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VOL. 127 | NO. 31 | Wednesday, February 15, 2012

White House Initiative Aims to Unite Asian Community


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The White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders will stop in Memphis for a two-day forum aimed at drawing out the community’s local leadership.

The initiative, which is making its way across southern states, hopes to help diverse Asian populations coalesce into one community capable of utilizing their own strengths in business development and other areas.

A reception and dinner with Miya Saika Chen, deputy director of the AAPI Initiative for the White House, and Amardeep Singh, advisory commissioner to President Barack Obama, will take place at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 15, at the Esplanade in Cordova. The roundtable forum will take place on Thursday, Feb. 16, starting at 8:30 a.m. at the Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library in Memphis. The roundtable is free and open to the public.

“Sometimes you don’t think your voice matters,” said Tran Bui Smith, a Memphian originally from Vietnam. Her family fled the country after the fall of Saigon.

“The older generation, they’re hard-working and they just live their lives and try to stay under the radar,” she said. “You’re rarely going to see them call up a TV or newspaper reporter and say, ‘I’m not getting paid enough or I need help.’”

That’s the problem facing numerous Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) living in Memphis, said Manoj Jain, a physician of Indian descent who helped bring the initiative to Memphis.

AAPIs, he said, are scattered across the city and largely unaware of opportunities and resources available to them through the government.

AAPIs are defined by the White House initiative as any of 18 ethnicities ranging from Pakistani to Japanese, from Hmong to Native Hawaiian. They make up 1.6 percent of the greater Memphis population, but own 3 percent of area small businesses.

Most, said Jain, work either in small, service or hospitality businesses or as executives or researchers for some of Memphis’ largest employers. The disparity in education and income is dramatic, and lack of health care is a great concern.

Some AAPIs do not even take advantage of Medicaid because they do not know about it.

Jain learned about the White House initiative last fall when he went to Washington to celebrate an Indian Diwali Festival attended by Obama. There he met staffers who told him about the initiative.

“I had not realized that there was a specific cross-agency initiative for AAPI,” Jain said. “I was embarrassed that I didn’t know because I generally keep up with government. When I began talking to them, they told us about this very issue – people don’t know about the offerings of the government that can help.”

On Oct. 14, 2009, Obama signed an executive order creating the initiative. It is co-chaired by Department of Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Department of Commerce Secretary Gary Locke and headed by executive director Kiran Ahuja.

Jain returned to Memphis and set up a conference call with local AAPIs and found interest in offering a discussion. The White House staffers are also stopping in Jacksonville, Fla., Atlanta, and Fayetteville, Ark.

Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. is tentatively planning to attend the event, said Nika Jackson of the city of Memphis Office of Community Affairs, though it was not definite as to which day.

“The city and Mayor Wharton do our best to address the unique needs of every population,” Jackson said. “We’re really excited to have an opportunity to have everyone in the same room and hear those concerns.”

She said also that the city had made some efforts to help ethnic groups communicate with city offices such as establishing a multicultural coalition of Memphians to use as a sounding board for new policies. The city has also started using Language Line, a call center in California, which can translate phone calls from any language into English.

Ron Wong, a member of the event planning committee and a FedEx retiree, said that the forum has the aim of establishing representatives from each of the 18 ethnicities who will act as liaisons and spokespersons for their own communities.

Secondly, the forum will discuss possible service projects to take place this year, possibly working through existing organizations like Leadership Memphis, the Healthy Memphis Common Table and Diversity Memphis, all of which collaborated on the forum.

“The AAPI community, especially in the greater Memphis community, is silent,” Wong said. “They go about their business and you don’t hear about their needs. This is the very first step.”

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