In this episode we connect to Hoang Nguyen, the Director of External Affairs at AAPI Equity Alliance. Hoang shares the history of AAPI Equity, how the organization grew from multiple groups fighting for Asian and immigrant rights and representation, and how they now are comprised of over forty member organizations looking out for those in the most need, elderly, immigrants, non-English speakers. AAPI Equity partnered with Chinese for Affirmative Action in San Francisco to create Stop AAPI Hate, monitoring and tracking hate incidents against Asian American and Pacific Islanders across the country. Hoang share his own immigrant story and how it lead to his work in the community and for the community.
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Hoang Nguyen is the Director of External Affairs at AAPI Equity Alliance (AAPI Equity). Prior to joining AAPI Equity, Hoang served as a policy deputy at the Office of Los Angeles County Supervisor Hilda Solis, which has governing jurisdiction over more than 2 million residents within 20 cities and 23 unincorporated communities in LA County and 25 neighborhoods in LA City. While there, he oversaw a variety of policy and community issues such as immigration, AAPI affairs, older adults, redistricting, Census, and board operations. He was also the district’s representative and liaison for the areas of Chinatown, Little Tokyo, Historic Filipinotown and Thaitown. Hoang received a BA in Political Science from UCLA.
"Equity is in our name, and equity means centering those on the margins. If we don't do the work of getting our communities organized in solidarity with one another, we will fail at this mission ultimately, even though we have a lot of ethnicities and national origins under the umbrella of Asian Pacific Islander."
Chapters is a multi-part series concerning the history and the lessons of civil rights violations or civil liberties injustices carried out against communities or populations—including civil rights violations or civil liberties injustices that are perpetrated on the basis of an individual’s race, national origin, immigration status, religion, gender, or sexual orientation.
Guest: Hoang Nguyen
Hosts: Jon-Barrett Ingels
Produced by: Past Forward
[00:00:03] Hoang Nguyen: Now, LA County is a majority-minority county. Half of our population in LA County are Latinx people. More than 16% of LA County are Asian and Pacific Islanders. We make up 1.6 million people in this county, so we ought to have some power. We ought to have some say in how this system works.
[00:00:30] Host: Welcome to the fourth installment of the Chapters podcast series. I'm your host, Jon-Barrett Ingels. In our Chapters series, we focus on stories surrounding the exclusion, forced removal, and internment of Japanese Americans, but with all that is happening in our country right now, in this historic moment ripe with the potential for change and growth, we are expanding our scope and amplifying the voices of organizations and individuals who are trying to make a difference, who are standing at the convergence of art, education, and social justice. With this series, we honor those who have struggled and suffered in the past and question, how are we still here? How have we not come any further than this?
In this episode, we connect with Hoang Nguyen, Director of External Affairs at AAPI Equity Alliance. We discuss the history of AAPI Equity Alliance, and the challenges still present after 40 years from the start of the organization, for both immigrant Asian communities and Asian Americans in general.
I'd love to start by just getting a brief history of AAPI Equity Alliance. I know it's not brief, you're over 40 years old.
“We saw what our Black brothers and sisters did and we learned from that to fight for what we deserve, which is equal rights and equal treatment under the law and within government services.”
[00:01:48] Hoang Nguyen: AAPI Equity Alliance started out as the Asian Lunch Bunch, actually, in the late 1970s. Back then, there weren't a lot of services available in language to Asian American Pacific Islanders who already make up a significant population in Los Angeles and Los Angeles County, and yet, governments were very not responsive to that fact, anz. 8d very crucial, safety net services were provided only in English and not in Asian languages.
The Asian Lunch Bunch, it was a bunch of leaders within the Asian American Pacific Islander communities who got together, decided that they wanted to do something about it. They all had their own organizations who do work with the community day in, day out and they see firsthand the challenges that the community faces in accessing government services, which we're all entitled to because we pay our fair share of taxes. However, the government was just not providing it in a way that was accessible, and so that's what started the Asian Lunch Bunch and now, AAPI Equity Alliance. They just got together from week to week to discuss issues and go advocate to government officials.
This was during a time that Asian American activism really picked up, generally, nationwide because it was, quite frankly, turbocharged by the civil rights movements. We saw what our Black brothers and sisters did and we learned from that to fight for what we deserve, which is equal rights and equal treatment under the law and within government services. That's how the Asian Lunch Bunch started. It went through several iterations and name changes. I've always had a small but mighty staff within the organization and it established its official name for a long time, which is Asian Planning Policy Council, A3PCON, which is a mouthful, and always has been.
“...we work with many of our member organizations to advocate to local, state and federal governments to make sure that whatever the government is doing, we are entitled to access it in a meaningful way. That means getting language justice in every government service out there. That means having interpreters and translators on hand and doing outreach to our communities in a culturally sensitive way.”
In the world of LA nonprofits, A3PCON, which was known as a convener, a coalition to advocate for more resources for the AAPI community in Los Angeles. Now we are AAPI Equity Alliance, we have more staff. We have a membership that's over 40 member organizations, nonprofit service providers who day in and day out move mountains to serve our communities, some of the most hard-to-reach folks in our communities, immigrants, elderly, non-English speaking people. They do the magic. They work the magic of really reaching the people who would never think that there's government services out there or somebody trying to help them because of where they come from, their culture, and background.
We come from countries that unfortunately are either corrupt or inept at providing services. Coming to the United States, we would never expect that there will be government services available for us. There's always this hesitance of accessing services and that's why AAPI Equity Alliance, we work with many of our member organizations to advocate to local, state and federal governments to make sure that whatever the government is doing, we are entitled to access it in a meaningful way. That means getting language justice in every government service out there. That means having interpreters and translators on hand and doing outreach to our communities in a culturally sensitive way.
[00:06:34] Host: Are you focused mainly in Southern California or do you look beyond to the whole state and throughout the country as well?
[00:06:43] Hoang Nguyen: AAPI Equity Alliance focuses, right now, in Los Angeles County. We work a lot with, and all of our member organizations are based or service Los Angeles County residents. We work a lot with the local city and county government, but we do do some state work now and then. Our partnership with Chinese for Affirmative Action and Stop AAPI Hate is where we do most of our state work.
[00:07:15] Host: Right, that's CAA being that Northern California hub and then Southern California connecting together. Is a lot of the work that you do, is the majority of the work and support you do directed towards the immigrant community and the non-English speaking community?
[00:07:34] Hoang Nguyen: We absolutely do work with non-English speaking communities just because all of our members service those communities. We try to make sure that everything we do, we center the most impacted and most marginalized communities, which often are the non-English speaking lower-income communities, new arrivals to the United States, who could really use the services that our membership and the government provides.
“It facilitated a lot of bullying from my majority of Vietnamese American classmates, but there was this sort of gaping hole between us where they were born here, so they spoke the language very well, and I did not, even though we're technically the same ethnicity.“
[00:08:08] Host: I would love to talk about your experience. You told me before we started recording that you came as a young person from Vietnam. Did that experience kind of propel you down this pathway and your family's experience of coming to this new country, to this new place in California, in Orange County?
[00:08:33] Hoang Nguyen: Absolutely. We came around 16 years ago, which is not that long for us. Typical story, even though we came by plane, while many of our ancestors frankly came by boat and died on that journey. We came by plane with very little in our pockets and very little networks in America. My uncle, fortunately, sponsored us over to America when I was 10 years old. The journey to assimilation was very difficult. As a 10-year-old, I was thrown into the deep end of schooling and found out firsthand that they had no Vietnamese-speaking teacher that could hold my hand and walk me through the process of schooling, even though I was living and went to school in Westminster. A majority, now, Vietnamese population, probably the second biggest Vietnamese city outside of Vietnam, and yet, there was no language services for me to access, and I had to learn from a teacher that only spoke English and just had to survive through that. It really affected my sense of self and my self-esteem as a child not knowing how to speak the language, communicate to my peers, and also my teacher who would ask questions to me in front of the whole class while I did not know how to answer, so there was a wall between us. That caused a lot of self-esteem issues.
[00:10:30] Host: Sure. Stigma, yes.
[00:10:32] Hoang Nguyen: It facilitated a lot of bullying from my majority of Vietnamese American classmates, but there was this sort of gaping hole between us where they were born here, so they spoke the language very well, and I did not, even though we're technically the same ethnicity[chuckles]. That was my first experience with systemic barriers, now, looking back at it. At the time, I was just like, "Well, you just got to learn English. That's how it works here." Same thing goes with my parents. As soon as I started to pick up the language, I was the translator for government documents, I was the translator for tax documents, the mail that they received, because they did not have time to go to English classes at night. They were often tired and exhausted from work. There was never that chance for them to fully "assimilate" and I had that chance.
I started mastering the language and went to college and got a career and a job. When I started to look back at my life, I realized that, actually, I got lucky because there were a lot of systemic barriers in me reaching my journey of life right now. There were many, many things that stood in the way, and I just fortunately had people on my side and got lucky to get out of that. However, I know that those systemic barriers are still there. There are many, many people who would never get so lucky. It might be that they didn't get the translator at the County food stamps office or the rental assistance program, didn't have translation, so they didn't know what that was and they couldn't pay the rent and got evicted, and now they're homeless.
Those little things that we think are little, like language translation, can have a cascading consequence down the line for a person's livelihood. Especially if you're an immigrant to this country, the system is not made for you. The system is made for someone else, and you just have to adapt to it. What we're trying to do at AAPI Equity Alliance and many, many organizations like ours is to make sure that the government adapts to the immigrant communities and not the other way around. Immigrant communities pay taxes often more than a lot of people. Immigrant communities are contributing members of our society. Immigrant people do the jobs that American native-born people do not want to do. They should be centered in any conversation about government assistance, and that is really the driving force of my work. It obviously has to do with my background.
My parents, we were on food stamps. We were on government assistance programs. We learned about those programs not through the government but through word of mouth within the community. We, fortunately, lived in a very Vietnamese American city. There were a lot of help and word of mouth to get us through those programs. My point is that those systems should be changed so all those processes are formalized and so that if you were a new arrival to this country, you shouldn't have trouble accessing those programs and services that you are entitled to.
“We always try to do our work across racial lines because we know that the issues of justice and community safety don't just impact our community, it impacts every community across the board, especially lower-income folks and non-English speaking folks.”
[00:14:26] Host: Do you collaborate with other immigrant justice groups like Latinx groups or Mexican and South American immigrant groups to achieve these goals?
[00:14:40] Hoang Nguyen: Absolutely. We always try to do our work across racial lines because we know that the issues of justice and community safety don't just impact our community, it impacts every community across the board, especially lower-income folks and non-English speaking folks. We absolutely work with other allied organizations such as Latinx, even Black groups who, a lot of African immigrants come over here and have the same problems. We will always do our work with them, and we know that we are not the first ones here. We are standing on the shoulders of giants when it comes to this work, and we honored that, but now is a great moment in our history where, in LA particularly, we have elected leaders who are willing to listen sometimes for the very first time.
We know that our elders in the community who've been doing this work for a long time have faced a lot of discrimination, even from their elected officials when they try to advocate for us. That's very clear in our heads now. We know that people who went to government offices were shunned because they weren't the typical White male who had held all the powers, so they were not listened to. Now, LA County is a majority-minority county. Half of our population in LA County are Latinx people. More than 16% of LA County are Asian and Pacific Islanders. We make up 1.6 million people in this county, so we ought to have some power. We ought to have some say in how this system works.
[00:16:52] Host: Within AAPI Equity Alliance, how important is it to bring all of the different Asian communities together in solidarity? Is there a challenge of groups that get left out, and what do you do in order to make sure that every group is included?
[00:17:17] Hoang Nguyen: It's absolutely vital. I would say that if we don't do that, then we will not succeed ultimately, and it's always a work in progress. I would say our big gap right now is building capacity within the Pacific Islander communities, and that is something that we're always trying to work on and center them. Especially Pacific Islanders are disproportionately impacted when you disaggregate the data. When it comes to health, education, income levels, incarceration rates, they are disproportionately impacted as well as Southeast Asians, so that's Vietnamese people, Cambodians, Laos.
Equity is in our name, and equity means centering those on the margins. If we don't do the work of getting our communities organized in solidarity with one another, we will fail at this mission ultimately, even though we have a lot of ethnicities and national origins under the umbrella of Asian Pacific Islander. We have a lot of different groups who don't share a language usually, so that makes it difficult already, but they do share a lot of similarities in terms of the immigrant's experience in the United States in terms of the racism that all of us face here in the United States. Even at our countries of origin, we share some sort of system failures over there that made us want to leave. There are linked faiths in all of our experiences, and we obviously want to focus on that rather than our differences.
[00:19:34] Host: I'd love for you to talk about the creation of Stop AAPI Hate and the partnership with Chinese for Affirmative Action.
[00:19:45] Hoang Nguyen: In 2020, the beginning of the COVID Pandemic, our executive director, Manjusha Kulkarni, realized that there are news reports, increasingly, of these hate crimes and hate incidents against Asian Americans throughout the country. She had asked the California Department of Justice to start collecting the hate incidence. These are not necessarily crimes. This is verbal harassment on the subway saying, "Go back to your country. You brought the COVID virus over here." Those kinds of statements, in America, people do not get arrested for, they don't get charged as hate crimes for, right?
"It's not new. Asian hate has been part and parcel of this country for as long as Asian Americans have arrived here. Just look back in history, you'll see the Chinese Exclusion Act, the Alien Land Laws, which some states are trying to replicate."
[00:20:47] Host: Yes, there's no violence involved then.
[00:20:50] Hoang Nguyen: Right. There's no physical violence, so law enforcement do not collect that data. If you try to call 911 because somebody did that to you, you'll probably get the police officer saying, "We can't do anything about that. Sorry, but we can't do anything about that." The California Department of Justice said, "Oh, we don't collect that data. We don't collect hate incidents. We collect data on hate crimes, but hate incidents, we don't." We were saying, "Well, why not? Somebody should because these incidents are getting increasingly normal."
AAPI Equity Alliance along with Chinese for Affirmative Action and San Francisco State Asian American Studies Department got together and put together basically a Google form at first to provide a space for people to report their incidents if they want to. Within the first couple of months, they got hundreds and hundreds of incident reports. In the next 18 months, they received 11,000 hate incident reports from all over the country, the vast majority of which were experienced by women. They were experienced in public spaces, so public. Not in private spaces but public spaces like sidewalks and on the streets and in the subways, at local restaurants, in businesses.
Evidently, there's a problem and the problem continues today. The problem arose because we had federal leaders at the time who really poured gasoline on this already burning fire of racism and they used the COVID pandemic as a weapon to aim it at Asian Americans and that's what led to the heinous killings and attacks that you've probably read on the news. More insidiously, that's led to thousands and thousands of people who in their everyday lives has felt less safe, has felt less kinship to their fellow people because they're scared of what folks might do when they see an Asian face walking down the street, and is that person going to say something to me because of the way I look?
It's not new. Asian hate has been part and parcel of this country for as long as Asian Americans have arrived here. Just look back in history, you'll see the Chinese Exclusion Act, the Alien Land Laws, which some states are trying to replicate [chuckles]. They're taking lessons from the 1800s and saying-- Now, in Texas, they have a bill before the legislature that says, "Chinese immigrants, Chinese citizens cannot own land in the United States." so banning specifically those groups. At Stop AAPI Hate, we know that this issue is systemic. It requires a lot of education about our communities. It requires a lot of courage on our communities part to report the hate incidents that we've collected and now, it's the time to take that data and advocate for system changes for our communities because we deserve better.
"Let's reimagine what real public safety looks like. Public safety means housing. Public safety means are you able to put food on the table without having to work three jobs. Public safety means being there with your family and your community. Public safety means not having to spend all your time and energy working two, three jobs just to make rent."
[00:25:11] Host: A lot of the rhetoric, it feels like it's more of that anti-immigrant nationalism directed to the Asian community. Just the words itself "Go back to where you came from" to people who were born here and whose parents were born here. How do you combat that when it's ingrained and like you said, that gasoline has been poured on that nationalism, what do you do? What does your organization do to slow this fire that's burning?
[00:25:55] Hoang Nguyen: We have three core strategies and I'll mention two of them here which is, one is education. I know it's a simple word but it's not as easy as you think [chuckles]. Education is one of the most critical preventative measures that we can do right now. What I mean is educating on the true history of America and its people that we are not the original stewards of this land, that our history is mired in violence with slavery as the foundation. If we don't talk about that truly, in a realistic sense or a frank way, which is what many people around the country are attempting to pull back, they don't want to talk about it. They say that it has nothing to do with them. They want to ignore, obfuscate and sweep this violence under the rug. We have state bills, state legislatures trying to affirm that with the banning of books, with hauling out educational institutions.
If we don't talk about that, then we can't learn from it, then our children are left uninformed about the history of this country and they are bound to repeat it. People are bound to repeat history if they don't learn about it. Education equity means to us is, one, teaching ethnic studies in schools, knowing not only European or American history but histories of Asia and how we came to this country, what happened in our countries that made us want to leave.
Another critical component of our work is civil rights, making sure that people know their civil rights, which we all have. We have a right not to be afraid to go out in public spaces. We have a right to public accommodations. We have a right to feel safe. These are our actual laws that government entities can enforce. Making sure that those are strong that we don't do away with civil rights protections. The civil rights movement in the '60s got us some very, very critical wins because, now, we can feel safe voting. We can feel safe going to schools. We can feel safe with our housing accommodations. We need to keep those and expand them and strengthen them.
Our organization, specifically, we want to caution against the over-reliance on policing and incarceration because we know it has not worked. California incarcerates more of our citizens than the countries of the United Kingdom, Portugal, Japan, Spain, combined. By far, we are not the safest country on earth. If incarceration and policing were the cures to every single problem we have, especially with racism, then we would be the safest state on earth, but we're not. Let's reimagine what real public safety looks like. Public safety means housing. Public safety means are you able to put food on the table without having to work three jobs. Public safety means being there with your family and your community. Public safety means not having to spend all your time and energy working two, three jobs just to make rent. It's time that we talk to our community specifically about these things because we've always relied on police and more police, more patrols that will keep us safe. We will feel safe. That's the operative word, "You will feel safe." It's only a false sense of safety.
Now, should people be punished or face consequences if they commit a heinous violent crime? Sure, but 80% of our data, of the 11,000 incidents that I mentioned, are not crimes. They don't rise to the level of a crime, they're hate incidents. The police will not do anything about it. The prosecutors will not prosecute a person for a hate incident. When we just focused the conversation on hate crimes, policing, and prosecution, then we're missing a large part of our data, the people that report to it. If we're truly going to make systemic changes, we've got to focus on the root causes of hate as opposed to the reaction and the response to hate that already happened.
[00:31:36] Host: We want to thank Hoang Nguyen and AAPI Equity. For more information, visit aapiequityalliance.org. Chapters podcast was produced by Past Forward and made possible with support from Chapman University and California Civil Liberties Public Education Program, a state-funded grant project of the California State Library. For more information, visit pastforward.org, chapman.edu, and library.ca.gov.
Past Forward is a curiosity company dedicated to educational accessibility.
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