AAPIP Voices

Owning our Power: Asian Americans and Civic Engagement


by Jennifer Choi

As a new co-chair of AAPIP’s Chicago chapter, I was tasked to assist my partner-in-crime and co-chair Hina Mahmood in hosting a community briefing exploring what the Asian American community could do to build Asian American political power in the 2016 general election and beyond. We held a two-hour event on August 23, 2016 that featured two panels: the first featuring two Asian American candidates and their experiences running for state legislative office; and the second featuring various tools Asian American constituents can utilize to build political power for our communities beyond throwing one’s own hat in the race.

Tuyet Le, Executive Director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice in Chicago (Advancing Justice | Chicago), set the stage from an historical and current landscape analysis perspective that framed the growing Asian immigrant population (and thereby political influence opportunities) in Chicago. This included much of the important research on Asian Americans and the local political landscape that Advancing Justice | Chicago has sponsored.

I never really considered myself as civically engaged from a political standpoint, but I have always owed my career trajectory to my colleagues and friends in the local Asian American community. I grew my career as one of the pioneering local Asian American artists in Chicago back in the ‘90’s. Eventually I transitioned into the non-profit sector starting with an Asian immigrant domestic violence agency called KAN-WIN. The rest is history – from my involvement with Asian Giving Circle and with AAPIP.

It was a poignant moment to see many of the same faces of those I have worked alongside on various issues affecting the Asian American community over the years, reflecting on the powerful moment our community is experiencing now. As a result of our state primary elections, we now have the first Asian American elected to the Illinois General Assembly, and the first Asian American who would be elected to a countywide board in Cook County. A few tools shared and discussed included Get Out the Vote voter education campaigns, poll watching and volunteering, Automatic Voter Registration, and redistricting reform.

For decades we have been considered the “model minority” and, for the most part, have been ignored, all while fostering our own emerging leaders in the Asian American community. For us, this is an opportunity to become decision-makers at the table and shake things up, instead of a “would-be, safe and silent” supporter of the status quo. There was a lot of excitement and gratitude in the room, and I look forward to the next empowering chapter ahead.

Jennifer Choi is journalism program officer of the Democracy Program of the Robert R. McCormick Foundation, Co-Chair of AAPIP’s Chicago chapter, and a member of the Asian Giving Circle.

Asian Americans Advancing Justice – Chicago recorded and live broadcasted the lunchtime panel on Facebook. You may view the recording here.