By Amy Van and Jintana Lityouvong
IE Guest Columnists
David Della was a teenager when he began working summers in Alaska at a fishing cannery. The canneries were a livelihood for many Filipino American families at the time, as well as other Asian American families. For Della, it was not only a summer job, but became the place where Della developed his passion for social justice.
Della noticed blatant practices of discrimination at the canneries. “There was segregation in the bunks as well as the cafeteria,” he said of the unfair treatment. “We had separate food, they [white workers] had superior food, and there were no opportunities to move up. There were a few of us that wanted to work on the fishing side because of the higher pay, but we were stuck in the wet, low-waged segregated jobs.”
These issues eventually made their way into a class action lawsuit known as the 1972 Wards Cove lawsuit. Although the long battle for Della and the 2,000 cannery workers came to a disappointing end, the pursuit for equal treatment eventually propelled Della into public service.
Brazen acts of discrimination were similarly observed within the justice system of which Alan Lai served. Lai got his degree in social work and worked within the Seattle Police Department (SPD) as a crime victim’s advocate. He worked closely with the immigrant population and noticed a trend of community distrust toward SPD. In an effort to curb the distrust, he helped to establish remedial procedures that introduced cultural competencies into the department’s practices.
By the early s’90s, Della was Executive Director of the Commission on Asian Pacific American Affairs (CAPAA). As director, Della had three goals in mind: to focus on emerging communities, including South Asians and Southeast Asians; to mobilize the community; and to diversify the scope of the Commission to include economic development.
It was then that the Commission also sought a name change to include “Pacific.”
“We felt that the original title, ‘Commission on Asian American Affairs,’ did not fully represent the actual communities we represent,” Lai said, who was appointed as a Commissioner in 1992.
According to Della, the vehicle of change involves the ability of communities to mobilize themselves. He strategically began recruiting individuals to serve on the board of commissioners who had similar big-picture goals for the community, but who also had deep ties at the grassroots level.
Lua Pritchard was serving as Executive Director at the Korean Women’s Association in Pierce County when she joined the Commission in 2001. As a Samoan American, she realized that her leadership position was unique and necessary.
“There weren’t that many Pacific Islanders around at the time,” Pritchard said. However, the population was growing and the range of issues continued to widen.
Tony Lee recalls one of the pressing issues emerged from the federal government’s welfare reform efforts in the mid ’90s.
“The community was quite concerned,” Lee said. “There were a couple of reported suicides of immigrants [in other states] who faced the loss of the SSI [supplemental security income] benefits.”
With a background in public welfare and experience in lobbying, Lee teamed up with Diane Narasaki, both Commissioners appointed in 1996, to hold meetings to educate the community about the changes in the Welfare Reform Act, which made legal immigrants ineligible for many federal benefits. After several meetings in King County, the duo was able to expand to having meetings with large turnouts in Pierce County with the help of Pritchard.
It was from these meetings that the Asian Pacific Islander Coalition (APIC) was formed. From there, eight different APIC Chapters were established to promote equitable access to culturally competent and linguistically accessible services for APA immigrants, refugees, and citizens in Washington State.
Former and current CAPAA commissioners took the lead in their respective counties: individuals like Van Dinh Kuno began rallying the community in Snohomish; Pritchard in Pierce; Lai, Lee and Narasaki in King; and Vang Xiong in Spokane.
One of the first goals of APIC was to plan a statewide APA legislative day.
“We wanted to tell [decision-makers] that they had to step up and provide state-funded benefits for these immigrants who were going to lose their federally-funded benefits,” Lee said. Without the state providing a safety net, many low-income children and seniors and disabled adults would go hungry or homeless.
With so much at stake, CAPAA and APIC partnered to coordinate the first APA Legislative Day in 1996. More than 3,000 APAs from across the state descended onto Olympia to speak to elected officials about their concerns. The APA community showed it could flex its political muscle, and the result was bipartisan agreement to support vulnerable and low-income families.
“We cried,” Pritchard said of witnessing the community united in front of the Legislative Building. “You couldn’t help but have tears in your eyes, to see all those people, especially the elders, being a part of making a difference, changing policy on their behalf.”
In addition to welfare reform, the impact of APA Legislative Day allowed other matters to be addressed. Matters such as expanding interpreter services, labor issues, and challenges for small businesses, gaining APA representation on the Governor’s Council on Health Disparities, and passing a bill outlawing human trafficking were emphasized.
Nearly two decades have passed since the first APA Legislative Day and the tradition continues strong.
“You don’t get change overnight, but you can get change through persistence,” Della said of one of his greatest lessons learned throughout his experiences.
While building relationships with key policy makers is important, relationships with community members are important as well, according to Pritchard.
“Community members are not blind, they can see leaders with heart,” Pritchard said. “The more they see you in action, the more they believe in you. When you call on them, they come and they know that [change] will happen.”
This series of op-eds are written to celebrate, reminisce, and highlight the Commission on Asian Pacific American Affairs 40th Anniversary. The anniversary celebration will take place on May 15, 2014. Please visit http://www.capaa.wa.gov/about/40.shtml for longer articles and for more information.