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Beyond ‘survival mode’: Asian-American youth embrace political activism

“I feel like a lot of young folks don’t have a voice at decision-making processes, and we need that voice,” said Kong Xiong, co-founder of Hmong Americans for Justice.

Wearing blue shirts, Asian American Organizing Project leaders Vang Xor Xiong, center left, and Isabela Alesna, center right, teach new volunteers how to door knock.
MinnPost photo by Tiffany Bui

As pivotal political events press closer, Asian-American youth are turning out to amplify their voices and the voices of their community.

Nationwide, Asian-American turnout has typically lagged behind rates for black and white voters. But as of last year, that trend is beginning to change.

During the 2018 elections, Asian-American youth joined their peers to vote in historic highs — even increasing turnout at a higher rate than that of white or black voters in the same age group, according to Kei Kawashima Ginsberg, director of CIRCLE, a civic engagement research institution at Tufts University. For midterm elections in 2014 and 2018, voter turnout for Asian-Americans ages 18-29 increased 19 percent, compared to 17 percent for whites and 11 percent for blacks. (Voting data from the U.S. Census Bureau do not differentiate between Asians and Pacific Islanders.)

Midterm Asian young voter turnout, 2000 through 2018
Turnout is defined as proportion of voters out of all U.S. citizens of Asian origin ages 18–24.
Source: U.S. Census Bureau

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“There were a lot of youth-led movement(s) in 2018 and going up to 2018 elections, as the way we see it, both in survey and … the anecdotal evidence from the ground,” said Kawashima Ginsberg.

In Minnesota, the largest Asian-American and Pacific Islander (API) ethnicities include Hmong, Indian, Chinese, Vietnamese, Korean and Filipino, according to Asian and Pacific Islander American Vote (APIA Vote), a national nonpartisan organization.

Selena Vu
MinnPost photo by Tiffany Bui
Selena Vue checks her list of addresses, dampened by the rain, to figure out which house to door knock next.
This is a steadily growing voting bloc in the state. The number of eligible API voters increased 41 percent between 2010 and 2016, compared to a 5 percent increase statewide, APIA Vote data shows. Of all eligible API voters, 33 percent are ages 18 to 29.

Motivated by a range of issues, including immigration and health care, advocates are pushing to get more of their community civically engaged.

“We are the children of our elders, immigrants who are refugees, undocumented,” said Linda Her, executive director of the Asian American Organizing Project. “We focus on young people because they have a lot of fresh ideas and they are the leaders of the now.”

Beyond ‘survival mode’

Low voter turnout among young people is nothing new. But for young and educated Asian-Americans, it’s unexpected, at least in political science theory.

Although education is a key predictor of voting, data for Asian-Americans don’t pan out that way (Pacific Islanders and some southeast Asians have lower rates of educational attainment than Asian-Americans as a group, fueling the push for data disaggregation by advocates).

One reason? Many immigrant families don’t talk about politics with their kids.

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“Especially for southeast Asian communities, we’re pretty new here. … there’s not that culture instilled in us of participating in government,” said Rep. Samantha Vang, DFL-Brooklyn Center. “Our parents came to America, they were basically in survival mode … they’re more worried about their day-to-day life than getting engaged in politics.”

So what changed? According to Kawashima Ginsberg, it was a wave of peer-led activism that pushed young voters across the board to show up at last year’s polls.

“[Peer-led activism] made talking about politics much more normative, even when families of theirs didn’t socialize them into that in a structured way — you know, say, talking about political issues at the dinner table or taking them to protests and organizing,” said Kawashima Ginsberg.

“Young Asian-Americans, who are educated and have access to information and likely to have friends who are talking about these things, may have felt more pressure and more advocacy around becoming involved, perhaps for the first time.”

Andi Patimasari
MinnPost photo by Tiffany Bui
Andi Patimasari, a resident of north Minneapolis, fills out a pledge to complete the 2020 U.S. Census.
The Asian American Organizing Project, formed in 2014, is one group trying to harness the newfound energy. In anticipation of the 2020 Census and the presidential election, AAOP has been gathering youth to door knock and phone bank in Twin Cities neighborhoods.

Long Nguyen works at a table for AAOP each Sunday at St. Columba Church, where he encourages parishioners to pledge to fill out the 2020 Census. Three years after immigrating to the United States from Vietnam, Nguyen joined the predominantly Vietnamese Catholic church located in Frogtown.

“In Vietnam if you go vote, who knows if my vote is going to be counted towards … the number? And a lot of young people like us don’t even know what’s going on,” said Nguyen.

“Past two years, I feel like we had a lot of change. As … a youth leader, a lot of elders kind of like, trusting us, because we’re part of our community. So … they’re like, I’ll register, I’ll listen to you,” he said.

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A need to be heard

Kong Xiong, co-founder of Hmong Americans for Justice, is 29 years old and has been organizing for a decade. He believes young organizers have “just had enough of the policy and decision-making that doesn’t reflect them and their voices,” he said.

“I feel like a lot of young folks don’t have a voice at decision-making processes, and we need that voice,” said Xiong. “We can’t function in a system where people have to wait their turn. It doesn’t work like that anymore.”

API advocates, who come from a wide range of ethnicities, say their community often feels underserved by politicians. So members look to each other for support instead.

“I never knew what I was doing — I just did it. I just tested and experimented, that’s all you can do is believe in yourself and believe in the power of your community enough to just do it,” said mk nguyen, a longtime community organizer in St. Paul and Long Nguyen’s cousin.

Long Nguyen
MinnPost photo by Tiffany Bui
Long Nguyen, center, helps St. Columba Church parishioners pledge to complete the 2020 U.S. Census.
“I think that’s where the power of the young people are — just in joyful, fun ways for our people to feel belonging in the process,” she said. “And I think that that’s our role only … we can’t rely on white people to do that for us. We can’t rely on anybody but ourselves to do that.”

Niyati Alluri, an incoming 12th-grader at Maple Grove Senior High School, volunteers weekly for the health nonprofit Sewa – Asian Indian Family Wellness. Alluri does a variety of tasks at the organization’s health clinics, like translating for patients and running some health tests.

“I’m really looking forward to participating in voting and in our government,” said Alluri. “I think that a lot of kids should be involved even before they become voting age because then they’ll be better prepared to vote and get people to represent them.”