In the early evening of June 18th, a sizable group of professionally-clad, college-aged students congregated in a conference room at the Capitol Visitor Center, after having navigated its basement of labyrinthine passages. It was there, amidst the unbearably thick layer of humidity and swampy (and some would say, tropical) heat outside, the once cool winter and spring breezes long gone, that these students enjoyed a joint Conference on Asian Pacific American Leadership (CAPAL) and Washington Leadership Program event to usher in the D.C. summer. This opening ceremony was one of the many pedagogical and professional development events that CAPAL and WLP will be hosting for these students in the summer of 2014.
Three very distinguished guest speakers addressed this diverse body of students who included Chinese, Indian, Vietnamese, Filipino, and Hmong/Miao Americans and came from all reaches and obscure pockets of the US, from Southern California to Maine, from Atlanta, Georgia to St. Paul, Minnesota. This coterie of remarkable students represented the International Leadership Foundation (ILF), CAPAL, WLP, Asian Pacific American Institute for Congressional Studies (APAICS), AAPI, and OCA. Many of these students had already begun government and non-profit internships at USAID, the White House Initiative for Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (WHIAAPI), Department of Treasury and Commerce, and NASA, et al; others were still waiting to begin, while a minority of them had only just arrived in D.C. due to University of California’s quarter system. For some, this summer marked their first time to the metropolis that is D.C.
Decades ago, ILF was conceived in Sacramento, California as a nonprofit organization, which strove to cultivate Asian American leaders and foster a community of Asian Americans interested, and involved, in public service, government, and policy. Kiran Ahuja, Executive Director of the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, speaking at CAPAL
Kiran Ahuja, Executive Director of the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (WHIAAPI), addressed the students with masterful oratorial skills, giving her audience a glimpse into her life and a vivid account of Washington, D.C. In 1993, Ahuja graduated from Spelman College, a historically Black liberal arts college for women, and made her way to D.C. on a minority fellowship to intern at the State Department. It was only a brief period of time before Ahuja would find her way back to D.C. to establish a profession in law, after graduating from University of Georgia’s school of law. She recalled the significance of seeing the shifts in the US and especially in D.C. in which Asian Americans (and especially, women of color) began to have a stake in the political process. Ahuja’s reflection on her time as a civil rights lawyer, as being “on the other side,” in the wake of post-9/11 anti-South Asian and anti-Muslim sentiments crystallized this point. The growing diversity of the judiciary can also be seen as a result of, and attributed to, Obama’s presidential election and administration. But great change is still needed beyond Obama, such was Ahuja’s caveat. Ahuja closed by emphasizing that the work we all must do, in derailing the “model minority” myth, the work upon which, she says, “D.C. is dependent,” must make that social change realizable.
Gloria S. Chan, Former president and CEO of Asian Pacific American Institute for Congressional Studies (www.gloriaschan.com) — Photo taken from www.capal.org
Former president and CEO of Asian Pacific American Institute for Congressional Studies (APAICS) as well as executive director of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus (CAPAC), Gloria S. Chan (@gloriaschan) led a workshop on networking in the penultimate portion of the ceremony, which was followed by closing remarks by CAPAL’s executive team. Chan’s quirky and amicable demeanor was a great coda to the speakers who came before her and commanded attention and participation. Catching students unawares, Chan would ask them solicitous questions so that they would raise their hands and be called upon to speak. In the process, students ruminated upon their personal feelings toward networking; it was, unsurprisingly, a mixed bag. Many felt anxious, especially those who were self-identified introverts. Others professed their love for meeting new people and some found networking superficial and even tortuous. Although Chan accounted for the highly disparate modes of networking, she declared that there was only one way to shake hands. Following this very intimate workshop, the ceremony disbanded after the CAPAL executive team briefly spoke and a reception at a nearby restaurant took place.
Snapshot of interns listening intently to the CAPAL speakers
Whether it is befriending the interns who work on the hill, learning to navigate D.C. geographically and administratively, or refining one’s networking skills, these students will access indelible knowledge from which they can develop a multitude of skills apposite to their presents and futures. Indeed, the nation’s capital is a storehouse of opportunities and advancement where students can form lasting bonds with like-minded peers and mentors and forge an Asian American political presence and voice.
~ Page written by 2014 ILF Fellow, Bee Vang; Photos provided by Chris Wu