AAPIP Voices

Conversation with 25 Leaders in Action: Kelly D. Chau


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.


Kelly D. Chau, Director of Wellness Services, Asian Americans for Community Involvement (AACI)

1. What are you passionate about when advocating for AAPI communities? In what ways do these passions relate to your job?

My parents and I emigrated from Vietnam as refugees. My parents wanted to provide a better life for my brother and me, so they made endless sacrifices – they sold everything they owned, left every asset they had in Vietnam to come over to the United States. Growing up in east San Jose, California there were not a lot of resources available, particularly for refugee youth, but also for new immigrants coming to the U.S. I observed the persistent challenges my parents endured, be it limited linguistically and culturally appropriate resources, health care, or access to any other social services that were supposedly available to them.

Despite these obstacles, my parents continued to work hard to provide for us. They instilled in me the importance of family, education, hard work, and perseverance. The opportunities that they provided empowered me to pursue a much better life and improved access to services and opportunities.  As I advanced in my educational studies, I was intent on pursuing a career in clinical neuropsychology. However, after my pre-doctoral internship, I was drawn to community-based health and wellness, and had the opportunity to work at a community-based organization called AACI (Asian Americans for Community Involvement). I have always been active in the community and contributed in various ways. I have learned so much more as a direct service provider over the years. Currently, I am the Director of our recent Wellness Services, and through that role, I support, develop and implement programs that address culturally appropriate wellness practices and social determinants of health of AAPI populations. We also engage other underserved populations in Santa Clara County to develop and maintain their health and wellness practices. The work at AACI fuels my passion and continues to motivate me to advocate for AAPI communities and the generations to follow.

Thanks to my parents, I’ve been able to preserve – and take pride in – my language, my culture and my heritage. I want to utilize these skills and knowledge, apply them and embrace the AAPI community. I hope to continue bridging generations of immigrants and refugees to healthier and more culturally adaptive American experiences. I truly believe that my passion to support thriving AAPI communities is grounded in witnessing the challenges my parents and their peers endured, their successful navigation through those circumstances, and the responsibility I value to give back to those who sacrificed so much so that I can be an empowered AAPI woman.

2. What do you think are some of the most critical issues facing AAPI communities?

Our AAPI community spans a heterogeneity of groups – each representing different cultures, religious faiths, multiple languages and with particular challenges and unmet needs. Yet, underlying these communities is a common need for access to culturally appropriate and culturally respectful services for AAPI communities. There’s a lack of cultural and linguistically appropriate resources available, particularly in the areas of health and wellness services. There needs to be additional resources and education, particularly to reduce the stigma related to health and mental health so we can increase the understanding to identify, prevent and treat these health conditions. Increased comprehensive health education will better connect available resources and increase access for AAPI communities.

One of way we are increasing access for our communities is by sharing new research findings on chronic health diseases in AAPI communities, such as the surge of diabetes, and hypertension to name a few. We provide linguistically appropriate educational tools and other preventive health resources for the AAPI populations to empower them to take control of their health and wellness. I believe there is still a lot more work to be done in the area of behavioral health, but since my current focus is on research and prevention strategies, I believe we are moving towards the right direction in reducing health knowledge disparities and increasing access to healthcare services in our AAPI communities.

Another important issue is bridging generational divides between youth and aging communities. I am currently focused on how we can support our multigenerational families to strengthen the cultural values and heritage within each family system while in the U.S. There is a great need to create opportunities for different generations to share stories to build a sense of pride and understanding for each other, as well as enable positive interactions to connect their cultures and heritages. The trauma that many immigrants and refugees experience from war torn countries makes it difficult for members of the older generations to share their stories and as a result, we as a community risk losing the rich historical and cultural perspectives of our cultural identities and shared heritage. We need to be able to develop services and programs that allow and engage the older generation to share their life stories, reminisce and heal their trauma while passing on oral history to educate the younger generation — a valuable and respectable process often lost living in the U.S. In this way, the younger generation has a better understanding of its cultural identity and also takes pride in family and community roots. While we have not been able to go deep in this area, my preliminary work with our youth and seniors has sown the potential for these continued innovative projects and the yearning from both segments for such culturally enriching opportunities.

3. How do you meet the needs of so many different Asian American communities? Do you have a particular focus or are you staffed in a particular way, so that linguistically and culturally appropriate services are provided?

My work at AACI revolves around supporting, developing and implementing programs and services that are culturally and linguistically respectful and adapted for the AAPI and underserved communities throughout Santa Clara County. We do this by the continued to provision of comprehensive care in languages that our target populations can understand. Additionally, we strive to provide a safe space and increase access to services for our community, especially youth and seniors. To meet the needs of diverse communities, our services span a wide array of needs including physical health, behavioral health, wellness, prevention and recovery, services for survivors of torture, domestic violence, HIV education and prevention, and advocacy and leadership development services.

We hope through these services, we are building more empowered and engaged Asian communities equipped to advocate for their needs and have voices and fair representation of their diverse needs.  We intentionally participate and collaborate with other AAPI leaders as well as community-based organizations to demystify the Model Minority narrative, advocate for services for AAPI communities, and ensure that Asian communities have a fair representation in decision-making processes.

4. What keeps you inspired?

My roots – where I come from, my upbringing and my experiences as a refugee – inspire me to keep going. My continued connection to the AAPI community is another source of inspiration.  The stories of strength and resilience from our communities have taught me so much and I continue to look to them for motivation, pride and inspiration.

Through my various roles, I advocate for key health and human services issues alongside inspiring community leaders. Working with individuals who are positive, compassionate, and have that drive—to make a positive impact and give back to the community—you cannot help but be inspired and want to be a part of this important work. It feels like there is nothing that we cannot do to overcome these access disparities or barriers in our communities to build a stronger and healthier AAPI community. This is what continues to inspire me to support and advocate for the AAPI community.

Often times, it is quite challenging. We face lots of hurdles and obstacles, but I believe that working with other community leaders with the same passion and vision for our AAPI community keeps us all moving forward. It keeps the fuel and passion burning. This is what inspires me to keep doing the work I do and to serve my community the best I can.

Kelly D. Chau, Ph.D. is the Director of Wellness Services at Asian Americans for Community Involvement (AACI). She has worked in the behavioral health and addiction field since 2000. She is involved in the development and management of community-based programs that integrate research, health and wellness, addiction recovery services, and behavioral health services to promote healthy independence, healthy lifestyle, enhance functioning and safety from a culturally competent and respectful perspective. Dr. Chau is the former Chair of the Vietnamese Reach for Health Coalition in San Jose. She served on the KQED Community Advisory Board from 2008-2014. She actively collaborates with schools and community-based groups in Santa Clara County, promoting health education, prevention and outreach, and cultural competent health, behavioral health, and wellness services for unserved/underserved communities.