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Irvine Program Associate Cathia Lan reflects on Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islanders Heritage Month

The Irvine Foundation is fortunate to have talented staff with diverse backgrounds and life experiences, and we want to introduce some of our colleagues to you. We spoke with Cathia Lan, Irvine’s Program Associate, about why AANHPI Heritage Month marks her journey of reclaiming her roots, how her life experiences fortified her commitment to social justice, and Irvine’s role advancing equity. Responses have been edited for length and clarity.  

Tell us about yourself.  

I come from humble beginnings with a unique upbringing. I was born in Monterey Park, California, to an immigrant Mexican mum and an immigrant Chinese dad. My parents weren’t in the picture growing up, so my Chinese grandmother stepped in and raised me in San Jose, Costa Rica, for nearly a decade. There we lived in the same household alongside my cousin Michael and his parents. Oddly enough, this arrangement allowed me to explore my Chinese roots at home, while living in Costa Rica helped me embrace “mi Latinidad.” I attended a small, Catholic bilingual school during my formative years. 

However, when I returned to the United States as a teenager, I still grappled with language and cultural barriers. Rebuilding a relationship with my dad also became extremely challenging. This eventually resulted in a years-long tumultuous journey that led me into foster care at age 15. When I was stripped from my home, displaced like a refugee, it nearly destroyed me. But life has interesting ways to draw us to people and places that make the human experience worth living. Amidst the turmoil of foster care, I discovered profound truths about myself and others that rooted me firmly in our shared humanity.  

Although I felt alone in my suffering during this time, I was fortunate to have landed in a safe home, where my former foster parents supported and encouraged my goals and college aspirations. In addition to gaining a new family, I encountered compassionate individuals within the child welfare system who were striving to reform it. Their dedication to social justice showed me that I wasn’t alone in my journey and that I had a village to lean on that extended beyond bloodlines. 

My experience and exposure to the foster care system gave me a firsthand glimpse of the great disparities foster kids are chronically exposed to, and the lifelong impact the system has on our life outcomes. This fortified my unwavering commitment to a career in social justice, advocating for disenfranchised communities today. 

How did you get into philanthropy? 

I joke that I stumbled into philanthropy, as my younger self saw public service as the only path to creating lasting social change. 

After completing my undergrad, I landed a position with The San Francisco Human Services Agency, overseeing applications for families and individuals who sought CalWORKs, CalFresh, and Medi-Cal benefits. While I appreciated the work, I also envisioned a space where social justice leaders could convene, innovate, and collectively address our most pressing social issues of the 21st century. I had no idea such industry existed until I met Xochilt Violetta Sanchez, Director and Co-Founder of SFSU’s Guardian Scholars Program, who introduced me to philanthropy in 2019, and I have remained in the field ever since.  

Prior to Irvine, I worked at Tipping Point Community, supporting fundraising efforts to deeply engage and mobilize stakeholders in the most promising solutions to make poverty preventable in the Bay Area. During my time there, I learned the power of narrative and the importance of changing hearts and minds. Storytelling, coupled with data, is a profound way to unite people together for a worthy cause. For me, this meant disrupting poverty for the people of California, which ultimately led me to Irvine.   

What does AANHPI Heritage Month mean to you?

AANHPI Heritage Month holds significance for me as it marks a journey of reclaiming my roots. Growing up as a biracial American of Chinese and Mexican descent within a non-nuclear family, I grappled with my intersectional identity for much of my life. It wasn’t until recent years that I found the confidence to embrace my story and identity as a proud Chinese-Latina. 

This month also serves as a tribute to the profound love I have for my Chinese grandmother, 顺意, and my Chinese extended family: aunties, uncles, and cousins who played pivotal roles in shaping my life and understanding what it means to be a descendant of the Hakka Chinese community.  

In my twenties, I discovered that the remarkable journey my grandma undertook to escape famine and war traced back to her ancestral ethnic roots as a Hakka person. I learned that the Hakka Chinese ethnic group is considered China’s most diasporic ethnic group. As such, I have profound respect for immigrant communities in the U.S. and abroad.  

Irvine Program Associate Cathia Lan and her grandmother

AANHPI Heritage Month also serves as a reminder to challenge the inaccurate portrayal of Asian Americans as a monolithic group, and it’s why I’m sharing my story. The “model minority” myth is particularly troubling because it not only dehumanizes us but also worsens divisions within BIPOC communities (Black, Indigenous, and people of color).  

Despite these challenges, I remain hopeful, knowing organizations like VietRISE, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders for Civic Empowerment Education Fund (AAPI FORCE-EF), and Asian American Futures exist — and are using narrative change to drive civic engagement to ensure our public policies are reflective of the multiracial democracy we strive to be. My dear colleague, Shruti Garg, recently spoke with their leaders. I invite you to learn about their impactful work here.   

What is Irvine’s role in advancing equity?

Irvine plays a critical role in advancing equity, standing as one of the largest foundations in the state and uniquely positioned to challenge the status quo in California. Notably, Irvine is among the foundations in the U.S. that issued a racial equity case statement following the global racial awakening amid the pandemic, revolutionizing philanthropic dollars to be distributed more widely to BIPOC-led organizations.  

I’ve been at Irvine for a little over two years and am always in awe of my colleague’s deep level of care, intentionality, and commitment towards racial equity and racial justice. Every day, I’m inspired by their unwavering commitment to social justice as they partner with our grantees to broaden and redefine economic opportunities and working conditions for low-income workers. I’m honored to be walking alongside colleagues and individuals who are mission-driven and working towards a better California where all low-income workers have the power to advance economically.