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As ICMA celebrates Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, it is important that we all take the time to learn more about Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) history, reflect on our own interactions with the AAPI community, and listen to the stories and experiences of AAPI individuals, so that we can foster a more inclusive environment and stronger relationships with our AAPI colleagues. Viewing part 2 of our webinar on the Asian American Experience in Local Government is the perfect opportunity to do just that. Through a diverse panel of six AAPI local government leaders, attendees can hear their stories, struggles, and successes, while also taking in some helpful lessons along the way.

Personal Experiences and Perspectives

Our panel took a deep dive into a number of their uncomfortable experiences, putting a lot of things into perspective for people outside of the AAPI demographic and non-minorities as a whole. With the significant increase in violence against AAPI individuals, predominantly women, our panel expressed feelings of both sadness and loneliness when facing this spike in violence. What overwhelmingly hurt members of our panel in this instance was silence from their local government colleagues on the matter. For our panel member, Genesis Gavino, resilience officer for the city of Dallas, even though Dallas leads with an “equity lens,” it still took her colleagues up to a week after the recent Atlanta shooting to say anything to her about it. For others on our panel, like Elaine Wang, assistant town manager for Barre, Vermont, the conversation simply never happened at all. This lack of communication can be detrimental and magnify those feelings of loneliness.

While the lack of reactions to violence against the AAPI community is troubling, there are several other fundamental challenges that our APPI colleagues face on a daily basis. For example, have you ever experienced someone fumbling over how to pronounce your name? Or worse, have you ever been looked over for a position altogether because you have a non-Anglo name? If you have the privilege of answering no to these questions, then you are lucky. Members of our panel have experienced it all when it comes to their names: mispronunciations, unsolicited nicknames, or even just forgetting their names altogether. While this is seemingly due more to laziness than an intentional act of disrespect, not being called by your name is something that is not just bothersome but can be damaging to your psyche and sense of identity.

Having a name that is significantly different from your colleagues can cause you to feel left out, but does (mostly) everyone you work with look like you? This is not the case for our panel. There are many challenges and conflicting feelings that can stem from being a minority in the workplace. Feelings of vulnerability and even impostor syndrome can be common and lingering. In the case of panel member Tadayoshi Kawawa, finance officer for the Metropolitan Government of Nashville & Davidson, he has even found himself discrediting his own accomplishments and letting thoughts creep in like, “am I just here to fill a quota?” Thoughts like this can be hard to snap out of and cause your confidence to take a hit.

Advice for Local Government and Members and the Community

From these experiences, our panel offered some key takeaways that we can all add to our inclusion playbook, both in your local government leadership roles and lives away from work. Each piece of advice given by our panel members funnels back to the importance of being seen and heard: seeing their struggles and successes, hearing their stories, offering support, and asking questions.

Starting the conversation about AAPI heritage and the recent spike in violence against the AAPI community is important on a peer and leadership level. Say something, even if you don’t know what to say or even if you feel like you don’t have the right words, and encourage others to do so. If you feel uncomfortable by the idea of talking about the struggles or violence toward their community, then just imagine how uncomfortable your AAPI colleagues must feel to experience it firsthand. Breaking through those walls and beginning the conversation opens the doors to empathy and essential trust-building, which is especially important in local government leadership.

For local government, in particular, it is important that you facilitate trust and transparency within the community. This comes from implementing programs that focus on making information on AAPI heritage readily accessible, having open conversations about bias (both conscious and unconscious), and establishing formal mentorship programs that give equal opportunity for all. Programs like the International Network of Asian Public Administrators (I-NAPA) and ICMA CoachConnect are both great programs that you can join to help create opportunities for emerging AAPI local government leaders.

Moving Forward

We all have work to do in order to foster a more inclusive and welcoming environment. Each of our panel members have been fortunate to find opportunities in local government leadership through their hard work, initiative, and the support of organizations like I-NAPA and ICMA’s coaching programs, but others in the AAPI community may be struggling to break through some of the inevitable barriers they face.

It is up to you as community leaders to help break those barriers down.

As we all navigate through the next steps in our endless work of continuously improving the quality of our communities, remember to always lead with inclusion and understanding in mind. Take a look at our Courageous Conversations series for more helpful information on how you can better serve the needs of your community and the community-at-large.



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