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Jonah Lalas

Jonah Lalas

Posted: August 4, 2008 02:54 PM

Nationwide Asian American Platform for Change Meeting


"Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders have historically been invisible in the eyes of government, too often forgotten even as an afterthought." - AAPI Platform for Change

When I decided to run for a state delegate position in Texas, I contacted one of the leading Democratic activists in my district. Besides being elected, the other way to become a delegate was to "simply" be chosen by members of the Nominations Committee, whose responsibility it was to make sure that the Texas delegation is diverse and representative of the community. For instance, if a certain ethnic group was not represented, the committee could make an individual of that group a delegate to balance the scale. I asked what the make up of the delegates generally looked like and he replied, "A third, a third, and a third." When I asked him to clarify, he told me the delegate group usually is made up of a third Anglo, a third Hispanic, and a third African American. Being Filipino, I wanted to know about Asian Americans. He responded, "Well, traditionally, they've been considered white."

I thought about that conversation on Sunday, July 21 when Asian American Pacific Islanders from all over the country gathered together for a conference call to participate in Obama's "Listening to America" campaign. The "AAPI Platform for Change National Call" was organized by Keith Kamisugi, the director of communications for the Equal Justice Society and a long time activist in the API community. "With this platform, we want to declare the existence of the Asian American community to the Democratic Party," Kamisugi stated.

To promote awareness of the conference call, Kamisugi used the internet and reached out to several other active Asian community organizations. He posted a sample platform on the AAPI Platform for Change website and asked for feedback. Though time-consuming, over 40 people participated in the platform survey, leaving both comments and suggestions. Over 120 people registered for the conference call.

"I was really impressed with the response," stated Ramey Ko of Asian Americans for Obama and a National Delegate for Texas. "We had only 97 lines for the call, and they all filled up quickly. This demonstrates two things. First it shows how interested APIs are in getting involved. Secondly, it demonstrates that people want to engage in issues. When the Democrats do more than just go to people and say, 'Help us get elected' - when they actually ask people to discuss and debate issues - it opens up a whole new universe."

John Delloro, a Filipino union organizer and former president of the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance in Los Angeles highlighted the significance of the Obama campaign's effort to include the voices of everyday Americans and Asians. "Out of all the ethnic groups, the API community is the most economically polarized. You have really rich Asians on one end and really poor Asians on the other. Unfortunately, when politicians try and engage us on issues, they go to the wealthy Asian businessman or the Asian elected official. Consequently, the voices of the Asian American working class get left out. This is the first time a Democratic presidential candidate is asking for the opinions of the API non-profit and community organizations."

Indeed, the conference call included some key figures like the Obama campaign AAPI Voter Outreach Director Chairman Manansala as well as her counterpart from the Clinton campaign, Irene Bueno. But most significantly, the Democratic National Platform Director Michael Yaki joined the call and welcomed everyone during introductions. "Michael is the top staff person on the Platform Committee, working directly with Committee Chair Gov. Janet Napolitano. With over 1,000 platform meetings going on throughout the country, it was a privilege for him to join us and great to hear him praise our efforts to focus on API issues." Kamisugi said.

The call generated discussion on a wide range of issues including immigration reform, access to higher education, employment discrimination, and labor rights. There were also a number of people who vehemently expressed their desire to include a provision addressing justice for the Filipino World War II veterans who had fought under the United States flag in the Philippines during Japanese occupation. President Roosevelt had promised them full health care benefits upon retirement. But to this day, that promise has remained broken. A bill to repair this injustice has been languishing in Congress for over 18 years.

I was surprised to hear that both the call and the platform tended to focus on very broad issues that could apply to almost any minority group. With the exception of a few issues, like the Filipino veterans and the discussion over the American government's relationship with native Hawaiians, the platform itself focused on a myriad of big picture concepts, like support for the Employee Free Choice Act, rights for same-sex couples, and health care access.

Puzzled by this, I asked Kamisugi, who facilitated the discussion and whose initial online draft served as the guideline for the conference call, "Instead of an 8 page document that looks like it could have been written by any progressive organization or minority advocacy group, why wasn't there more of a focus on just a handful of 'API' issues that affects our community more directly?"

He responded, "If what we submit to the Obama campaign is too narrowly focused on just 'Asian' issues, it may not make it onto the platform."

"There is an API perspective to all of the issues we outlined," added Ko. "For example, with immigration reform, the laws that govern how Asians abroad can reunite with their families in America remain very unique and tend to differ from other groups like the Cuban and Haitan communities. A lot of groups face cultural and linguistic barriers, but they are not all identical. Still, API's are human beings and there few things that just affect us. A lot of things are universal."

Delloro elucidated that the broad appeal of the AAPI platform reflects Obama's recognition that we are becoming a country where the minority is now the majority. "We must unite around our common interests," Delloro urged. "This differs greatly from Hillary Clinton's 'microtrends' approach which attempts to reduce different minority groups into 'special interest' categories. It's not about 'Let's get this for APIs, and this for Hispanics.' It's about 'Let's get health care for everyone.' So the AAPI platform is congruent with Obama's philosophy and approach. "

Based on the conference call and the online activity that ensued, it is clear to many of the AAPI Platform for Change participants that Obama's inclusive approach has created a greater sense of personal investment that could serve as a source of motivation to get more of his supporters politically active as November looms closer.

"But the platform is merely the first step for the API community," Delloro warned. "It will take a lot more organizing and direct involvement to break the barrier of invisibility."

The AAPI Platform for Change can be viewed online at platform.apaforobama.com.