AAPIP Voices

Conversation with 25 Leaders in Action: Dana Kawaoka-Chen


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.


Dana Kawaoka-Chen, Network Director, Bay Area Justice Funders Network

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

I literally woke/came into consciousness quickly and with great clarity in the 8th grade when my Richmond Unified School District issued U.S. History text book read that, “Japanese Americans were interned for their safety.” At that moment, I suddenly understood the insidiousness of institutional racism in the way that certain versions of “history” are perpetuated.  I literally saw that history re-manifesting in what was happening with the Middle Eastern community as the Gulf War intensified in 1990.

My entire California family was incarcerated during World War II, my father born behind barbed wire, so I hold this legacy as both a responsibility and a reminder that freedom and justice, while unalienable rights, will always be contested.

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

For me, the critical issues facing AAPI communities come in the form of questions:

How do we take one of the legacies of the 1970’s Asian American Movement – the identity of “Asian American”—as a chosen a political identity/act of solidarity between peoples whose families are part of a diaspora from more than 25 different countries and make it relevant and meaningful to the AAPI community of today?

How can we support AAPI-led and serving organizations to hold elected officials, regardless of their political affiliation accountable for meeting and serving the needs of the AAPI community?

How can we engage, lift-up, support AAPI voices in rigorously holding responsibility for inserting critical thought in public discourse?

How can we support and scale front-line AAPI-led organizations that can both win locally and are connected to national campaigns?

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

My role, advocacy and issue foci has changed over time—from being a volunteer organizer fighting for Japanese Latin American Redress (Latin Americans of Japanese ancestry who were forcibly deported from their home countries and incarcerated in the United States to be used in Prisoner of War exchanges with Japan during WWII), to using cultural activism to highlight issues of racial scape-goating, to being a part of giving circles focused on raising support for AAPI-led and serving organizations.  Currently, I’m working on being conscious about using whatever perch I’m currently sitting on to be an ally for both AAPI communities, and communities-in-struggle globally.

4. What keeps you inspired?

I am inspired by current movements like–Strong Families, Caring Across Generations, #BlackLivesMatter, which center love towards transformation. 

Dana Kawaoka-Chen serves as the Network Director for the Bay Area Justice Funders Network.  She is the network’s inaugural and sole staff liaison to the five-person steering committee, which provides the strategic direction for the network.  In this capacity, Dana is responsible for all aspects of BAJFN’s work—working at the strategic level in partnering with the steering committee to advance the network’s goals; working at the administrative level in managing all of the membership and grant relationships; working at the programmatic level in implementing all aspects of the network’s public activities; and working at the network weaver level in facilitating strategic conversations between specific groups of people.

Dana Kawaoka-Chen is a Yonsei (4th Generation Japanese American) who came into consciousness in the 8th grade, upon reading in her U.S. History textbook that “Japanese Americans were interned for their safety.” Since that moment, Dana has sought to consciously address inequity. While working to obtain her Bachelor of Arts degrees in American Studies and Visual Art, Dana was a student organizer at the University of California, Santa Cruz. She transitioned from campus organizing to community organizing via Justice Matters and was an electoral organizer for the NO on 38 – No on School Vouchers campaign. Dana served as the Executive Director of Public Allies Silicon Valley, the local chapter of a national leadership development organization for young people. She also served as the Executive Director for a community development credit union in West Oakland prior to her work as Capacity Building Manager at Asian Americans/Pacific Islanders in Philanthropy (AAPIP), where she supported grassroots groups in two grantmaking programs.