Every year, the International Examiner honors people and organizations who have shown leadership and who have had a positive impact on the Asian and Pacific Islander communities at the annual Community Voice Awards gala. This year, the IE will recognize Michael Itti, current executive director of Chinese Information Service Center, with an Excellence in Community Leadership award.
Stephen Uy: Michael. Thank you for taking the time to chat today. You and I have known each other for almost a decade now from our time in Washington State government. I still remember our work in the halls of Olympia, collaborating on APIA Legislative Days and the strong partnership that we still have today. How do you feel about receiving this award? You’re now a trailblazer!
Michael Itti: Thanks, Stephen. It is indeed a tremendous honor. The IE has a robust tradition of honoring community leaders, and well, I never thought I would be the one getting the recognition this time. I was taken by surprise to be honest.
SU: I think there is no doubt nor surprise on why you’re getting this award. One needs only to look at your work thus far to see your accomplishments. You’ve represented our community at decision making tables and have held strong in making sure that we’re not forgotten or passed over during crucial budgetary and policy making exercises. There are so few folks who look like you and me in these positions. How did you get to where you are?
MI: I would say that influences in my life are my mom and her interest in all things politics. I grew up seeing books, magazines and articles on politics and policy on our bookshelves. My parents owned a few restaurants, and they were always very involved hosting events here and there. It was always a part of my life growing up. When I came back from college I had an idea to be photojournalist but graduated during the recession. My degree was actually in business, so I was looking for something around that. But one thing led to another, and in 2004 I landed my first official job in politics for John Lovick and his re-election campaign. Since then there was no looking back.
I would also be remiss if I didn’t mention the people who happened to come into my life who ushered me to where I am today. I think of Nadine Shiroma to whom I owe so much. She introduced me to George Cheung who then introduced me to Ruthann Kurose who then introduced me to Ruth Woo who introduced me to Bob Santos. You get the picture? I was so lucky to live in a place with a community that is so supportive and caring. To have these Incredible trailblazers who instilled in me and many generations the importance of leadership, civic engagement, activism, activists, mentorship, and just practicing the act of paying it forward. All of these leaders took time to mentor me and allowed me contact their rolodex of key people (for those who still remember what a rolodex is)!
We truly have a unique community here.
SU: Your current work focuses on the growing anti-Asian violence that has hit us hard. Tell us a little more about what we’re seeing.
MI: Well, we know that it is nothing new. What is occurring now we’ve seen before. You can look no further than the Chinese Exclusion Act along with the subsequent exclusionary laws that targeted our Asian communities, Vincent Chin, and we saw this with the travel bans from the previous administration. Unfortunately, we know that this is not new and this hatred is a continuation of that pattern of violence. There are parallels to be drawn here.
I think that what’s different this time around is the confluence of protests, movements and unrest amongst civil society. There is an awakening amongst the broader public, we’re seeing more grassroots activism and more focus on this kind of hate that is crossing racial lines and being surfaced to the general public. It’s something different. It’s great to see this organized effort. Seeing all the BIPOC communities coming together gives me hope.
SU: It kind of reminds me of the work of the Gang of Four. I find myself educating new folks who come to Seattle about this rich history of BIPOC solidarity that has made our little corner of the United States so unique.
MI: This is definitely how we can affect change! We can use the resources at our fingertips, but most of all we must come together.
SU: Like how a rising tide lifts all boats?
MI: I really do have hope for our youth, the next generation and how they are taking the examples from our elders who’ve done this work before us. Look at AAPI Against Hate; seeing them come together organically and bringing in other groups as well. Seeing them fired up. Seeing them organized and pulling together the rally in Hing Hay Park. It was just great to see them rallying and doing all this work throughout our state. It was great to see them engaging the elected officials and making sure that the media covered multiple angles. It was just great to see them sustaining this work seeing how we can build solidarity. It’s important and great to see the next generation taking on the reins here too.
SU: What are you doing at CISC on this issue? What can we be doing?
MI: Last year when we saw the uptick in the hate, we started to see the impacts. So many businesses in the CID were impacted. There were many acts of violence. It was scary. CISC and other orgs went on over to ACRS and we held our press conference, but we also put our heads together.
Internally at CISC we created a group of staff to help find ways to help the communities we served. We brought in our team members to brainstorm about better ways we can help and step up.
Then in mid 2020, we joined the group the Coalition Against Hate and Bias. This is supported by the King County Office of Equity and Social Justice. We’ve been meeting constantly and have been convening once a month. Basically, we know that sometimes folks do not feel comfortable reporting crimes or incidents to law enforcement often due to language barriers and prior experience in their country of birth. That is often why reported cases from government databases are lower than what they should be. What we wanted was to create another option that was linguistically responsive but also helped victims restore their sense of agency. Our group tallies these incidents but also provides culturally competent support to help these victims heal often through referrals and pulling upon the coalitions’ expertise. We’ve collected more than 200 reports to date.
SU: What about the broader community? What can we be doing?
MI: There are so many ways. I think it is important for folks to take bystander training. We should prepare ourselves when we do encounter situations where intervention can save lives. I think there needs to be more understanding and a sense of compassion around the history of racism and how it has impacted our BIPOC communities. Additionally, how can we ensure that our curriculum reflect that as well? We must approach this as a community and as a whole.
SU: We seem to be living in uncertain times. What advice do you have for the next generation of leaders?
MI: Yeah. The importance of self-care. Always remember to take a moment for yourself. You can’t do much when you’re burnt out! Don’t be afraid to run for office. Vote in EVERY SINGLE ELECTION. Not just every four years. Volunteer in your communities. The next generation has the tools; we must support them to take that leap.
SU: Look I know we’re the same age here so I’m not going to make it sound like you’re retiring or are bowing out. On the contrary: you’re only getting started. I am so proud of you, Michael. You’ve been a great teacher, mentor, friend and someone who I know is destined to enact more change from the bottom up. Congratulations.
MI: Thank you.