addition, TAAF co-hosted the “Evidence to Action: Building AAPI Inclusion in Federal Policy”[xx] panel discussion to mark the release of an Urban Institute study[xxi] funded by TAAF, which provides recommendations for AAPI advocates to consider to better address challenges faced by AAPI communities across a number of policy areas. TAAF is also funding a groundbreaking, multi-pronged research study led by the Pew Charitable Trust that seeks to capture both qualitative and quantitative insights about AAPI identity, experiences, opportunities, and challenges. Our investments in new bodies of research are a part of larger efforts to address key gaps in community infrastructure, build community power, and accelerate efforts to help solve challenges currently facing AAPIs. TAAF will continue working with and convening leading national researchers on this bucket of work.
- Education. Two key issues impact AAPIs across American education systems: 1) some groups within our communities face disproportionate barriers to inclusive education,[xxii] and 2) AAPI history is rarely taught meaningfully in schools, if at all.[xxiii] To help address these issues, TAAF has been committed to improving educational access and outcomes for AAPIs and seeding the creation of K-12 and higher education curricula that reflect AAPIs as part of the American story. That’s why we supported Asian Americans Advancing Justice Chicago and the Asian American Caucus Education Fund as they implement the TEAACH Act[xxiv] in Illinois — a historic law that requires the inclusion of Asian American history studies in every public school in the state. We have supported curricular efforts through providing a grant to The Asian American Education Project,[xxv] which partners with UCLA’s Department of Asian American Studies and Stanford University’s Program on International and Cross-Cultural Education (SPICE) to provide K-12 curriculum lessons for teachers and school districts to teach AAPI history as a core part of American history classes. We hope these efforts catalyze action. TAAF encourages the philanthropic community to understand its potential to be an integral driver of improving how AAPIs experience and see themselves represented in the American education system.
- Changing the Narrative. As evidenced by available data from Stop AAPI Hate, a key contributor to anti-AAPI hate are misconceptions that portray AAPIs as perpetual foreigners or in a disparaging light. TAAF has identified an opportunity to alter harmful perceptions of AAPI communities through narrative change approaches that utilize storytelling as a means for shifting dominant beliefs. TAAF spearheaded a project and cultural campaign called See Us Unite[xxvi] to lead public awareness efforts to help change the story of AAPIs and ensure we are seen as part of the very fabric of American life and culture. The launch of the campaign was commemorated by the “See Us Unite for Change” Global Special[xxvii] hosted by Ken Jeong, which explored the contributions of AAPIs to our society. And in November 2021, TAAF supported the introduction of Sesame Street’s first-ever Korean American cast member, Ji-Young[xxviii]. We helped promote her introduction to the world by sponsoring “See Us Coming Together: A Sesame Street Special,”[xxix] which was an important milestone for educating children about diversity and representation. Ultimately, TAAF is making investments in AAPI storytelling to help promote positive and diverse AAPI narratives in the media to dispel misguided myths about our communities while fostering a greater sense of AAPI belonging and inclusion in American culture.
These projects are only the highlights of our work so far. We’re just getting started. As we look ahead, we plan to continue advancing our mission, as it’s absolutely critical that we keep the momentum going. News cycles come and go, but hate and inequity affecting AAPIs have persisted throughout our country’s history, and have continued into 2022. This spring marks the one-year anniversary of the Atlanta spa and Indianapolis FedEx shootings, the thirty-year anniversary of the Los Angeles riots, and the eightieth anniversary of the signing of Executive Order 9066, which ordered the incarceration of Japanese Americans. As a country, we must reflect on these incidents and take collective action to work towards a better tomorrow.
TAAF is doing its part by working with our network of grantees and partners to mobilize and drive resources toward long-term solutions and to build AAPI community advocacy infrastructure for years to come. We’re particularly interested in empowering existing local-level organizations. For example, TAAF funds the Asian American Federation as our New York City AAPI Action Center partner, which leads the Hope Against Hate Campaign to offer self-defense classes, mental health support, bystander training, and de-escalation strategies. We’re also going to continue engaging with the business community, working closely with our AAPI Giving Challenge partners.
Our Hope for A Way Forward
But AAPI organizations and advocates cannot do it all alone — we need everyone, from public officials to everyday Americans, to step up and do their part to better support AAPI communities. Here are some ways we all can help:
- Philanthropic leaders must be intentional and committed to increased giving to AAPI organizations and causes to turn the tide on how our industry shows up for AAPI communities. TAAF’s recent activities, outlined above, can serve as a framework for other philanthropic leaders looking to engage in giving and partnering with on-the-ground support organizations. We would welcome the opportunity to work alongside any funder that shares our hopes for the future of AAPI communities.
- Public officials at all levels of government must support legislation that invests in our communities’ safety and strengthens anti-AAPI hate incident tracking and accountability measures. While H.Res.908[xxx] and the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act[xxxi] were important steps in the right direction, the continued surge in anti-AAPI violence in the year since makes clear that there’s still a lot of work to be done.
- Individuals can make a direct impact too. In fact, we won’t make the progress we need unless individuals rise up and take action in their communities. If you see a hate incident, report it to local authorities. Sign up for bystander training. Generate awareness by sharing accurate news and learning resources with your networks. Advocate for AAPI solidarity and protection by signing and circulating a petition. Donate to a victim relief fund or AAPI advocacy group. These are all valuable ways to make a direct impact and root out hate where it’s happening.
We all have a part to play, and at TAAF we’re doing ours to both address the historic underfunding of AAPI communities and build the community infrastructure that can lead to long-term change. Our work has only just begun and won’t stop until Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders feel a permanent and irrevocable sense of belonging in this country. That is what I felt when I first came to America, and it was what propelled me forward throughout my life and career. Every AAPI child, mother, father, brother, and sister deserves the same.
LI LU is the Board Chairman of The Asian American Foundation and the Founder/Chairman of Himalaya Capital, a multi-billion-dollar investment firm primarily focused on long-term investment opportunities in Asia and the U.S. Li Lu was born and raised in China. As a college student, he participated in the Tiananmen Square student movement in 1989. He was forced to leave China and came to the U.S. later that year. From 1990-1996, Li Lu attended Columbia University and became one of the first students in the university’s history to graduate with three degrees simultaneously (B.A., J.D., and M.B.A.).
[i] “Reports of Anti-Asian Assaults, Harassment and Hate Crimes Rise As Coronavirus Spreads,” Anti-Defamation League, accessed January 12, 2022, https://www.adl.org/blog/reports-of-anti-asian-assaults-harassment-and-hate-crimes-rise-as-coronavirus-spreads.
[ii] Aggie J. Yellow Horse et al., Stop AAPI Hate National Report, (Stop AAPI Hate, 2021), https://stopaapihate.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/08/Stop-AAPI-Hate-Report-National-v2-210830.pdf.
[iv] Josie Huang, “Asian Households Are More Likely To Report Food Shortages Because Residents Fear Going Out,” Southern California Public Radio, August 11, 2021, https://laist.com/news/food/asian-households-more-likely-to-report-food-shortage-fear-of-going-out-census-analysis.
[v] Gillian Brockell, “The long, ugly history of anti-Asian racism and violence in the U.S,” The Washington Post, March 18, 2021, https://www.washingtonpost.com/history/2021/03/18/history-anti-asian-violence-racism/.
[vi] Rakesh Kochhar and Anthony Cilluffo, “Income Inequality in the U.S. Is Rising Most Rapidly Among Asians.” Pew Research Center, July 12, 2018, https://www.pewresearch.org/social-trends/2018/07/12/income-inequality-in-the-u-s-is-rising-most-rapidly-among-asians/.
[vii] Rishika Dugyala, “Asian Americans are the least likely to hold elected office,” Politico, May 4, 2021, https://www.politico.com/news/2021/05/04/asian-american-pacific-islander-representation-elected-office-485279.
[viii] Rakesh Kochhar and Anthony Cilluffo, “Income Inequality in the U.S. Is Rising.”
[ix] “Seeking to Soar: Foundation Funding for Asian American and Pacific Islander Communities,” AAPIP, accessed January 12, 2022, https://aapip.org/resources/seeking-to-soar-foundation-funding-for-asian-american-and-pacific-islander-communities/.
[x] The Asian American Foundation, “The Asian American Foundation Launches to Improve AAPI Advocacy, Power, and Representation Across American Society”, news release, May 3, 2021, The Asian American Foundation, https://www.taaf.org/pages/press-release.
[xii] “AAPI Giving Challenge,” The Asian American Foundation, accessed January 10, 2022, https://www.taaf.org/aapi-giving-challenge.
[xiii] The Asian American Foundation, “The Asian American Foundation Announces Historic Commitment of Over $1 Billion For AAPI Communities,” news release, May 20, 2021, https://www.taaf.org/pages/whitehouse-pressrelease.
[xiv] “Decoding Hate,” The Asian American Foundation, accessed January 12, 2022. https://decodinghate.taaf.org/.
[xv] “Rapid Response Toolkit,” The Asian American Foundation, last modified August 2021, https://www.taaf.org/toolkit.
[xvi] “Documenting Anti-AAPI Codebook,” Stop AAPI Hate & The Asian American Foundation, accessed January 12, 2022, https://global-uploads.webflow.com/6052778abbcfe534ba5c5dcf/6123fec14bbdaa571bae03f9_SAH%20x%20TAAF%20Codebook%20FINAL.pdf.
[xvii] “We Commemorate, We Commit | Interfaith Toolkit,” IFYC | Interfaith Youth Core & The Asian American Foundation, Fall 2021, https://ifyc.org/sites/default/files/TAAF%20Toolkit%20Final.pdf.
[xviii] David Nakamura, “Advocacy group launches national network to combat anti-Asian hate,” The Washington Post, September 28, 2021, https://www.washingtonpost.com/national-security/asian-hate-crimes-grants-foundation/2021/09/28/1656e9cc-1fca-11ec-8200-5e3fd4c49f5e_story.html.
[xix] “TAAF Announces Its Anti-Hate National Network, Including The Launch of AAPI Action Centers in Chicago, New York City, and Oakland,” Cision PR Newswire, accessed January 12, 2022, https://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/taaf-announces-its-anti-hate-national-network-including-the-launch-of-aapi-action-centers-in-chicago-new-york-city-and-oakland-301386534.html.
[xx] “Building AAPI Inclusion in Federal Policy,” YouTube video, 52:51, posted by “Urban Institute”, July 14, 2021,https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d8gjMBr1s1g.
[xxi] LesLeigh D. Ford et al., Advancing Equity for AAPI Communities, (Urban Institute, 2021), https://www.urban.org/research/publication/advancing-equity-aapi-communities.
[xxii] Nathan Joo, Richard V. Reeves, and Edward Rodrigue, “Asian-American Success and the Pitfalls of Generalization,” The Brookings Institution, April 20, 2016, https://www.brookings.edu/research/asian-american-success-and-the-pitfalls-of-generalization/.
[xxiii] Nicole Chavez, “New Jersey Becomes Second State to Require Asian American History to Be Taught in Schools,” CNN online, January 18, 2022, https://www.cnn.com/2022/01/18/us/new-jersey-schools-asian-american-history/index.html.
[xxiv] “TEAACH Act,” Asian Americans Advancing Justice | Chicago, accessed January 13, 2022, https://www.advancingjustice-chicago.org/teaach/.
[xxv] “The Asian American Education Project,” The Asian American Foundation, last modified January 10, 2022, https://www.taaf.org/projects/asian-american-education-project.
[xxvi] “Mission,” See Us Unite, accessed January 12, 2022, https://www.seeusunite.org/mission/.
[xxvii] “‘See Us Unite for Change’” Global Special Hosted by Ken Jeong” YouTube video, 1:21:01, posted by “See Us Unite”, July 14, 2021,https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qYe1yy4RbM4.
[xxviii] Andrea Towers, “‘Sesame Street’ Debuts First Asian American Muppet Ji-Young,” Entertainment Weekly, November 15, 2021, https://ew.com/tv/sesame-street-new-asian-american-muppet-photos/.
[xxix] “About the Special,” Sesame Workshop, accessed January 12, 2022, https://www.sesameworkshop.org/what-we-do/racial-justice/see-us-coming-together.
[xxx] H.R. Res. 908, 116th Cong. (2020), https://www.congress.gov/bill/116th-congress/house-resolution/908.
[xxxi] COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act, S. 937, 117th Cong. (2021), https://www.congress.gov/bill/117th-congress/senate-bill/937/text.