Making History

HyunJoo Lee The First Ever Asian American Pacific Islander Presidential Town Hall
HyunJoo Lee, NAKASEC National Organizing Coordinator

On Saturday, May 17th, 2008, history was made when the first ever Asian America Pacific Islander American (AAPI) Presidential Town Hall took place at the University of California Irvine. From a contingent of senior Native Hawaiians proudly wearing leis to Filipino war veterans in their army uniforms to Korean American seniors with their translation headsets blinking red, the audience represented the rich diversity that is our AAPI community. Participants from across the nation came together to celebrate that diversity and to share a vision of tomorrow in which our civic voices are acknowledged by elected officials, that policies reflect our needs and issues, and that our communities continue to grow strong and healthy within American society.

AAPIs are among the fastest growing immigrant groups in the U.S. Nationally, nearly 7 million AAPIs are eligible to vote, and about 3.5 million, or 50%, of AAPIs are registered, an increase from a 30% registration rate from 1998. While the number of AAPI voters is growing, there continues to be a range of barriers that has limited the full political participation of AAPIs, from unfamiliarity with the voting process or language access to discrimination at the polls.

Politicians have historically neglected to outreach to the AAPI community and acknowledge our value as political citizens of the United States. With record voter turnouts already in the 2008 primaries, America is seeing that AAPI voters are a significant force in the voting process. We must capitalize on this opportunistic election year by registering new AAPI voters and educating them and organize the AAPI community so that in the long term, our issues – such as healthcare, immigration, education and civil rights – are addressed while our language and cultural differences are acknowledged by politicians and the media. These efforts will enable us to form an engaged and vibrant AAPI voter identity that will continue to grow stronger in the coming years.

The AAPI Presidential Town Hall was a step towards a vision in which the AAPI community is active in changing and widening the political dialogue and are engaged every step of the way. It was an ambitious feat and although the candidates did not come personally (Senator Clinton taped a video responding to questions while Senator Obama called in and engaged in a dialogue with the attendees of the town hall), it was nonetheless a powerful celebration of our diversity and offered a glimpse to a future where the AAPI community are active participants in American politics. Leaving UCI, I was proud of being an Asian American and grateful to be a part of the AAPI community.

We made history on May 17th. Let us continue to work together to build and empower the AAPI voice for positive social change.