AAPI Chief Kiran Ahuja Outlines White House Efforts to Involve Communities

Kiran Ahuja, the Executive Director of the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI)

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Washington, DC – In 2012, the prosperous Indian American population crossed the three million mark (including more than one million registered voters), forming a small but integral part of the Asian American segment of American society, which has a growing desire to assimilate into the mainstream of the land of opportunity in America, while conserving and enhancing the rich heritage of their culture.

Kiran Ahuja, the Executive Director of the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI), spoke to Tejinder Singh, Editor of India America Today, to share her vision and challenges in communicating an accurate picture of Asian American diversity to policy makers in the federal government.

When AAPI was launched, I remember the first thing said was that it would coordinate with all the other policy makers across the federal government. As Executive Director of the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, how successful have you been in spreading the word about Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders to other agencies?

That’s really been the focus of our work. We’ve been able to develop a very comprehensive plan and effort working with a number of different agencies. As a part of our Executive Order, we established a senior-level Interagency Working Group and created agency plans with more than 20 agencies that lays out how they will increase access and participation of under-served Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders in programs across the federal government.

We have worked on a range of issues, like health disparities among South Asian and other AAPI communities, or removing language barriers for Southeast Asian Americans in the Gulf following the BP oil spill.

We’ve created an inter-agency working group led by EPA Assistant Administrator Mathy Stanislaus. The group seeks to address exposure to health toxins by nail salon workers. Many of them are Asian immigrant women and men and they dominate the industry, so it was important for us to raise the profile of that particular issue.

We’ve also been working on language access, addressing  language barriers, and working with agencies to encourage translation of documents. Asian languages is going to be one of the areas where we will continue to focus our efforts.

I have been following your work, and you’ve been a writer, an activist, and a civil rights lawyer. Where did we go wrong in not educating the general American crowd about Sikhs? Since 9/11 there have been numerous attacks on Sikhs repeatedly.

When 9/11 happened, I was in the Department of Justice, in the Civil Rights Division, and there was a core group of civil rights attorneys there who were a part of the National Origin Working Group who were involved in dealing with the backlash discrimination cases.

From the very beginning, the Department of Justice – the federal government – has been acutely aware of the concerns around bias-related hate crimes, especially towards Muslims and Sikh Americans and South Asian Americans.

You ask a good question. I think a large part of what we’re trying to do with the Initiative is raise the profile of the diversity and complexity of the Asian American community, which includes the Sikh American community.

Of course, you know Commissioner Amarjit Singh, who is an advocate, and has built very strong relationships with the Department of Justice, and the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights. He’s raised the issue of bullying and harassment that young Sikh Americans and other South Asian and Muslim Americans have faced.

You also have the Community Relations Service, which is part of the Department of Justice, which is the only federal component that goes in and works with communities and deals with these issues. It has been very involved in these issues since 9/11, but even more aggressively over the past few years.

What our President has emphasized is that it’s particularly important that we recognize the value of every individual who has immigrated here to become a part of this American family and to embrace the diverse nation that we are.

I think we continue to stay vigilant, to not only ensure that people feel safe and protected and that we minimize hate crimes and bias-related incidents, but also that we really promote a better understanding and tolerance of the diversity within our country and the different religions and places of worship, and that really goes to the kind of founding principles of this country. What I think the President has really pushed is what constitutes our broader American family.

We are seeing that evolution within the South Asian and Asian American community. We are the fastest growing racial group in this country. You’re seeing, even within our Administration here, the diversity, the number of Asian Americans who are in this Administration. So I do think it’s an evolution that’s taking place. I do think, in particular, what we’ve seen after 9/11 was very much obviously a galvanizing moment for the community as well.

I have parents who for a very long time had one foot outside of the country, one foot inside, and I think what you’re seeing with this generation is very much being grounded and getting involved in public service. That’s something we can look forward to.

When you came in, what were the challenges you faced, and what are the success stories? Where are the hiccups in the implementation of your priorities, your vision?

I feel like we’ve been fairly successful. What I mean by that is – have we moved mountains? Well, no, I think that nothing really moves that fast in Washington, DC, right? But I do think we have made some incremental progress and changes.

We have been working closely with the Department of Education on a quest for information that has gone out to school districts and higher education institutions across the country to get feedback from them about whether they’re further desegregating data of Asian Americans, Pacific Islander students.

If they are, we want to hear how they’re doing it. If they aren’t, what are those barriers? We’ve collected almost 700 responses from all across the country, and that is something we’re going to analyze, review and present to the broader public. Also, the Office of Management and Budget recently released a working paper about best practices on data desegregation across the agencies, so that’s really something focused at a federal level.

We have also been doing a lot of work focused on Minority-Serving Institutions – ensuring that the newest minority-serving institutions focused on AAPI students is recognized by other federal agencies, and is receiving the support it needs within the Department of Education.

We’re encouraging more institutions to apply for designation so they not only can access the resources within the Department of Education, but that they’re able to access resources from all these different federal agencies that actually support minority institutions with their various federal grant programs.

We have reached out to more than 27,000 people. We’ve been in more than 20 states and 50 cities around the country. I feel that we’ve done this incredible engagement of getting recommendations from the community that get directly sent back to federal agencies. That’s really tied to my background, the work I did with my community.

I do believe the community voice is important and to hear the experts on the ground, it’s important for them to give us the specific recommendations about how we can make our federal programs much more accessible.

A lot of it is working in partnership – there are some incredible Asian American leaders and many others in this Administration who have been very involved in our Initiative. We have a very dynamic set of Commissioners who have really taken their role on as a second and third job and are very committed to the community. They’re the eyes and ears of this Administration, of this Initiative, and they’re constantly engaging with the community.

I knew coming in that this wasn’t going to just be an Initiative in name only. I knew that wasn’t going to be the case under this President. We’ve gotten tremendous support from him, and the White House, and the Department of Education, where we reside.

We know what the issues are. I think for a long time we’ve known what the health disparities are, what the educational challenges are, and the communities in need – from the South Asian taxi cab drivers in New York to the Vietnamese immigrant nail salon workers.

For us, it was really about moving forward with implementation. We wanted to not only be continually working with the agencies to see how we could move things forward incrementally, but also to ensure and to let the community know that they were a fundamental part of the success of this Initiative.

We’ve also been moving into extending our work around public-private partnerships. So we’re really encouraging more investments by foundations and by the private sector into the AAPI community.

You mentioned about public-private initiatives – the engagement. Where can we find more information on that? And the other thing I was thinking is that one of the success stories which was very much talked about in the media was that after the Gulf oil spill, you did a great job helping the Asian Americans in that region. Where else do you think you’ve been a force?

For the South Asian community, specifically, the Gulf coast was a unique situation. Thousands of Southeast Asian Americans in the Gulf Coast settled there 30 years ago or more, who have significant challenges. Many of them faced significant hardship in their home countries before arriving on American shores; some struggle with speaking English. For us, it was an emergency situation to ensure that they were getting the needed federal resources during the aftermath of the BP oil spill.

For the South Asian community, most of our work generally has an impact across the board, but if I were to just highlight a specific issue, it would be around bullying and harassment. This is a more intimate issue for our community, especially after 9/11. We have been working closely with the Department of Justice and the Department of Education to better understand what might be the impediments to having our community file complaints.

For example, we know anecdotally that these kinds of incidents take place, but unfortunately we don’t receive these types of complaints, whether it’s through the Department of Justice or the Department of Education. We want to make sure our community knows that there are these institutions that are there to address these problems.

So we have been working very closely with stakeholders – we held a very large summit last year in New York City where we partnered with South Asian immigrant communities and the Sikh community about this issue. It’s an issue that’s been very close to Amarjit Singh, one of our commissioners, and we hope to also spend more time on this issue with some of our public-private partnerships moving forward.

It continues to be on our radar and we’re trying to make some progress, especially around ensuring that our community knows about the resources that are available and how we can serve as more of a connection between these agencies, the community, and the community leaders.

What do you think about the Department of Homeland Security and President Obama’s effort to bring illegal immigrants who were brought here as children into the mainstream? How far will the Asian American communities be affected by this, and what are the steps AAPI is taking to help them?

We know that there are a number of undocumented students who are Asian. They may not necessarily be in the spotlight; I believe one out of 10 undocumented students are Asian. In that respect, our community has been very interested in the deferred action process.

From an advocate’s point of view, immigration across the board, whether it’s related to deferred action, dealing with the backlog, or high-skilled visas, I think our community has been involved and very interested in these issues for quite some time, and what we try to do is make sure that their voices and their interests are part of that conversation.

You are very results oriented. You want to get things done. Have you been disappointed by the speed at which things work?

No, I think we’re fairly results oriented. As you know in Washington, there are certain steps involved in how things move forward. Like I tell advocates all the time, you can’t just step into our office or anyone else’s office and assume a month later that what you’ve asked for is really going to happen. It is a very involved process that takes a number of months. We ask people to stay committed and stay on course and continue to tell us and remind us of the things we should be working on.

We’ve been able to do tremendous work in partnership with the agencies. I just have been quite amazed and floored by the level of participation and partnership and energy and commitment to this Initiative and this community by so many folks across the government. I think impatience is absolutely a good thing because it keeps you going, it keeps you very dedicated to the task at hand.

Thank you, that would really help. Just one personal question, what is the significance of that star-shaped tattoo on your right forearm?

I’ve talked about it before; it’s just in memory of my brother who passed away.

Oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t know.

No, no, no. Not at all. It was about, I guess, 13 years ago.

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