I recently hosted a political fundraiser for a local campaign. It was a fabulous event by all accounts—we reached our fundraising goal; we had a large turnout with a good mix of community leaders and businesspeople, and most importantly, everyone had a great time and felt that they were part of something special and meaningful.
But what was really remarkable was that for the first time, a group of immigrant Chinese Americans, who normally shy away from political activities, participated in a political fundraiser for a candidate who was neither Chinese nor Asian. In their own words, it was “mainstream politics.”
It is often said that politics is the last frontier for Asian Americans. For immigrant Asians, it is virtually a forbidden territory because of many cultural, economic and social barriers. It helps to know a few things about the people you try to engage before you use the same template that worked well with other communities to apply to immigrant Asian communities.
First of all, to care about a local election requires some knowledge of what’s going on in your community or what a local government does. If all you care about is trash and snow removal and good schools for your kids, you are unlikely to care who is in office. What’s more, what we care about is often a function of how we make a living, which can be quite different from one Asian community to the next. In the Capital Region, a large part of the local Chinese immigrant community is made of professionals employed by government agencies, businesses or institutions and as such don’t have much interaction with a local government. The Korean and Vietnamese communities, which have more people running small businesses including retail or service businesses that are very location-based, tend to pay more attention to local issues such as tax rates, permitting processes, and some regulatory issues that the rest of us may be oblivious to.
Where you are in life stages also makes a huge difference in your level of engagement or your financial ability to make contributions. Those who are still commuting long distances to work every day, then come home to start the second shift of driving young kids to a crazy array of after-school activities, and trying to make ends meet while advancing career goals are unlikely to have much time or energy left to attend town hall meetings, public hearings or join a commission, let alone making financial contributions to a campaign.
Not understanding the political system in this country is another major hurdle. Depending on the person I talked to, I had to sometimes find culturally appropriate ways to explain what a political fundraiser is; who the candidate was and why we should support him; why campaigns need money; what I was asking them to do and why our community should be involved in such activities. I was amused when one of the host committee members confused political fundraisers and charitable fundraisers by suggesting that we use silent auction instead of straight donation for this event so people would feel like they were getting something in return for their money!
Through it all, some common themes of concerns emerged, including concerns that participating in political activities while employed by federal government or as leaders of local community nonprofits would jeopardize their employment or their community groups’ legal standing. The truth is, you can feel free to engage in political activities as long as you do so as private citizens without using your government or nonprofit positions or affiliations or soliciting contributions from your subordinates.
These factors point to the needs for some extra prep work to get your talking points and materials ready before you reach out. Some quick tips include having in-language materials ready for distribution to explain the event and the candidate; partnering with ethnic media to promote the event beyond doing the hard work of individual outreach; preparing the candidate for appropriate remarks that matter to your audience and finally, making sure you make the event extra nice so people would walk away talking about this in a nice way for a long time.
Though it was one of the hardest events I have ever pulled off, that fundraiser was also one of the most worthy in my history of community involvement because it signals a new chapter in our community’s evolution and maturity.