At the end of April 2021, President Joe Biden released a proclamation declaring May as Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander (AANHPI) Heritage Month. AANHPI Heritage Month is a time in which our country can honor and recognize the contributions and influence of Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders on the United States’ history, culture, and accomplishments. This recognition is especially significant currently, as many AANHPI communities face heightened fear and instances of anti-Asian biases during the time of the COVID-19 global pandemic. For AANHPI Heritage Month 2021, NCLR is spotlighting the voices of our AANHPI staff members about their experiences in the field of advocacy and social justice.
NCLR Deputy Director and Family Law Director
“This feels like a scary time but it’s always been a scary time to be AANHPI in the U.S. Our communities have overcome so much. A shared value we have is supporting our families and communities, and we can do this by showing up for other people of color experiencing violence and oppression.”
Cathy Sakimura, NCLR Deputy Director and Family Law Director
As NCLR’s Deputy Director and Family Law Director, Cathy Sakimura (she/her) oversees NCLR’s family law work and serves on the organization’s senior management team. She recognizes that NCLR’s social justice and advocacy work – through litigation and public education, from immigration to family, to employment – benefits AANHPI folks.
Sakimura notes that “NCLR’s commitment to supporting native sovereignty whenever our work touches on native or tribal rights” has, from her perspective, always been a significant aspect of NCLR’s work. Sakimura explains that she chose her area of work and advocacy because she has always been interested in keeping families together and how families with children are supported. Sakimura explains, “I get to work with truly amazing people – my incredibly strong clients and passionate colleagues,” and that is what makes her job at NCLR fulfilling.
“Being Japanese American, our history in this country is that our grandparents and great grandparents were stripped of all their property and held in concentration camps,” Sakimura explains. “But now are seen as a ‘model minority’ and we do experience privilege from proximity to whiteness. It’s a short time for such a shift so both of these experiences are part of what it means to be Japanese American now.”
NCLR Supervising Helpline Attorney
“Dream big and share your most expansive vision for yourself, your communities, and the world! Don’t get discouraged by skepticism or hate. You are more powerful than you know.”
Ming Wong, NCLR Supervising Helpline Attorney
As NCLR’s Supervising Helpline Attorney, Ming Wong’s (he/him) work entails managing NCLR’s helpline and the organization’s student law clerk program, representing asylum-seekers through NCLR’s Immigration Project, overseeing NCLR’s Rural Pride program and Legal Aid training project, as well as maintaining the National LGBT Legal Aid Forum listserv.
“I’m very proud of NCLR’s commitment to expanding the availability of culturally competent legal services to low-income LGBTQ people,” Wong explains. He also notes that LGBTQ people of color, especially transgender and bisexual people of color, are particularly economically marginalized and more likely to qualify for free legal aid.
Wong explains that the work NCLR has been doing for decades includes representing asylum seekers, and more recently, DACA applicants and survivors of serious crimes in the U.S. These clients are overwhelmingly from countries that experience colonization and economic exploitation, contributing to political instability or corruption which ultimately enables violent homophobia and transphobia.
“To be honest, I’m just trying to live my life as my Asian self every month of the year!” Wong explains. “This is a reminder, though, for me to learn more about other AANHPI people’s lives and what our peoples have faced and are struggling with today, including what lessons we can learn from our histories.”
Regarding AANHPI Heritage Month, both Sakimura and Wong explain that ‘AANHPI’ encompasses such an incredibly varied group of people.
Sakimura notes that a large aspect of AANHPI Heritage Month is “understanding that there are so many different identities within these groups with different values and experiences” and that these different experiences shape and influence the different issues AANHPI people face every day. Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander people have faced colonization, assimilation, and erasure as native people, while East Asian, South East Asian, and South Asian people in the United States face different kinds of discrimination and have different immigration stories, Sakimura elaborates.
Wong explains that, globally, AANHPI people make up more than half of the world’s people, though are a minority in the United States:
“I think for many of us, as a minority group in this country, visibility has positive and negative aspects,” Wong states. “For me, it is positive when visibility means representations of AANHPI people as fully human – with interesting, passionate, funny, and often messy lives. It is negative when visibility means flat characterizations of us as merely terrorists, vectors of disease, sexually available and/or sexually inept (a particularly gendered depiction), or even ‘good’ stereotypes like being a ‘model minority,’ or dispensers of exotic ancient wisdom.”
These stereotypes are used to justify harm and violence to AANHPI communities, such as hate attacks and hate speech, anti-immigrant policies, and even unlawful detention and torture. Even some of the “good” stereotypes are used to divide AANHPI folks from other people and communities of color, which overall undermines efforts to move the United States toward racial justice.
As Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander Heritage Month comes to a close, NCLR encourages you to continue to honor and value the voices and experiences of AANHPI folks not only this month, but year round, as well as advocate for AANHPI folks and speak out against anti-Asian hate in our country.