Interview with Lisa Hasegawa, National CAPACD

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Spotlight Spotlight interviews advocates, community leaders and policymakers who have dedicated their careers to improving our communities, our nation and the world.

Lisa Hasegawa, one of four 2015 Asset Builder Champion Awards recipients, discusses her efforts to great a more fair and inclusive society for Asian American and Pacific Islanders.

Your long tenure at National CAPACD is filled with tremendous achievements, but what are some you are most proud of? What was a success of yours that may not have received much attention but meant a lot to you?

We have an amazing network of coalition members who I have been honored to represent here in DC.  I’m proud of our efforts to keep community organizing at the heart of community development work and the strong focus on a racial justice lens in our new strategic plan – a culmination of decades of solidarity building with other communities of color on the ground by our members, years before National CAPACD was even founded.  I’m very proud of the work we have done with our amazing partners to launch a national network of API lending circles, building on our accomplishments as the nation’s first HUD housing counseling intermediary.

What was it like to work as a community liaison at the White House? Do you feel that the federal government has transformed in the 63 years since Executive Order 9066? What are some ways we’re still lacking in bridging the divide between minority communities and the government?

I was lucky to have been part of the team in the early days of the first White House Initiative on AAPIs.  There was a sense of tremendous responsibility and opportunity.  No one had ever tried to do what we did – connect with and mobilize Native Hawaiian, Asian American and Pacific Islander leaders in all states and Pacific Island jurisdictions to engage with over 30 federal agencies.  On many fronts we have made great strides for AAPIs and for people of color.  Yet, so many things happening today are horribly reminiscent of what happened to Japanese Americans during World War II – the heightened levels of suspicion and overzealous law enforcement that so clearly targets and impacts people of color is heartbreaking.  Since Barack Obama became president, brilliant and experienced people of color and progressives joined the ranks of federal government with high hopes and aspirations, only to come face to face with the realities of bureaucracy and resistance from within federal agencies, congress and conservative backlash.  I believe that much was observed and learned about the ways in which institutional racism manifests itself, and I believe that these insights and knowledge will lead to the creative building of more bridges between communities of color and government.

Tell us about yourself. What do you do with your free time? What is something not many people know about you?

I’m moving to Southern California in the fall!  I have a new found love of yoga after spending a month in Bali during my sabbatical.

What are some common misconceptions about the economic standing of the AAPI community?

Many people think that all AAPIs are wealthy, or that secretly, we have really wealthy relatives!  Of course this is not true.  Take my family.  My grandmothers were a garment and domestic worker.  My grandfathers were an agricultural worker and a TV repairman. They all lost property and were incarcerated for years during World War II in internment camps in Arkansas and Wyoming.  Today, my parents are on a fixed income and their access to Medicare, as well as Medicaid coverage for my 91 year old grandmother is what allows me to sleep at night!  My brother holds down 2 part time jobs at libraries which he is grateful to have since he is hard of hearing and has had trouble finding employment.  But his part time status at both make him ineligible for employer based health insurance, so the ACA was a huge help since he is now eligible for expanded Medi-Cal.  Furthermore, my family has always identified or felt like they were “middle class” and they are certainly MUCH better off than so many AAPI families who came as refugees, who do not speak English, who do not understand how systems in the US work.

Not only are there misconceptions about the economic standing of the AAPI community, but there are misconceptions about the values and beliefs of AAPIs. For example, did you know that 71% favored increasing taxes to reduce the deficit?  Nearly 70% support expanding a federal program to build or rehab existing homes that low-income people can afford to rent.  Over 72% favor increasing the minimum wage.

Often, lumping together large swaths of minority groups into a single category causes smaller groups to be overlooked despite hurting the most. Do you see this happening in the Asian American and Pacific Islander category?

Yes!  Disaggregation of data and oversampling of Asian and Pacific Islander subpopulations is critical to have better and more accurate information to ensure that the needs of low income AAPIs are understood by policy makers and community leaders.  We are working closely with the White House Initiative on AAPIs on strengthening federal agencies’ ability to collect, analyze and disseminate better data on the needs of AAPIs.  The Departments of Labor and Education are shining examples of innovative data analysis to illuminate dynamics that were previously invisible because of data being suppressed due to small sample size or masked because data was only presented in the aggregate “Asian” or “Asian/Other” category.

Department of Labor Report: The Economic Status of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in the Wake of the Great Recession

Department of Education Report: ICount: A Data Quality Movement for AAPIs in Higher Education

We are hoping to work with the Department of Housing and Urban Development on a report about AAPI communities’ housing needs and access to government housing programs.

Do you believe there’s room for change in how we address economic issues relating to minorities?

Yes! There is more public dialogue about wealth inequality than ever before in my adult life.  I think there is an opportunity for economists, researchers and advocates of color to lead the conversation and dialogue about wealth inequality and be at the forefront of forging public policy solutions that take racial wealth inequalities into consideration as a central matter, not as an afterthought.

Why is advocacy and civic engagement particularly important in the AAPI community?

Not only is it important, but it is important to do in a broader frame of racial, social and economic justice.  Asian Americans are so often used by the right as a wedge community.  Professor David Shih wrote a very on point article recently about the indictment of officer Peter Liang in the shooting of Akai Gurley.  He aptly stated, “Like negative stereotypes, the model minority stereotype is also a tool of white supremacy.  The model minority stereotype has always been less about praising Asian people than it has been about shaming black people.” Advocacy and civic engagement of AAPI communities around key racial and social justice issues prevents us from being used as a wedge and strengthens movements.

Interview by Simona Combi and Alex Bannon