For young AAPI women, finding our path in politics or government is about owning our power.
As a 20-year-old college sophomore, Zainab Khan first started working at the Georgia State Capitol as a legislative aide for former state Representative Brenda Lopez-Romero in 2018—she had high hopes to find her way. She was eager to contribute to shaping the future of her Muslim community, but often found herself the only AAPI woman and person of color in the room. Meetings with lobbyists who would refuse to shake her hand, and racist comments and microaggressions wore her down. Eventually, she had enough and left.
Khan’s story reminds me of my own. When I got my first job out of college as a legislative aide at the Massachusetts State House, I remember telling my dad I got my dream job. Instead of being excited for me, he said, “You’ll never be one of them.” His response stung, but I understood it was rooted in his immigrant experience—the feeling of not being seen or heard, of being rendered silent to survive and fit into a country that never seemed to accept him.
I started the Asian American Women’s Political Initiative (AAWPI) in 2010 to ensure that Asian American and Pacific Islander women have a voice in our democracy. Asian Americans are the fastest-growing racial population, growing 81 percent between 2000 and 2019. We represent 6.1 percent of the country—but only 0.9 percent of elected officials. Asian American and Pacific Islander women represent less than 7 percent of the women in Congress, 2 percent of all women state legislators, and 4 percent of mayors of the 100 largest cities. In the halls of power and influence, I saw the ways AAPI women were made invisible. Yet, all these critical decisions in government were impacting our families, our communities and our lives.
When I talk to AAPI women about getting involved in politics, I hear similar stories about how they didn’t grow up in families discussing politics at the dinner table. We were encouraged to work hard, keep a low profile and not engage. AAWPI ensures that AAPI women have mentorship and a deep community in this work to help cultivate our authentic political voice and show us the way—so we don’t have to do it alone.
In the halls of power and influence, I saw the ways AAPI women were made invisible. Yet, all these critical decisions in government were impacting our families, our communities and our lives.
I’m grateful that AAWPI community members like Zainab and other young AAPI people can now see reflections of themselves in women candidates across the country who are putting racial justice at the top of their agenda. One such leader is Georgia state Representative Bee Nguyen, running against Brad Raffensperger for secretary of state. Since becoming the first Asian American woman in Georgia’s legislature when she took over Stacey Abrams’s seat in 2017, Nguyen has been an outspoken advocate for voting rights, especially for people of color and immigrants targeted by Republicans’ voter suppression tactics.
The daughter of Vietnamese refugees, Nguyen is a member of the New South, a rising coalition of younger Black, Latino and Asian American progressives who have turned Georgia, formerly a Republican stronghold, into a battleground state. If Nguyen is elected, she will become the first Asian American to win a statewide political office in Georgia history.
AAWPI is the country’s only political leadership organization for Asian American and Pacific Islander women. We have recruited, trained, mentored and supported over 100 low-income and immigrant Asian American women in Massachusetts. Like Zainab, few of them believed in their own leadership before they found AAWPI. They are Dreamers, anti-eviction activists, LGBTQ rights advocates, artists and nonprofit entrepreneurs who advocate for racial, economic and gender justice and are transforming the political landscape and reimagining what’s possible.
Today, the AAPI community is in a massive transformation, considering the ongoing anti-Asian hate and racism amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, the Atlanta mass shooting last year, and the AAPI community’s role in the broader call for racial justice. AAPI women can no longer afford to be invisible, especially when statistics show 63.3 percent of anti-Asian racism is leveled against AAPI women. Increasing representation and building political power is crucial to addressing critical issues in our country—racial justice, economic justice, gender justice, climate change, voting rights and protecting our democracy.
This AAPI History Month, I want to affirm for young AAPI women that our voice and our leadership matter. We need to take up space and own our power. We need to rise to this moment: to engage our community, help elect AAPI women, and maybe one day run for office. Our immigrant parents and young AAPI people deserve to see themselves reflected in politics and leadership positions and know they are seen, worthy and powerful—because we belong.