Mobilizing Our Community: Reflections on Civic and Electoral Engagement Among AAPIs in Recent Years
INTERVIEW WITH CHRISTINE CHEN BY SARAH LIN
Photography by The Atlantic
This piece was published in the 32nd print volume of the Asian American Policy Review. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
I am hopeful just because I saw so many people leaning in, especially this new, larger generation that’s coming up. But it’s now about how we plug people into the different infrastructures, bringing in this newer generation and new resources.
AAPR: Can you briefly introduce yourself and APIAVote? How has APIAVote’s work changed or evolved since its founding?
CHEN: Thanks so much. This is Christine Chen, Executive Director for Asian and Pacific Islander American Vote. We’re a national nonpartisan organization that works with local partners and nonprofits in 28 states to help them build their capacity to be able to mobilize Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in electoral and civic participation.
The idea of APIAVote actually started back in the mid 90s—around 1996 when that presidential election cycle was starting up. At that point, there [were] only about four or five national AAPI advocacy organizations based in Washington, DC, and at that time I was with the Organization of Chinese Americans. A few of us had decided to go ahead and work with national as well as regional organizations to launch a National Asian Pacific American Voter Registration Campaign, or NAPAVRC [for] short. And that was the start of us coordinating and trying to get out the vote. As we were heading into 2000, we also recognized that even though the community was growing—and we saw that after the 2000 Census—we still didn’t have the same level of power as our colleagues in the African American, Latino, women’s, or youth groups, because our community was not voting at the same levels. That’s when we decided to think about transforming NAPAVRC and the coalition and the project into a specific nonprofit organization. Essentially in 2007, we decided to formalize that institution and spin it off from OCA as a fiscal sponsored project. It’s really with that thought that the work that we do complements all the other national and local groups that do advocacy work, because if we can get our community to turn out to vote, then we actually have more power to be able to influence elected officials and public policy.
AAPR: As a national, nonpartisan organization that works with local and state community-based organizations, what does APIAVote’s engagement with policy and politics look like at these different levels?
CHEN: So early on, we started to have, in 2000, a number of newer national organizations representing different Asian ethnic communities or specific policy interest areas—whether it was health, community development, the legal field, or specific communities. But once again, they were focusing on public policy and trying to educate elected officials, federal agencies, local agencies, and also those within the Administration, about how these different policies impact our diverse community and really demystifying the model minority myth. But we had realized that [at] APIAVote, our philosophy is that we’re not about to start another organization. There are so many trusted messengers already out there that have relationships with different parts of our community. So the model was about identifying organizations [and] trying to convince them that they’re allowed to do nonpartisan voter engagement work. Early on, as well as even to this day, a lot of people still think that if you’re part of a nonprofit organization, you’re not allowed to do voter registration or voter engagement work, because their automatic assumption is that that’s partisan politics. We actually work with the community leaders to help them understand why it’s important to do this, that they’re allowed to do this, how other communities have done this for generations, and how that actually helps them in terms of their advocacy work.
With that in mind, we know that once we convince them, we also have to train them in best practices. So our next step was implementing the Norman Y. Mineta Leadership Institute, where we identify places we could go to to implement a regional training every year, or every other year, depending on the need. And we go through different modules, everything from best practices on voter registration [to] voter education, GOTV, election protection, etc. Now heading into 2022, we’re also adding a component about mis- and disinformation. The reason we do a state-specific [approach] is also because every state’s laws and regulations differ. So some states make it really easy to cast your vote, but in other states like Georgia and Texas, there are a lot of voter suppression laws being implemented, or it’s very confusing. So we really have to make sure that the modules and the training are updated for that particular region.
Then, once we have the volunteers and the leaders trained, the next step is building their capacity so that they can actually implement a field program to effectively engage the AAPI electorate. This ranges from getting them access to voter files, to helping them if they don’t have the person to work on the data files—[in those cases] APIAVote will have the staff to carve out a universe to set everything up for a phone banking, door knocking, texting or mail program. That way, the local partners can focus on recruiting volunteers, training them, and doing the work that we can’t do since we’re not there locally.
AAPR: What impact would you say the events and sociopolitical conditions of 2020 had on the AAPI electorate and APIAVote as a civic engagement organization?
CHEN: Well, one thing I always try to re-emphasize to everyone is: what transpired in 2020—and the amazing turnout [we saw]—that all really happened because we were also building for the last ten years. Even back in 2012, when APIAVote realized that we were not getting much traction in terms of funding, coverage in the news, or attention from political candidates—one of the main reasons [for that] was there was no hard data on our community. And that’s when we decided to raise the money and bring on a few partners to be able to implement our Asian American Voter Survey. And we’ve been doing that every two years. Then in addition, we look at the data presented by the US Census that analyzes what happens during midterms and presidential elections. At that time, we realized that the number one reason why AAPI voters were not voting was because they said that they were too busy. Over the last decade, we’ve been doing education around early voting, mail-in ballots, and other options [aside from] showing up on Election Day. So when it came to the pandemic in 2020 where everyone had to pivot to mail or early voting, I actually felt a lot more comfortable because we have been doing that type of education. Also, when you look at voter participation rates in states like Oregon, Washington, etc. who have already pivoted to mail-in ballots, we see how [these changes have] made it easier for AAPIs to participate in systems like that. We know that this is something that interests our community, and it showed in 2020 because three out of four AAPIs who voted, ended up voting early in-person or by mail.
The one thing that we did not anticipate was the rise of anti-Asian violence due to political rhetoric and the pandemic. And that also [caught] the attention of AAPIs that typically do not focus on politics and do not focus on political candidates, and it actually invigorated them and motivated them to turn out. We know that a certain percentage of voters in 2020 did not—even though they were registered—turn out in 2016, but did in 2020. I think those types of political events that had transpired actually helped push that along. But once again, [it was] because we had the infrastructure-building, and organizations reaching out that had developed relationships with those households not only for the elections, but for the 2020 Census, the primaries, the general elections, and then later on, addressing the anti-Asian violence, as well as doing wellness checks in regards to general information about the pandemic.
AAPR: This year’s print edition explores dual themes of loss and resilience. As you reflect on the last twelve months, what has struck you about working in the AAPI advocacy space? Have you seen these themes reflected in your work with APIAVote?
Both those themes are very relevant. Obviously, this pandemic has really impacted everyone—no one has escaped from that. And so many of us know community leaders, or even have family or friends that lost someone due to the pandemic. I think, though, it was also great to see how different parts of our community that have never been mobilized politically were even addressing, initially, the COVID rates or fighting anti-Asian violence, but then connecting the dots in terms of how that’s all related to the decisions that elected officials are making on a day-to-day basis. It’s also been hard on all of our nonprofits, community leaders, and volunteers because they’re on the front lines. They’re also being impacted emotionally and physically, but at the same time, we all know that we have the means, and we know what needs to be done for the community. So we’re also stepping up at the same time.
AAPR: What is your long-term dream for APIAVote? What will effective partnership and coalition-building need to look like among policymakers, advocates, researchers, and community members to turn this into a reality?
The reality is that I’ve always known it’s going to be a long, hard ride—I’ve been doing this for 27 years now here in DC, always in this space, working at the national level yet always working with local partners around the country. My dream has always continued to be that we really maximize our community and get them organized and activated, so that way, they truly utilize their voice and weigh in on different policy issues and resources.
We’ve come a long way, yet we still have a lot more to go. We have a lot more AAPIs running for office and [folks] that are appointed, yet it’s still very much lower than our population growth. I think we have more of an infrastructure now, so for folks that want to run for office, advocate on particular issues, or get appointed to focus on particular issues, they can do that at the local, state, or federal level. We know how to get people plugged into that and get them trained. But now it’s more about getting everyone who is eligible to actually continue to go vote. We need them to vote at least three times in a row so that they become lifetime voters. From that base, we can get and essentially motivate more people to do more advocacy work, recognizing that their work does not end on Election Day but actually continues on. And then, [it’s about] inspiring more folks to actually run for office or go for political appointments. Along with that, it’s also really about how we can continue to build stronger coalitions. AAPIs throughout history, even in terms of the 1960s civil rights movement, have been there with the African American community and other communities fighting for equality and equity in terms of policies and resources, but we haven’t always maximized our total potential because we didn’t have enough of our community activated to do that.
So I am hopeful just because I saw so many people leaning in, especially this new, larger generation that’s coming up. But it’s now about how we plug people into the different infrastructures, bringing in this newer generation and new resources. I like to always remind everyone that only half of 1 percent of all foundation dollars goes to the AAPI community, and less than 1 percent of corporate dollars is being directed to this community as well. It’s definitely well below the 7 or 8 percent of our population.
AAPR: Is there anything else you’d like to share with our readers that we haven’t already discussed?
CHEN: The one big thing I would want to impress on everyone is that our time has come, and everyone has a role, so it’s really about trying to identify what role you want to play. There are so many different roles out there, so it’s more about actively being engaged and maintaining that interest. I sort of worry that now that the anti-Asian violence or sentiment is not in the news as readily—although it is still happening because we know that from reporting from within the community—[folks are] moving on with their lives. So I’m hoping that we can figure out how to get people to integrate this type of work into their daily lives so that the whole idea of activism and being involved in the community is [fully] integrated. Also, even if cases [of anti-Asian violence] are hopefully reduced once the pandemic is under control, this type of hatred underlying things still continues—it always has been [around], and the long term solutions are really going to be about resourcing and policy changes and getting more people elected and in power. And that actually is tied to the voting work that we do.
CHRISTINE CHEN is the Co-Founder and Executive Director of Asian Pacific Islander American Vote (APIAVote). APIAVote’s mission is to work with local and state community-based organizations to mobilize Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) communities in electoral and civic engagement. Since 2007, APIAVote has been building power in AAPI communities by investing in their infrastructure and capacity to mobilize voters. Under Chen’s leadership, APIAVote strengthened and expanded its partners into 28 states and made two historical milestones: attracted then-candidate Joe Biden to speak directly to the AAPI electorate, a first in history for a Presidential nominee, and second, contributed to the groundwork that led to the highest AAPI voter turnout in history.
SARAH LIN is a Master’s in Public Policy candidate at the Harvard Kennedy School, where she serves as the Editor-in-Chief of the Asian American Policy Review, Gleitsman Fellow for Social Change at the Center for Public Leadership, and Co-Founder/Co-Chair of the Taiwan Caucus. She holds a Bachelor’s Degree with highest honors from Rutgers University, where she was a Public Policy & International Affairs Fellow, Voorhees Fellow in Public Service, and Gardner Fellow in Leadership & Social Policy.