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Panel: Asian Americans a political force

By
Friday, March 13, 2009

About 20 students gathered in Salomon 001 yesterday to listen to a panel discussion about Asian-American political involvement that featured local political figures.

A wide-ranging discussion between four panelists centered on how to get Asian Americans more involved in politics.

“Political involvement is not always an individual movement,” said Michael Liu, founder of Azine, an online publication about Asian-American issues. “There’s a collective factor.”

Ramey Ko, founder of the independent grassroots organization Asian Americans for Obama, said he believes technology has brought about a return to more conventional politics. “In many ways, new communication technology has revitalized older kinds of political organizing,” he said.

This development has had a particularly significant impact in mobilizing the Asian-American community politically, Ko said, because Asian Americans make up a very technologically literate community.

The discussion then turned to the question of how to get Asian Americans more involved in the political process, especially in running for public office.

Xay Khamsyvoravong ’06, the deputy chief of staff for the state treasurer, Frank Caprio, said Asian Americans need to talk more about their personal stories to better connect with other communities.

“Asian Americans need to open up a little more about their own stories to make inroads with other groups,” he said. He said he connected with his Italian-American boss by drawing parallels between his boss’s grandfather’s immigrating from across the Atlantic and his own father’s immigration from across the Pacific.

Asian Americans can embody the spirit of American politics by relating through these common threads, Khamsyvoravong said, but added that he believes many do not do so because they are afraid to discuss their personal lives.

Joseph Fernandez ’85, Providence city solicitor and the former co-chair of Barack Obama’s Rhode Island campaign, said he sympathized with that idea, saying he does not like to talk about himself.

He added that Asian Americans may be deterred by the intense scrutiny of running for public office, and that being elected to public office is not considered a great measure of success for some Asians.

“There isn’t a day that goes by that my parents don’t call me up and call me crazy for getting involved with politics,” Ko said.

Panelists remarked upon some of the disparities in Asian-American political involvement within the community itself. According to Ko, Asians aged 18 to 29 who were born in the United States had the lowest voting record of any demographic before the 2008 election. But the group with the highest voting record is naturalized Asians over the age of 45, he said.

South Asians, Ko noted, have had surprising success in running for public office, occasionally even getting elected in districts whose populations are less than 1 percent South Asian. He gave the example of Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal ‘91.5, an Indian American who was elected in the deep south.

One of the problems the panel addressed was what they said was the lack of identifiable Asian-American political issues.

“I feel that one of the weaknesses Asian Americans have is there is no Asian-American agenda,” Liu said. Asian Americans have issues that can unite the community, but the key is to establish them, he said.

After the event, Harmony Lu ’12 said that before coming to the lecture, she had never thought about politics in terms of Asian-American involvement. “It had never occurred to me that there were Asian Americans in politics,” she said.

“I thought it was fantastic,” said Joseph Rim ’12. “I didn’t know there were so many Asian Americans just doing stuff.”

Kisa Takesue ’88, associate dean of student life, served as moderator of the panel, which was sponsored by the Asian American Students Association.

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