As HACR commemorates Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, we interviewed Linda Akutagawa, CEO of Leadership Education for Asian Pacifics (LEAP), a fellow Alliance for Board Diversity organization, about the challenges and hopes facing Asians in this country. HACR CEO Cid Wilson joined the conversation to discuss how all communities can stand with Asian Americans to stop Asian hate, and the role Corporate America plays in creating an equitable world.
What does Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month mean to you in 2021, particularly considering the recent spike in crimes against AAPI individuals?
Linda Akutagawa: There’s been a coming together within Asian American communities [in response to the attacks]. And the solidarity is not only within Asian American communities. Various communities have been reminded that as much as there’s a perception that Asian Americans have done well, that is just a very narrow picture of the community, and despite all the success that any community of color could have, there will always be people that want to remind us of how different we are from the dominant power structure. I think about that in the context of what has been happening with George Floyd and his family. They got the accountability, but at the same time, you’re still having black youth being killed and gunned down by police. In Chicago, Adam Toledo was murdered. In Indianapolis, we saw a predominantly Sikh community [attacked] at a FedEx facility. Sadly, this is not the kind of solidarity that any of us really wants to have, but it is one thread that that runs through all of us. So [this AAPI Heritage Month], it’s not just about stopping AAPI hate, but it’s also stopping the assumptions about communities of color that lead to people being killed. People who avoided their Asian heritage because maybe they felt it was the best way to fit in, are now waking up to the fact that not only are they Asian, but they’re embracing that part of themselves. I think that’s something to be celebrated.
Cid Wilson: While this rise in Asian hate is deeply sad, the sadder part is that this is not new in America. It’s a sign of a significant structural and institutional problem that disadvantages people of color. The common denominator is that [minorities] are targeted because of who they are, not for anything anyone did. We still must stand strongly in solidarity with our Asian American brothers and sisters. There’s such beauty in embracing our diversities, and yet, there are people in our country that feel this new majority of people of color is no longer America. And there is the [notion] that America should go back to the way it used to be, which is code for “we do not accept diversity.” In the case of corporate America, that means a lack of people of color on corporate boards and in the C-suite. If those areas are not diverse, and if those in those positions don’t recognize the importance of being allies and champions for diversity, then we’ll continue seeing numbers as low as they are. That perpetuates the perception within corporate America, in the media, and within our society, that there is a difference between people of color and Americans. This month it is especially critical to vocalize our solidarity with the AAPI community.
Let’s talk more about measurable actions and accountability. Is there any legislation that you would like to see with this administration to advance diversity, equity, and inclusion?
LA: There is a senate-proposed bill called the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act that will expand language access in culturally competent and linguistically accessible public education campaigns to reach communities targeted by hate with information regarding reporting, data collection, and support services. It’s not only to combat anti-Asian hate, but also to improve the structures that enable people to report [hate crimes] and, consequently, data collection. Even though there is existing law that protects against discrimination based on race, now there will be mechanisms to ensure that people know where they can report, what the statistics look like, and where they can access support services. There is an amendment by Senator Mike Lee that would strip the bill of any kind of critical language access provisions, which, in a lot of communities, especially immigrant communities, is vital for data collection and the possibility of people actually reporting hate crimes. There’s another amendment by Senator Marsha Blackburn that would strip provisions that provide victims of hate crimes with access to resources. It would really prevent people from being able to get public education and to know where to turn. So, who knows what this is going to be? As we go forward, it’ll be helpful for all our communities to stand around something like this, because it impacts many different groups. I’m also encouraged by statewide [diversity legislation] efforts. California passed legislation on mandating or at least reporting on corporate board diversity. There’s another bill winding its way through the California State Senate requiring California boards and commissions to communicate the makeup of the existing board or commission when appointing a new person, and to report who the candidates are so there’s greater transparency in [the hiring process]. It’s like corporate board diversity: if we don’t have a pipeline of people who are being considered for these roles, how will these entities get more diverse?
CW: I will start with breaking news. It just passed seconds ago. The senate overwhelmingly passed legislation to investigate hate crimes more forcefully, particularly those against Asian Americans, following the March 16 shooting and the increased violence following the spread of the coronavirus from China last year. The vote was 94 to one. Naturally, we’re glad that the Senate sent a strong message of bipartisanship in recognizing that we need to strengthen laws that combat hate crimes. One thing I also want to comment on is what Linda has done to move the needle in terms of combatting the lack of people of color on corporate boards. She authored a piece on behalf of the Alliance for Board Diversity in support of the NASDAQ request to the SEC to require diversity on corporate boards. The reality is that the number of Latinos and Asian Americans serving on boards are both identically low. We know that companies with strong diversity platforms are going to be more likely to step forward and do the right thing [in times of social unrest] rather than just say, “that’s not my problem.” Companies’ reaction to the recent Georgia legislation is proof of that.
What makes the Hispanic and Asian American and Pacific Islander communities such strong allies?
CW: Latinos and Asian Americans have so much in common in terms of our immigrant experiences in the fact that there’s diversity within our communities. Corporate America can’t take a one-size-fits-all approach with Asian Americans or Latinos. There’s also a lot of intersectionality. There is a large Latino-Asian American community in our country, including many who had migrated to parts of South America and whose descendants have now come to the US. It’s easy to see why this is such a natural collaboration.
LA: I would totally agree with you. People may not realize it, but there are a lot of cultural commonalities in terms of how we look at family and things like humility and respect for authority. I also appreciate what you said about Asian-Latinos too. Peru had a Japanese Peruvian president; Mexico has a very vibrant Japanese Mexican and Chinese Mexican population. I think the Japanese community in Brazil is the largest outside of Japan, even larger than the U.S. There are Latino Indians [South Asians] there and throughout the Caribbean, as well. People tend to see us in these single buckets, but Asians are highly diverse, and Latinos are highly diverse, and we’re also diverse together.
Who are some Asian American leaders inspiring you right now?
LA: Off the top of my head, Grace Young. She is a James Beard award winning-cookbook author. Right before New York’s Chinatown shut down, she went out with a documentary filmmaker and interviewed a lot of the small business owners there. In some cases, it was probably the last conversation those businesses had before they shut down. Sadly, a number of them are not coming back, so her capturing those stories was inspirational, because it speaks to the mom-and-pop businesses that that underpin both our communities. There are also two women and a professor from San Francisco State University I’m thinking about. Manju Kulkarni is someone that I know personally, and she and a colleague of hers along with the professor had the foresight, shortly after the first anti-Asian hate crime happened in LA County, to create the Stop AAPI Hate tracking mechanism. They collected all those stories. The storytellers are the ones that really inspire me, because if we don’t have people telling our stories, those things get lost.
CW: I’m really honored that Anne Chow, the CEO of AT&T Business, graced us by participating in our CEO Roundtable in March. I’m proud of her not just for her leadership at AT&T, but also for how connected she is to the diversity and inclusion [space]. I also think highly of leaders like Phyllis Campbell, vice chair at JPMorgan Chase, a great champion for Asian Americans and a great ally for diversity and inclusion. Norman Mineta also comes to mind. I had the privilege of meeting him several years ago and hearing his story about all the things he had to overcome when there was such discrimination against Japanese Americans. I believe he’s the only living individual, regardless of ethnicity, who has an airport named after him. His story is so inspiring.
Want to participate in AAPI Heritage Month with LEAP? Listen to season one of The LEAP Podcast now available on iTunes, Spotify, and Google Podcasts. You can also support LEAP’s participation in Give in May, a national organization that assists the API community during Asian Pacific American Heritage Month. All funds raised will directly support LEAP Emerge, an internship designed for API students.
*This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.