By: Lynn Longfellow
The 2012 JACL/OCA (formerly the Organization of Chinese Americans) Leadership Summit was held on March 10 – 13th in Washington D.C. The rigorous four day summit focuses on leadership development and provides the opportunity for 30 members of the JACL and OCA to expand their knowledge, develop skills and deepen their commitment to achieving equity, equality and social justice for our communities. The program introduces advocates and potential future leaders to the political process and is designed to provide insight into the policy making arena at the federal level including meetings and briefings by experts in public policy and advocacy issues, key policymakers serving in Congress, the White House, federal agencies, advocacy organizations and the media. In addition, participants explore current legislative issues affecting the Asian Pacific American community and examine the role organizations such as the JACL and OCA National play in determining public policy and promoting civil rights legislation. I had the privilege to attend this year to represent the Pacific Northwest chapters of the JACL along with Curtis Suyematsu and Elaine Akagi.
Each day began with breakfast at 7:30 and immediately immersed participants into a full day of presentations and programs that continued into the evening with dinner and additional speakers. The first day commenced with a presentation and discussion led by Phil Nash, CEO and co-founder of Nash Interactive and professor at the University of Maryland, Asian American Studies Program. The history and immigration of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) was explored through personal histories intertwined with historical events, and public policy decisions by the U.S. government such as the Chinese Exclusion Act, Quota and Alien Land Laws and Executive Order 9066 that removed 120,000 Japanese Americans from their homes and incarcerated them in camps throughout the country.
This session was followed by an introduction to bullying issues by Michael Lieberman, Washington Counsel of the Anti-Defamation League. A working lunch included additional presentations on bullying from Cynthia Swann, Director for the Office of Minority Community Outreach at the NEA (National Education Association), Shawn Gaylord, Director of Public Policy for GLSEN (the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network), and Ben de Guzman, Co-Director for Programs at the National Queer Asian Pacific Islander Alliance (NQAPIA).
Next, and probably one of the more enlightening, interactive presentations, was a Congressional Insights Simulation, facilitated by Art Ruiz and Leslie Moe of State Farm, where participants assume the role of a real (anonymous) federal legislator, immersed in their pressure packed, fast paced world, making decisions, voting on issues and dealing with how your actions affect your relationship with the President, your party, your constituents and the media. It was a stressful exercise that certainly gave me a newfound empathy to those holding public office.
Following the Congressional Insights Simulation, participants were divided into legislative working groups to discuss and develop strategies in preparation for the upcoming lobbying efforts at the Capitol on the final day of the Summit. The first, full day culminated with dinner with Stuart Ishimaru, Commissioner of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).
The next day began with a White House Briefing, held in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building and featured a meeting with Tina Tchen, Chief of Staff for the First Lady, and the following White House executives: Eddie Lee, Associate Director of the Office of Public Engagement; Shin Inouye, Director of Specialty Media, Office of Communications; Akil Vohra, Senior Advisor for the Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders; Tuyet Duong, Advisor on Civil Rights and Immigration, Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders; and Karen Chaves, Policy Advisor, Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. The panel also included Floyd Mori, National Director of the Japanese American Citizens League and Tom Hayashi, Executive Director of the Organization for Chinese Americans.
The White House Briefing was followed by a presentation by Bruce Yamashita and the screening of his PBS documentary “A Most Unlikely Hero” which chronicles his discrimination and abuse in the Marine Corps and the following five-year legal, political and media battle that helped change Marine Corps policy and procedures with regard to the treatment of minorities. Additional presentations by Terry Ao Minnis, Asian American Justice Center, Paulo Pontemayor, policy analyst for the Asian Pacific Islander American Health Forum, and Jasjit Singh, Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund, brought to light current AAPI issues and emphasized the importance of coalition building. The afternoon was capped off with a trip to the Japanese American Memorial. We were joined at dinner that evening by Mark L. Keam, who represents the 35th District in the Virginia House of Delegates which is considered the oldest continuous legislative body in the modern world, with roots dating back to Jamestown in 1619. He is the first Korean American and first Asian-born immigrant to serve in the Virginia General Assembly. He was joined by Ralph Neas, former Chief Counsel to Republican U.S. Senators Edward W. Brooke and Dave Durenberger and former Executive Director of the nonpartisan leadership Conference on Civil Rights, the nation’s oldest, largest and most diverse coalition.
The Summit culminated with a day on Capitol Hill, beginning with a meeting with Senator Daniel Inouye, Scott Nishioki, Chief of Staff to Representative Jim Costa, and Angel Arboleda, Senior Policy Advisor for Asian Affairs to Senator Harry Reid (Senate Majority Leader). Next, Summit participants visited with Hill Staffers to lobby in support of House Resolution 282, a formal expression of regret for the Chinese Exclusion Laws and the repeal of Section 1021 of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that reads that a person may be “(detained) under the law of war without trial until the end of the hostilities”. In other words, the President can order anyone, even an American citizen, to be imprisoned indefinitely without the right to a judicial trial. Does this sound alarmingly familiar?
The Summit wrapped up with lunch on the Hill, final discussions, reflections and farewells to the fellow attendees who have now become friends and valuable colleagues in building coalitions for a better community and in the advocacy for social justice. The program, organized by the JACL and OCA is supported by State Farm and Southwest Airlines and is a very valuable, empowering and inspiring experience and the support of the program by the Pacific Northwest District and Portland JACL is greatly appreciated.
As we said our good byes that day after lunch, we all realized that it was not the end of our experience but the continuation of all of our newly enhanced efforts to promote a world that honors diversity through respect, equality and social justice. We were inspired by the dedication and efforts of all the amazing people we had the opportunity to meet over the past three days, and empowered knowing that every citizen can effect change and build a better community if nothing less than one advocate at a time.