In Los Angeles’ historic Wiltern Theatre, Asian Americans of all ages gathered in the soaring art deco interior for the inaugural #IAmAsianAmerican concert and cheered enthusiastically when popular YouTube singer/songwriter AJ Rafael stepped on stage, guitar in hand. The dark theater was dotted with the lighted screens of dozens of smartphones as people began recording and taking photos of him. Before starting, Rafael expressed his appreciation for being included in the conversation on the Asian American vote and urged the audience to be proactive. “We [Asian Americans] have always been seen as a quiet community,” said Rafael, “but I think we could use our platforms and voices to do things like vote.”
#IAmAsianAmerican was conceived as a way to engage Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) millennials in the voting process by bringing together notable Asian American performers such as Rafael for a free concert. Each performer reiterated the importance of voting, and volunteers wearing #IAmAsianAmerican shirts were available to help guests register to vote.
Although Asian Americans are the fastest growing and best-educated racial group, their voter turnout rates (31 percent) are the lowest among all racial groups. Amongst registered Asian American millennials (voters aged 18-34), the turnout rates were significantly lower compared to their older counterparts. According to a 2014 report done by APIA Vote, an organization dedicated to engaging Asians and Pacific Islanders in civic participation, only 47 percent of millennials actually voted, compared to the 66 percent in the 35-49 age range and the 67 percent in both the 50-65 and 65-plus categories.
However, the lack of voter participation does not mean Asian Americans, millennials or otherwise, are unenthusiastic about the political process. In a 2016 report, overall Asian American voter enthusiasm has increased drastically since 2014, jumping from 28 percent in 2014 saying they were “more enthusiastic” to 51 percent in 2016. So what’s preventing AAPI people from voting?
Charlie Woo, chairman of the Center for Asian Americans United for Self Empowerment (CAUSE), believes that it all starts with proper voter education for immigrants. According to Pew Research Center, immigrants make up 74 percent of the adult Asian American population, and 38 percent of Asian Americans speak limited English. Factor in the diversity of cultures and languages, Asian American immigrants can find the voting process a bit intimidating—hence, why Woo makes a point of properly educating immigrants on the importance of voting. “There are a lot of propositions on the [voter] ballot,” says Woo. “Unless you’re extremely well-versed in the political process, you won’t really understand. Because of the language barrier, the cultural barrier, it’s very difficult for immigrant communities…but once they understand the importance of [voting], I think they will voice their opinions.”
In the 2016 APIA Vote report, surveys showed that 54 percent of Asian Americans felt disengaged from politics because they believed politicians “didn’t care” about their opinions. At least part of that disengagement stems from the tendency to lump all Asian Americans into one category, when in reality AAPI people come from many different countries and speak dozens of different languages and dialects. Taking the time to understand the differences and preferences—cultural, political and generational—between each Asian ethnic group can greatly benefit any organization trying to increase AAPI engagement. Although Asian Americans as a whole lean Democratic, there are striking discrepancies between individual ethnic groups. For instance, only 18 percent of Indian-Americans lean Republican, whereas 40 percent of Filipino-Americans favor the right. “The Asian American community is not homogeneous—it’s extremely heterogeneous,” states Woo. “Some immigrants need more help in education or healthcare, and some just want help to start their business—their needs are very different.”
For Asian American millennials, social media is the best way to reach out. Asian American millennials are tech-savvy and spend more time on the Internet than the average consumer. #IAmAsianAmerican wisely utilized social media to appeal to the millennial demographic by incorporating a hashtag into the name and encouraging guests to live tweet about the event, which were then displayed on screens on the stage. Imprenta Communications Group, a firm that helps businesses and organizations market to people of color, produced a Public Service Announcement for APIA Vote that featured Asian American celebrities such as George Takei, Constance Wu and John Cho that many millennials will recognize. “Millennials are the key,” says Ronald Wong, the founder and CEO of Imprenta Communications Group. “Lower voter turnout affects us all. Voting is fundamental to our form of democracy—just look at the importance of political activism and how it’s helped Asian Americans gain leadership roles in a relatively short amount of time.”
Asian Americans who don’t vote, whether for a political candidate or for a policy change, might inadvertently be working against their own interests. “People need to see that all of these decisions have a direct economic impact on communities,” says Wong. “There are government policies that help create business, but also ones that hurt business, like the increased regulation on laundromats. Years ago, there was an environmental ruling that affected the dry cleaning business and subsequently closed a lot of Asian businesses. In San Francisco, there’s a tax impacting sugary drinks—that would affect boba tea shops. The Asian American community needs to understand that these policies and politicians have a direct impact on our business—in a sense, voting is a return on investment.”
Woo notes that increased Asian American participation could affect future business and political leaders. “[CAUSE’s] thinking is, voters become engaged when they see an elected official from the community,” says Woo. “So if we train 10 or 20 elected officials in the issues [relevant to Asian Americans], they become a spokesperson for the community. The most effective way to communicate is to develop leaders who share our motivations, share our values.” The ripple effects of increased voter turnout and representation go beyond just politics; Woo believes it will also benefit the business world. “In this world, whether you’re in politics or business, you get ahead not just because of what you know, but who you know,” says Woo. “Any business leader that does not have political knowledge will not be able to rise to the top because, in this society, it’s business leaders helping political leaders, who in turn help business leaders. All of the civic leaders work together.” By increasing political representation and voter turnout, Asian Americans can make significant gains in the business world.
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