Why Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month Matters

By: Tiffany Chang Lawson, Executive Director of the Governor’s Advisory Commission on Asian Pacific American Affairs

May 01, 2017

May marks the nationwide celebration of Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month in the United States. The national theme for this year’s observance of AAPI Heritage Month is “Unite our Voices by Speaking Together.” Check our last year’s blog post to learn more about the origins of AAPI Heritage Month.

The year’s theme for AAPI Heritage Month invites us to acknowledge and understand the diversity that exists within the fastest-growing racial group in the United States. The AAPI community represents more than 320 countries and ethnic groups and well over 100 different languages. In Pennsylvania, AAPIs make up about 3.5% of the population and 2.1% of the electorate. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the largest AAPI ethnic communities in Pennsylvania include: Asian Indian (123,000), Chinese (115,000), Korean (52,000), Vietnamese (49,000), Filipino (39,000), and Japanese (18,000). Asian and Pacific Islander American Vote (APIAVote) reports that from 2000 to 2010, the number of eligible AAPI voters in the Commonwealth grew by 48%.

It is also important to address how the “Model Minority Myth” disguises the needs of underserved AAPI subpopulations. The model minority myth is a uniform assumption of high achievement across all AAPI communities– when, in reality, many AAPI communities face distinct and multiple barriers to equitable education, access to quality healthcare, government services, and jobs that pay a living wage due to socioeconomic factors, immigration status, Limited English Proficiency, and poverty.

In an effort to better understand the unique challenges facing the AAPI community, the Governor’s Advisory Commission on Asian Pacific American Affairs began conducting monthly Community Town Halls in January 2017. These Community Town Halls are held across the Commonwealth and focus on different AAPI populations, such as the Indonesian and Korean Communities and the AAPI LGBTQ+ Community. The Commission has also hosted a Pittsburgh Regional AAPI Community Town Hall to better understand the needs specific to communities in the Greater Pittsburgh region.

From our Community Town Halls, we have learned that while many issues that are specific to certain ethnic populations, there are just as many shared challenges across the AAPI community. To underscore this year’s AAPI Heritage Month theme, we need to begin truly uniting our voices and speaking together across ethnic communities to lift up collective issues. For example, education equity for English Language Learners and language access are issues that affect the entire AAPI community. According to APIAVote, 79% of Asian Americans in Pennsylvania speak a language other than English at home, and, of those, more than 37% speak English less than “very well.” Language access is protected under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prevents discrimination on the basis of race, color, and national origin in programs and activities receiving federal financial assistance. Furthermore, civil rights is a critical issue for the AAPI community, especially in the past several years as we’ve seen a sharp increase in Islamophobia, xenophobia, and violence towards AAPI immigrants and refugees. To understand the disparities that exist in different AAPI ethnic populations we must highlight data that acknowledges the diversity inherent in our community. This effort is commonly referred to as data disaggregation. Through data disaggregation, we get a clearer picture of the unique challenges faced by different AAPI ethnic populations – challenges often are masked when hidden in the larger racial categories of Asian American or Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander.

Lastly, the AAPI community must prioritize pan-Asian American solidarity amongst our diverse communities. These efforts must be parallel to coalition building with other marginalized communities to amplify our shared challenges.

It is important that the diverse AAPI community advocate with a unified voice for education equity for English Language Learners, language access, civil rights, and data disaggregation. We must build coalitions with other marginalized communities to increase awareness around these shared issues.

AAPI Heritage Month lasts throughout the entire month of May a total of 31 days. However, its critical impact is its symbolic significance, that AAPIs are a part of the economic, social, and political fabric of our nation and our state. It is the visibility that this month lends to the AAPI community where we can share with our classmates, colleagues, friends, and neighbors parts or our vibrant cultural heritage, our stories, and the unique challenges that our community still faces.

The Commonwealth is proud to honor the history and contributions of AAPIs in Pennsylvania and throughout the nation. Please join us for a celebration in honor of AAPI Heritage Month on Wednesday, May 31, 2017, at the Forum Building Auditorium in Harrisburg from 12pm-1pm.

The Wolf Administration encourages all Pennsylvanians to celebrate this important observance and to continue to work toward the goal of access and equity for all.

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