AAPIP Voices

Conversation with 25 Leaders in Action: Cathy Cha

To commemorate AAPIP’s 25 years of building a more democratic philanthropic sector, we asked you to help us identify 25 leaders who are making a difference in your local community and/or nationally. The 25 Leaders in Action honorees represent a diverse group spanning a wide range of organizations, years of experiences, roles and sectors.  We invite you to learn about these outstanding leaders, their inspiring work and what keeps them going in our blog post series.


Cathy Cha, Program Director, Immigrant Rights and Integration, Evelyn & Walter Haas Jr. Fund

1. Why are you passionate about advocating for AAPI communities?

As the daughter of Korean immigrants, I’ve witnessed the American Dream unfold in my own family. My father left Seoul in the late 1960s to take his first airplane flight to the U.S. He grew up on a rice farm, and both of my parents lived through the Korean War as children. My father came to the U.S. for the opportunity to study and eventually became a university professor. It was a more generous time for U.S. immigration policy. My father and mother were able to sponsor my uncles and cousins to immigrate as well, and my family was able to study, start businesses and thrive. While I am passionate about AAPI communities, I know that Mexicans and Ethiopians and others from all corners of the world come here for the same reasons – the opportunity to give their families a better shot. My parents’ American Dream story is harder to achieve today for many reasons. I’m committed to helping Asian immigrants, as well as immigrants from other countries, make that American Dream possible.

2. What do you believe are the most critical issues facing AAPI communities today?

The most critical issue is supporting AAPI communities to exercise their voice and influence. In my home state of California, one in six residents is Asian American Pacific Islander. The diversity of Asian communities is rich and the population is growing significantly. In fact, Asians are growing faster than Latinos as a population group. But these growing numbers are not translating into greater influence for the AAPI community in policy issues, power or voice. Today, Asians are about 13% of the California population but only 7% of the electorate. And half of the state’s AAPI population isn’t even registered to vote. That means elected officials and decision-makers aren’t hearing from half of eligible AAPI voters. Our communities need to weigh in on important policy debates, ballot measures and issues that determine our future and our state’s future.

3. In what ways do you strive to address the unmet needs for AAPI communities?

At the Evelyn and Walter Haas, Jr. Fund, I have the privilege of working with a wide range of talented leaders and wonderful organizations that are working to expand rights and opportunities for AAPI communities and other immigrant populations. We’ve started initiatives to increase civic engagement among AAPI populations with other philanthropic and community partners, like the Asian American Pacific Islander Civic Engagement Fund. And we’ve supported efforts to make sure that AAPI voices are heard in the immigration debate and that Asian policy issues get the attention they deserve at the local, state and national levels. Perhaps most importantly, we support alliance building so that AAPIs can join forces with African Americans and Latinos on issues of common concern.

4. What keeps you inspired?

Based on my family’s experience, I am always inspired by the dreams and the commitment of immigrants to find a better life for themselves and their families. Over the last few years, I have been deeply moved and inspired by Asian and Latino Dreamers, the young people who came to the U.S. with immigrant parents and are now finding their voice and their place in the only country many of them have ever considered home. Watching undocumented students be courageous in their advocacy, bold in their demands, and taste their collective power for the first time is energizing. For Asian students, coming out as undocumented is especially hard to do. Dreamers are a great source of inspiration for me and have contributed powerfully to the immigrant movement overall.

Cathy leads the Fund’s efforts to create equal opportunities for immigrants in California and across the nation. As program director for immigrant rights, Cathy manages the Fund’s grantmaking in support of efforts to increase immigrant civic participation, improve the climate for immigration policy reforms in California, and support public education for federal immigration reform. Cathy’s focus on alliance-building and collaboration has helped strengthen the immigrant rights movement in California, leading to key policy wins such as scholarships for Dreamers, enforcement reforms, and access to driver’s licenses for undocumented residents.

Cathy is a leader in numerous funder collaboratives. She manages the work of California Civic Participation Funders which is increasing voting and community organizing among disenfranchised populations in three southern California regions. In 2011, Cathy worked with the Carnegie, Knight and Grove foundations to start the New Americans Campaign aimed at increasing citizenship rates. She also is co-chair of the board of Grantmakers Concerned with Immigrants and Refugees (GCIR) and serves on the steering committee for the Four Freedoms Fund.

Before directing the Immigrant Rights program, Cathy worked for five years as a program officer in the Fund’s Neighborhoods and Strengthening Families programs. She had previously served as a program officer at the Hyams Foundation in Boston. While in Boston, she helped develop the English for New Bostonians initiative, a national model for providing language assistance to immigrants. Prior to that, Cathy developed affordable housing with TNDC, the Tenderloin Neighborhood Development Corporation, in San Francisco.

Cathy has a master’s degree in City and Regional Planning from UC Berkeley.