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Irvine Program Officer Cheng Ung Reflects on Asian American and Pacific Islander 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 Cheng Ung, Irvine’s Program Officer, about Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, her family’s experience as refugees, the impact of community support, and reimagining philanthropy’s role in advancing racial equity and justice. Responses have been edited for length and clarity.

Tell us about yourself.  

My name is Cheng Ung (黄美清). My family is ethnically Teochew Chinese, but my parents were both born and raised in Cambodia. They lived through the Cambodian genocide, where an estimated quarter of the population (approximately 1.5 to 2 million people) were killed through mass executions, starvation, disease, and forced labor. In the aftermath, my parents made the difficult decision to leave their families behind and escape to Thailand in hopes of making it to a refugee camp. My parents and older brother (an infant at the time) ended up living in a Red Cross refugee camp for almost five years before they were resettled in the United States. They eventually made their way to Los Angeles, California, where I was born and raised. 

I always tell my parents’ story because their story has completely shaped who I am as a person, personally and professionally. Their story taught me about sacrifice, love, and persistence, but also how the trauma that a person experiences shapes them, their families, and their communities. I am the product of my family, culture, and community who have nurtured, challenged, and ground me in everything I do.  

A photo of Cheng's parents and older brother at a refugee camp in Thailand in 1985.
Cheng’s parents and older brother at a refugee camp in Thailand in 1985.

How did you get into philanthropy? 

Similar to other children of immigrants, I had no idea philanthropy was a viable career path. My first exposure to philanthropy was during undergrad when I was deeply involved in a volunteer young adult and youth-led organizing nonprofit where I helped raise grantmaking dollars and experienced the power imbalance and dynamics within funder-grantee relationships. 

That experience taught me the critical need for Black, Indigenous, and people of color with lived experiences from community to be in the decision-making roles within philanthropy. I then had the opportunity to work at my local community foundation for five years, first in grants management and then in a programmatic role focused on education. As someone who is a very proud Angeleno, I loved working in a foundation in a role where I could advocate and support grantmaking focused on the community and place I consider home. It ingrained in me the importance of deep listening to the wisdom of community partners and leaders, and that trust and relationship building is critical and takes time.  

I am grateful to bring that experience alongside my personal background to Irvine as a member of the Priority Communities team working in deep relationship and partnership with communities as they create local economies that work for all residents.  

What does Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month mean to you? 

This is a month to celebrate the stories, achievements, and contributions that AAPI communities have made to this country and this state. It is also a recognition that while the AAPI community is incredibly diverse, we are typically thought of as a monolith which strips us of our individual and unique cultures, our stories, and the different barriers and challenges each community faces. It has personally been an interesting year to reflect on AAPI Heritage Month in the aftermath of the Monterey Park shootings, the increased hate against AAPI communities, and the continued marginalization and invisibility of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in this country.  

Foundation funding designated for AAPI communities only accounts for .20% of all U.S. grantmaking. Alarmingly, funding designated specifically for AAPI communities has declined since peaking at .60% in 2002 and 2009, even as the Asian American population recorded the fastest population growth among all racial and ethnic groups in the country.  

As a Chinese Cambodian American woman in philanthropy, I feel a personal and professional responsibility to step into my leadership and power to not only uplift the stories and needs of AAPI communities but to ensure that more resources go directly to AAPI, Black, Indigenous, and other people of color-led organizations, communities, and leaders. This includes cross-racial movement building and solidarity that is critical as we imagine and build a thriving and just world. 

What is Irvine’s role in advancing equity?  

Philanthropy has an important role and responsibility to play when it comes to advancing racial equity and racial justice due to the power and resources that it holds. Many foundations, including Irvine, have been on a journey over the past few years that have resulted in the opportunity to more explicitly and intentionally center racial equity and justice in their culture and grantmaking.  

There is both pressure and an opportunity for philanthropy to make the long-needed shifts in grantmaking culture and practice that reimagines the role of philanthropy in advancing racial equity and justice. To me, it’s about ceding decision-making power and resources to Black, Indigenous, and people of color-led organizations and leaders who are spearheading transformative economic justice efforts throughout California. It’s about stepping out of the mold of having to make the case on “return on investment” and our preconceived beliefs of what is needed and instead being in relationship with those who are fighting, investing, and creating a world of justice and liberation. I am excited to be at Irvine at a time where we are having some of those tough conversations internally about how we and our partners will hold ourselves accountable as we live into our racial equity and racial justice values and aspirations.