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How Asian American Futures, AAPI FORCE-EF, and VietRISE are using narrative change to drive civic engagement

Shruti Garg

Tracy La, Co-Founder & Executive Director of VietRISE; Timmy Lu, Executive Director of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders for Civic Empowerment Education Fund (AAPI FORCE-EF); and Reshma Shamasunder, Executive Director of Asian American Futures

Shruti Garg, Irvine Program Officer
Shruti Garg, Irvine Program Officer

In honor of Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islanders (AANHPI) Heritage Month, I’m thrilled to share perspectives from some of our AANPHI-led and -serving partners, who are working tirelessly to address their community’s unique needs, build civic and community power, and strive for racial equity for all communities. As a second-generation South Asian, I am proud to support a diverse set of Asian American organizations that inspire me through their important work to mobilize our families and communities, which is fundamental to realizing a more inclusive economy for all. 

We spoke to Tracy La, Co-Founder & Executive Director of VietRISE; Timmy Lu, Executive Director of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders for Civic Empowerment Education Fund (AAPI FORCE-EF); and Reshma Shamasunder, Executive Director of Asian American Futures, about shaping the narratives, themes, and stories about their communities, fostering civic engagement, and what this month means to them.  

Tracy La, Co-Founder & Executive Director of VietRISE; Timmy Lu, Executive Director of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders for Civic Empowerment Education Fund (AAPI FORCE-EF); and Reshma Shamasunder, Executive Director of Asian American Futures
Tracy La, Timmy Lu, and Reshma Shamasunder

These organizations play an important role in Irvine’s Just Prosperity initiative. Launched in 2022, the initiative aims to ensure that Californians in low-income jobs have the power to influence lasting change in our economic and political systems. We support efforts to grow the power of low-income Californians of color, who face the greatest barriers to economic mobility, to have greater control over the decisions, policies, and narratives that affect their jobs, communities, and lives. We are deeply grateful for these organizations whose work is vital to achieving this vision. 

Note: The views and opinions expressed below are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of The James Irvine Foundation. Responses were edited for length and clarity. 

Briefly tell us about your organization. What does your organization do? 

Tracy: Founded in 2018, VietRISE is a community organizing, advocacy, and movement-building organization in Orange County, CA. The county is home to the largest community of Vietnamese people in the world outside of Viet Nam. We organize Vietnamese people in the county to become activists, advocates, organizers, and leaders for systems change, community empowerment, and social justice. 

VietRISE focuses on advancing immigrant, economic, and housing justice. We do this through our community-centered policy and advocacy campaigns, building youth power and leadership through organizing and leadership programs, making government more accessible to our community through civic engagement, empowering our community through cultural programming, and providing direct support to marginalized members of our community through immigration services, deportation defense, and eviction defense support.

Timmy: My organization, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders for Civic Empowerment (AAPI FORCE-EF) is all about turning AAPI communities into an irresistible force for change in the state of California. We care about issues of racial justice, workers rights, the environment, and increasing economic opportunities for low-income AAPIs across the state. And based on our deep work talking to voters and community members across the state, we know that AAPIs, even in all our diversity, care about these issues too.

On a day-to-day level, this means that our team trains AAPI organizers and leaders of local neighborhood organizations across the state in the practices of civic engagement and organizing. This means talking to people face-to-face about the issues in their lives, organizing phone banks to reach large numbers of AAPIs, and strategizing on how to best use ethnic and social media to reach community members in the language they speak.

Photo credit: AAPI FORCE

Reshma: Asian American Futures (AAF) activates young Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) to embrace racial justice values and build a future where everyone can thrive. We experiment with evidenced-backed content, grounded in movement priorities, that reaches new audiences at scale. We support AAPI communities and organizations in advancing a shared, aspirational narrative about the role AAPIs play in building a multiracial future, and proactively influence change by building our communities’ power through policy, storytelling, organizing, and other levers of social transformation. Cultivating narrative power rooted in values of solidarity, pride, and belonging is foundational to our work.

Photo credit: Asian American Futures

We do this by collaborating with grassroots organizations in regions with growing AAPI populations – like Orange County, the San Gabriel Valley and Silicon Valley – to reach new audiences through civic engagement and storytelling. For example, we’re partnering with a successful AAPI leadership development program to help them expand to 15 Bay Area community colleges. We are also convening a working group of 

Asian American artists, communicators, filmmakers and cultural organizers with Narrative Initiative to dream big and experiment with new narratives for our communities. Additionally, we’re co-curating an interactive, multi-sensory art installation created by Related Tactics and Mia Nakano of the Visibility Project that celebrates cross-racial solidarity. It’s part of Asian Americans for Civil Rights and Equality’s “{R}evolution in Action” exhibition in San Francisco’s Chinatown, featuring local AAPI artists and activists. And, we will be lending our expertise in message testing and digital content creation to encourage young AAPIs to vote in Orange County this fall. Moving forward, we will continue leveraging innovative exhibits, storytelling, and creative tactics to reach new AAPI audiences who may be unfamiliar with racial justice frameworks and values.

What are the narratives about AANHPI communities that you’re trying to change? How is narrative change relevant to your efforts in building the civic engagement of AANHPI communities? 

Timmy: Hypervisibility and invisibility are two sides of a coin for Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. Attention on the success of some Asian Americans overshadows the reality that most of us are working people, not Ivy Leaguers or entrepreneurs. Yet, there is tremendous attention on Asian Americans opposed to racial equity policies like affirmative action. These narratives make invisible the lives of most of us who struggle with low wages, finding affordable housing, and pollution in our communities.

For Pacific Islanders, visibility often only happens within the narrow framework of cultural or travel fantasy to be consumed. The issues in that community, such as the ongoing impacts of U.S. colonization and climate change in the home islands, displacement of communities here due to gentrification, and access to quality healthcare, are missing from most public discourse.

These dominant representations are why AAPI FORCE focuses our efforts on civic engagement. We believe powerful communities are informed, engaged, and active in shaping government at all levels. By being active voters, organizers, and advocates, AAPIs can tell new stories about our important role as agents in building a multiracial democracy.

Photo credit: AAPI-FORCE

Reshma: Our communities are increasingly depicted as regressive on education, public safety, and other racial and social justice issues, although voter surveys over the years consistently demonstrate that the majority of AAPIs embrace justice-oriented values. Efforts to engage and shift AAPI communities towards regressive views are deeply concerning and require a concerted response by institutions committed to progressive change that shows who AAPIs are: communities with long legacies of solidarity, shaping an inclusive, multiracial society rooted in values like care, pride, and love.

The lesson from decades of social justice work is that nothing changes until the narrative changes. There continues to be a huge underinvestment in ensuring that our communities are at the forefront in the fight for racial justice. We see immense opportunity to engage young AAPIs who are not currently involved in social justice spaces. They are eager to use their voices to support their communities but often lack the language or context to understand the issues on the news, much less on a ballot. This group is also key to bringing their parents and grandparents along, and is thus essential to building a just future for all of us.

Photo credit: Asian American Futures

Tracy: At VietRISE, we recognize the unique role that Vietnamese Americans have in the larger AANHPI community. Vietnamese Americans are often described as the most conservative Asian community in the United States. It is enforced and sensationalized every election cycle in the media and by candidates on a hyperlocal and national scale. The reality is more nuanced than these dominant narratives allow. The dominant narrative strategy ultimately works against us and is used to take away freedoms from Brown, Black, and other working-class people.  

Other dominant narratives about the Vietnamese American community are that, despite being refugees, we hold anti-immigrant beliefs, believe in limited government, are primarily concerned with homeland politics, and are uniquely, viciously divided among ourselves due to a “generational divide.” These narratives obscure data and flatten the nuances of our community, drive a wedge between us and other communities, and invisibilize the actual realities of injustice that our majority working-class community faces. At VietRISE, we have uncovered evidence, as well as our own lived experiences, that show otherwise. 

Photo credit: VietRISE

As we work to build solidarity with other working-class communities around the world, it is imperative that everyone, especially AANHPIs, understand this narrative strategy. I believe the best way to change these narratives is by organizing. At VietRISE, we’ve organized with, canvassed, and had face-to-face conversations with over 15,000 Vietnamese Americans whose experiences, beliefs, and values significantly counter those narratives.

In 2022, VietRISE and the Othering and Belonging Institute  published “Vietnamese Voices from Orange County, Narratives of Community, Government, and Change,” a research brief that revealed the potential of Vietnamese Americans to be a force for racial, economic, and social justice to a greater extent than has been realized so far. Contrary to dominant narratives, Vietnamese Americans in Orange County support redistributive economic policies more than any other group in the region, want accountability for landlord price gouging through reforms like rent control, and want to organize in solidarity with other working-class people and communities of color to make the county  a better place to live for all. 

Lastly, what does Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islanders Heritage Month mean to you? 

Reshma: I grew up in the exurbs of Los Angeles and experienced my share of racism and bullying at a time when few AANHPI community members were showcased as the face or future of our country. We have come a long way, but I continue to observe family members and friends – including younger generations – struggle with discrimination and belonging. This month is a time to uplift the deep contributions our communities have made to art, science, civil rights, media, and almost every area of American life. It is also a time to consider the responsibilities we, as Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, have – alongside other American residents – to stand up for justice. 

I deeply value and practiced racial solidarity as a leader in California’s immigrant rights movement. Alongside Black, Latinx, and other leaders, I worked on far-reaching campaigns – from driver’s licenses to healthcare for all – for more than a decade. In May 2007, I participated in the Los Angeles May Day rally with my then-preschool-aged daughter that quickly turned violent. I, and other marchers, watched in horror as the police stormed the park, firing rubber bullets into a crowd comprised of many families and children. I remember tossing my daughter and her stroller to another attendee before climbing over a wall myself to flee. 

Today, as we witness horrific violence at a global scale, the erosion of our rights in the United States and elsewhere, and the suppression of protests and calls for change, I am again reminded of the importance of solidarity. 

AANHPIs are the fastest growing demographic in the country, and we have a key role to play in coalition with Black communities and other communities of color in shaping our shared future. AANHPI Heritage month is an opportunity to highlight our community’s historic contributions and demonstrate our power as actors of solidarity and change. 

Tracy: It is a reminder of the political force that was built by Asian students who united under one identity and inspired political action in Asian American communities as part of the Third World Liberation Front. When unified, grounded in the principles of social justice, and unwavering in their demands, Asian American unity and unity with Black, Brown, and Native communities can create significant political and cultural shifts, such as the establishment of ethnic studies. 

Photo credit: VietRISE

To me, this month brings an opportunity for reflection for all people in the United States but especially for AANHPI communities. It could be another month of recognition of a few that slips by into the next month, or it could be a month where we think about and strategize how to build unity among ourselves and engage in joint struggle with other communities to build the better world we want to live in. 

Timmy: I think a lot about the children I am fortunate to have in my life, my own, and those of our chosen family. My wife and I come from large families. Her family is Hmong refugees from Laos, and my own is Chinese from Vietnam. They escaped war, survived in the U.S. on public benefits, and thrived despite an economic system that treats disabled people and limited English-speaking workers as disposable. Our children are Chinese and Hmong, and their best friends are Samoan and Black, and Filipino and Korean. For me, being Asian American means being multiracial and multiethnic, and we can share in the joys of being all those things at the same time. This month is a reminder that the best thing I can do is ensure all of our little ones have places where they feel belonging, places that honor all of their identities, and places that will fight to ensure their inclusion and participation in this society.