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VOL. 127 | NO. 34 | Monday, February 20, 2012

AAPI Leaders Meet White House Officials

By Aisling Maki

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Memphis community and business leaders of Chinese, Vietnamese, Korean, Filipino, Bangladeshi, Indian and Pakistani heritage gathered with White House officials Thursday, Feb. 16, to discuss economic, educational, health and civil rights issues.

Amardeep Singh, a member of President Barack Obama’s AAPI Advisory Commission – AAPI being an acronym for Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders – told participants at the Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library, 3030 Poplar Ave., they were part of a “unique and historic gathering.”

The free forum was part of the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, happening this month in communities throughout the Southeast region, where the AAPI population – which includes members of 18 ethnicities – is rapidly growing.

“There’s an incredibly changing country that we’re seeing, and our federal government really needs to adapt to address the needs that are coming up as a result of this tremendous population growth,” said Miya Saika Chen, White House adviser on Community Engagement and senior adviser for the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.

“When President Obama reauthorized our initiative, he said, ‘No community should be invisible to its government.’ And that’s really the mantra that we live by every day. How do we make our programs and resources more accessible to more diverse communities across the country?”

The Asian-alone population grew faster than any other major race group, up 43 percent from 2000 to 2010, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Over the same period, the AAPI population in Tennessee grew 60 percent.

Looking across the Southeast, South Carolina’s AAPI population grew more than 60 percent between 2000 and 2010, while Georgia’s AAPI population grew 82 percent and Alabama and Florida’s grew 71 percent over the same decade.

“The Mid-South and the Southeast generally has the fastest-growing AAPI population in the country,” Singh said. “It’s just about time that we got out here to Memphis to actually meet the community, hear their needs and then connect them to federal resources.”

Singh said Asian communities in places such as California, which has large numbers of AAPI immigrants, are highly organized, which he said is not the case yet in the Mid-South.

“What’s interesting about this forum is this is the first time the community is actually getting together to figure out how they can articulate asks, that they can then demand from us in government,” Singh said.

The White House AAPI Initiative works to increase access and participation to federal services and protections.

One significant issue raised during the forum was that of public safety. In the greater Memphis area, AAPI individuals make up about 1.6 percent of the population but own 3 percent of small businesses. Many AAPI small-business owners are slow to contact the police when they’re the victims of robberies and other crimes.

And Chen said AAPI children suffer one of the highest rates of bullying.

Another important issue is that of health care access, health disparities and occupational health hazards. Korean-Americans, for example, are one of the populations most lacking in health insurance coverage, while Vietnamese women have one of the highest rates of cervical cancer. Many AAPI individuals, especially seniors, are unaware of health care programs for which they qualify.

“Health care issues, refugee and immigration experiences – these all cut across so many different communities across the country,” Chen said. “There are so many similarities between what our communities are facing here in Memphis and what they’re facing in Columbus, Ohio, to Washington to California, where I’m from.

“And I think there are also some very unique challenges. Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders are incredibly diverse. There are over 50 languages spoken, people have vastly different immigration experiences, from newly arrived refugees to immigration experiences that extend over generations.”

In addition to local business and community leaders, representatives from nonprofits such as Diversity Memphis, The Mid-South Food Bank and the Aging Commission of the Mid-South attended the forum, as did representatives of the offices of Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell and U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen.

Nika Jackson, manager of the City of Memphis Office of Multicultural and Religious Affairs and representative of Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr.’s administration at the forum, said the city seeks to more deeply engage the AAPI community.

“Mayor Wharton is very open about diversity and inclusion in government, and the work that we do in the Office of Community Affairs has always been about engaging multi-cultural and immigrant communities through education, outreach and advocacy. Everyone hears about the Latino community, but this particular community (AAPI) has been a little more insular, and we haven’t necessarily had as much connection with this community. So this is a great opportunity to create some synergy, let them know about city services and, more importantly, how to access city services.”

Additional events surrounding the initiative were held in Cordova and Fayetteville, Ark., and others are slated for Jacksonville, Fla., and Atlanta. The meetings will help inform discussions with hundreds of community leaders at a White House AAPI Initiative community action summit, which will be held in March at Emory University in Atlanta.

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