On September 15, over 2,000 people representing various backgrounds gathered at the Tacoma Dome Exhibition Hall for the 2016 Asian American and Pacific Islander Democracy Summit hosted by the statewide Asian Pacific Islander Coalition (APIC).
The event was part of the AAPI democracy initiative. The overarching goal as communicated by various speakers on stage all day—including 27 translators—is to get people who can vote to vote.
For more than a decade, the AAPI community has been the fastest-growing racial group in the United States. However, according to a report by the Asian Counseling and Referral Service (ACRS), the AAPI community has the lowest registration rate of all communities of color in Washington state. ACRS says that AAPIs make up over 10 percent of Washington state’s population and 7 percent of electoral vote. Yet only half of eligible voters were registered to vote in 2014, and only 40 percent of them actually voted.
Keynote speaker Martha Choe, who in 2014 left The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation as chief administration officer, said that her parents would have been moved to see such a gathering she described as “a beautiful sight.” In her speech she mentioned that her parents, who immigrated from Korea in 1948, saw voting as the most powerful tool.
“It’s so easy to become cynical and suspicious of our democracy today,” Choe said. “But I will tell you when our communities are organized and speak out on issues, it makes a huge difference to elected officials. Ask any of them who are sitting here. It gets attention and can spur action.”
During the second part of the day, after a series of performances from different AAPI cultures, incumbent Gov. Jay Inslee and his Republican opponent in the upcoming gubernatorial election Bill Bryant met and participated in a candidate forum moderated by KOMO’s Robert Mak. The forum addressed issues of climate change, raising minimum wage, funding for public schools and immigration. According to the think tank Center for American Progress in 2015, 47 percent of AAPI voters rate immigration as either “the most important” or “one of the most important” issues that needs to be addressed in this election. During the forum, time was provided for translators to turn to their audience and translated every question posed by the moderator and every answer provided by either candidate.
An example of the candidates’ stark differences was their responses to the question of I-1433, an initiative to raise the minimum wage statewide from $9.47 to $13.50 by 2020 that voters will be voting on in November. Gov. Inslee announced his full support for I-1433 and said that cities that want to increase minimum wage further should be allowed to do so.” Bryant, however, disagrees that the minimum wage should be raised at the same rate statewide.
“My only concern is that if we move across Washington state, we realize that there are very different levels of economy and I’m afraid if we take the minimum wage increase to $13.50 all across the state, in communities where the cost of living is less than Seattle, we could actually inflict some harm on folks,” said Bryant.
The candidate also answered questions about funding for education differently. Bryant, who said that fixing the education system so “every kid has an equal chance to get ahead” is his primary reason to run for governor, said that he’s in support of creating a new tax mechanism so that the state takes more responsibility to fund for education and takes some weight off local school districts. However, he said he’s not in support taking money out of social programs.
Gov. Inslee responded with a list of initiatives and progress made in public education while he has been governor, such as tuition cut in public colleges that first took effect last academic year.
“We’ve put $5.5 billion more money—the largest new investment in the history of this state of Washington while I’ve been governor—we’ve got to continue making that effort because we cannot allow poverty to be destiny. And we cannot allow the Republican party to cut funding for homelessness programs. We cannot allow that and the day before yesterday [Bryant] said he wasn’t even aware of the way we fund homelessness programs. I think we gotta take care of this problem and we intend to do so,” said Gov. Inslee.
Though the message encouraging people to vote was delivered loud, clear, often and in different languages during the event, Pierce County chair of APIC Faaluaina “Lua” Pritchard said that there are other ways to contribute for those unable to vote.
“We don’t exclude you because you are just as important. We know you may not be the one voting, but your family members are and your friends are. Even though you’re not exercising voting, you can help move people together; you can help push people, educate people,” said Pritchard off-stage.
Tia Moua, a sophomore in high school and representing the Spokane Hmong Association, took the stage to encourage AAPI youth to get involved whiled adorned in traditional colorful Hmong dress that received admiration from attendees.
Moua is a first-generation Hmong American whose family is very much involved with politics and the Hmong community. Her mother was the vice president of the Spokane Hmong Association while her father was recently elected president. As a child, Moua said she would help her mother decorate, perform dances, and give talks during events that the Association hosted.
“I just grew up knowing that I want to give back to the Hmong community that has done so much for me,” Moua said.
Moua was one of the AAPI youths present at the event, and she said that there should be more youth involvement in politics and community events.
“I think we really need to push the younger generations to keep on doing these community events and getting involved, and to vote—all these things. I think that we just need to start encouraging it a lot more especially because our youth right now is starting to get older, they’re at that age where they’re able to get involved in these things,” said Moua.
“We have to have you [younger folks] step up,” Pritchard said. “We can’t be around for so long. We have to mentor you guys and mold you guys so when we’re gone or when we’re old and can’t do much, you step up and carry the torch. Because this work has to carry on, forever.”