Jane Duong

Vice President of Development and Communications

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Every Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage month, I brace myself for the rollout of corny celebrations of AAPI culture and history. Don’t get me wrong, having a dedicated space to acknowledge and honor the contributions of AAPI communities to our country’s collective history is an essential part of realizing a multi-racial democracy. However, these efforts often feel like mere performances of inclusion. Superficial celebrations of AAPI history and heritage fall short in fostering a real sense of belonging for our communities. 

john a. powell eloquently defines belonging as, “…more than just being seen. Belonging entails having a meaningful voice and the opportunity to participate in the design of social and cultural structures. Belonging means having the right to contribute to, and make demands on, society and political institutions.”

The identity of “Asian American Pacific Islander” is itself a social construct that is specific to our American context, borne out of and informed by the Civil Rights movements and a deep understanding of the need to build political power in this country. Constructing this identity required building commonality and connections across the Asian American and Pacific Islander diaspora, often across groups with complex histories of division in their home countries, as well as varied experiences with American colonization. The common thread that runs through AAPI identities is a shared sense of being “othered” in the American context. Solidarity across AAPI identities is an experiment in tapping into our commonalities to build power and create new spaces of meaning for our communities. This is an extension of the necessary work of building solidarity and power across communities of color. 

AAPI Solidarity and Resilience

This year, I want to celebrate the stories of AAPI communities coming together to build a sense of belonging. For much of my career, I have had the opportunity to work with and be inspired by AAPI communities that are building systems and structures that honor their dignity, voice, and power in the neighborhoods and communities in which they live. These communities are united through a sense of place, working together to affirm common identities through arts and culture and of course, food. But they are also communities that join together to exert power against existential threats like the gentrification and displacement of historic neighborhoods with the expansion of downtown high rises, sports arena developments, highway and detention center construction. Each new generation accesses and flexes their power to organize in a new way. 

In San Francisco, where I live, this looks like Asian Americans building power to engage in political decision-making in their communities, such as the work of the Chinatown Community Development Center and the Community Tenants Association. This group of mono-lingual Chinese seniors, immigrants, and low-income residents living in public and affordable housing come together to give voice and influence the decisions in their neighborhoods. They have served as an organizing base to fight against development in the downtown financial district that would displace Chinatown residents. Over the last three decades, CTA has grown its membership and built a powerful political base in San Francisco’s Chinatown that cannot be ignored. 

This sense of belonging also looks like the efforts led by the Asian Economic Development Association. AEDA organized the Hmong-American and Southeast Asian community to work in solidarity with the African American community to successfully influence light rail construction between St. Paul and Minneapolis. In coalition, leaders confronted the generational trauma of highway construction in their neighborhoods and fear of gentrification that would serve suburban commuters over the needs and interests of eastern St. Paul neighborhoods. They successfully influenced the federal formula for transportation construction to shift away from a model that focused solely on cost effectiveness to one that prioritizes mobility and economic development. This resulted in three additional light rail stops in Little Mekong and the historic African American Rondo district to better serve the economic needs of the small business corridor and surrounding neighborhoods and meet the mobility needs of low-income residents. 

AAPI communities are also in a constant state of reinvention, finding new ways to create places of meaning and connection that honor our histories and strengthen our communities The pressing nature of climate change and its impacts on AAPI and other communities of color are ever more acute, and our interconnectedness remains core to what joins us in the face of this mounting challenge. This was clear in the aftermath of the Lāhainā fires, where Native Hawaiian and local communities showed up for each other when the government failed, in order to rebuild after the crisis while continuing to assert their right to self-determination. Mutual aid and solidarity efforts to resist land grabs reclaimed space for Native Hawaiians, reframing what it means to rebuild while centering the needs and rights of native residents. 

Innovation and Community Leadership in AAPI Communities

Lifting up community-led innovation and co-ownership of community solutions remains the key to success. It’s why I am so excited to be a part of the team at Greenlining to partner with groups like Little Manila Rising. LMR is honoring the history of Filipino activism and community building in Stockton, CA and bringing that history to the present context by building a community resilience hub and cultural center to serve as a resource in times of climate impact. In the face of forces that sought to demolish their neighborhoods and erase their history, the Filipino community banded together and asserted their right to exist and in the process laid down deep and powerful roots. Through Greenlining the Block, we partner with groups like LMR and other BIPOC leaders across the state and country through a community of practice, where leaders share learnings and drive innovative new approaches of creating belonging through physical improvements and ownership of community assets in their neighborhoods. 

Honoring AAPI Heritage As We Continue to Build

While we live in an imperfect world with imperfect systems, there is still so much work to be done to collectively create a future where all of our communities feel a sense of belonging. I take solace in the work of leaders that have come before me to assert belonging that has made it possible for me to stand in my full identity. And it is the work that has come before me that has instilled in me a deep sense of responsibility to continue to take action and forge alliances across the AAPI spectrum. Their work also demonstrates the need to connect to struggles of working communities across racial and ethnic lines, and to connect our work to liberation for all people everywhere. This is the AAPI heritage I honor this month and every month. 

AAPI communities and other communities of color continue to face forces that seek to exploit our differences. They are the insidious forces that tell us that our belonging should come at the expense of other communities. This narrative is intentional, told through false narratives like the model minority myth and stereotypes that tell us we have less in common with other communities of color than we actually do.

For my part, I will continue to take inspiration from the leaders and visionaries that have come before me to bravely stand up to injustice and bridge understanding with other oppressed communities in solidarity. And even when AAPI Heritage Month comes to a close, I will continue to take inspiration and hope from those that are continuing to imagine and reinvent new places and spaces for belonging together towards a brighter future for us all.

Jane Duong

Vice President of Development and Communications

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