Asian Americans Urged to Get Involved,
Seek Office, Cause Change
By Sherry Fisher
Asian Americans must become involved with all levels of American society, must band together, and must celebrate the successes of other Asian Americans, Irene Natividad, a political activist and women's advocate, said during an address September 20 in the Rome Ballroom at South Campus.
"We have to continue to fight invisibility and backlash and stereotyping through politics at all levels - as voters, hopefully as office holders, as contributors, as advocates," she said during a three-day conference "(Re) Presenting Filipino Americans." The symposium explored Filipino culture, history and politics through presentations, panels, round table discussions, performances and visual works. Some 150 academics and activists participated in the event, sponsored by the Asian American Cultural Center and the Asian American Studies Institute.
Natividad said more Asian Americans must consider running for office. "It isn't enough for us to envision change, we have to see ourselves as the agents of change," she said. "We have to band together, not only as Filipino Americans, but also with other Asian Americans and present ourselves as a united front with other peoples of color," she said. "It requires us to move beyond our personal comfort zones and to pioneer new areas of mutual interests and involvement.
"What makes an American?" Natividad asked. "Is it a yearning for a common language, a culture, a desire to assimilate? Or is it more of an emphasis on preserving one's ethnic identity while finding commonality in a shared belief in this thing that we call democracy?"
For 'hyphenated' Americans, she said, "this desire to appreciate or to celebrate what makes us Americans needs to be balanced with a need to define ourselves as a major group in mainstream America."
In 1985, Natividad, a native of the Philippines, was elected president of the National Women's Political Caucus, becoming the first Asian American to lead a national political organization. She is now director of the Global Summit of Women, an international gathering of businesswomen and political leaders that is in its 12th year. She was deputy vice chair of the Democratic Party's Asian Caucus from 1982 to 1984.
Natividad stressed the importance of celebrating Asian Americans who have "helped move us out of invisibility." She noted that the top three tourist spots in Washington were designed by Asian Americans: the east wing of the National Gallery was designed by I.M. Pei; the Vietnam Memorial was designed by Maya Lin and the architect of the National Air and Space Museum was Gyo Obata. Other prominent Asian Americans include two U.S. senators and two governors, as well as others in business, the arts and academia.
Natividad talked about how she and other Asian Americans were affected by the 1996 controversy regarding illegal contributions made to the Democratic National Convention by several Asian Americans. "The investigation turned its glaring light on anyone with surnames that sounded Asian," she said. "In one fell swoop, we went from model minorities to sneaky foreigners. The result was the return of stereotypes that we thought we had outgrown, but which still lie close to the surface."
Angry about the way Asian Americans were portrayed in the news, she organized a group of Asian American leaders to join her in editorial board meetings to "call attention to our plight from those who shape American opinions daily, the media."
"We told them to avoid confusing Asian Americans with Asians who live in other countries; avoid using the alleged improprieties of a handful of Asian Americans with Asian Americans overall; (and asked them not to) cite the ethnicity of individuals if it's totally irrelevant to the story," Navitidad said. "This is an example of how you fight back."