How AANHPI Women Rise in Politics

A group called New American Leaders is building a more inclusive democracy—one election at a time

Words by Vivian Ho

Consultant Pakou Hang likes to sum up the importance of diversity in politics with one neat anecdote from more than two decades agofrom after she helped her cousin Mee Moua become the first Hmong American woman elected to the Minnesota state legislature.

Like so many other Asian immigrant communities, the many members of the large Hmong community in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area had grown accustomed to being overlooked and ignored since arriving as refugees in the aftermath of the violence that ravaged southeast Asia in the 1970s. One older woman told Hang about how every day she would go to work at a factory and walk by her boss’ window. Every day she would see him and he would see her, but he wouldn’t acknowledge her or say anything to her. 

The day after Moua won her campaign for state senate, however, the woman’s boss stopped her as she passed his window. He knew she was Hmong, just like Mouabut not much else. “Do you know Mee Moua?” he asked her. 

She didn’t. But in the Hmong community, there’s a joke that everybody is related. So she said yes. “That’s my cousin,” the woman said. “Congratulations!” the boss exclaimed. “I’m so proud of you. I’m so proud of your family.”

“And ever since then, every day she would pass his office, her boss would come out and greet her,” Hang said.

In the 20 years since that moment, the discussions around representation in leadership and politics have become more nuanced and widespread. It’s well understood by this point the value of having people in office whose identities and lived experiences are reflective of the communities they serve. 

“It’s not even about politics, right? It’s about building power."

But it was in that moment that Hang saw what having someone from the community in a leadership position gave back to the community itself. It was about recognition as much as advocacy. In elevating one of their own, they elevated themselves, in large ways like having set up community networks for Moua’s campaignto just having people finally acknowledge them and treat them with the respect and dignity they always deserved. 

“It’s not even about politics, right? It’s about building power,” Hang says. “Here was this older woman in this rinky dinky Minnesota factory with a boss who didn't even come out to greet his workers. And yet, that's what we did [when we got Moua into office]. That’s the language of power.”

The question now, especially for those in Asian American and Pacific Islander communities, is how to get more of their people into those positions of leadershipand, in turn, keep building power for their communities.

New American Leaders, a New York-based organization working to get more first- and second-generation Americans into the political process, found in a recent report on state legislators that just 2 percent of all state legislators nationwide identify as Asian American, Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander (AANHPI). While API Americans account for the largest groups of recent immigrants in the electorate74 percent of API Americans identify as first generation immigrantsonly 84 AAPI state legislators are new Americans. Of those 84, just 36 percent are women.

“AANHPI women have been dramatically underrepresented in all legislative bodies, from the most local to the highest level of governments,” says Ghida Dagher, president of New American Leaders. “This is a moment that has been led up by systematic barriers that have prevented new Americans, in particular women of color, from being engaged in the system and being engaged in terms of running for office.”

With this in mind, New American Leaders last month hosted its first training program geared specifically for Asian American, native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander women. Over the course of a weekend, women from all over the country sat in on sessions that went over such basics as how to write a stump speech, fundraising and the endorsement process.

The first training weekend brought in 23 participants from 16 states, all in different places in their aspirations toward civic engagement. Celina Tupou-Fulivai, 32, is an activist and small business owner from Seattle who grew up in a family entrenched in community organizingbut with little understanding of the political process when it came to a campaign.

Participant Luna Terauchi from Michigan presents her stump speech to the full cohort.

Courtesy of New American Leaders

“I didn't know I needed to have a stump speech or any of those sorts of things that are really the basic and foundational things if you want to be involved politically,” she says.

Growing up, American children are often told by their elders that if they dream big and shoot for the stars, they could one day be president of the United States. Kids growing up in Asian diaspora communities don’t often get those same encouragements. “If you're a millennial and you're the child of an immigrant, I think how we see our parents is that they've always kind of tried to do that model minority thing of keep your head down and go with the flow,” says Tupou-Fulivai, whose mother is a Tongan immigrant. “Work hard, don't make a mistake, don’t bring attention to yourself.”

New American Leaders' Women's Programming Manager, Kiana Abbady (far right), introduces the members of the AANHPI Women Rising panel. The panelists included Cambridge, MA Mayor Sumbul Siddiqqi, Maryland House Delegate Lily Qi, and Jefferson Elementary School District, School Board Member Manufou Liaiga-Anoa'i from Daly City, California.

Courtesy of New American Leaders

Pakou Hang had that same experience growing up in the Hmong community in Minnesota. She loved West Wing. She wanted to be Josh Lyman. She even went so far as to study political science at Yale University. But for her, politics was never supposed to be her path. “I thought the way to get ahead then was to make money, to be an investment banker,” Hang says.

For two years after she graduated, she worked as a financial analyst. But then Sept. 11 happened, and she lost her job just as her cousin Mee Moua decided she wanted to run for office.

The fancy gala fundraiser of tuxedoed men shaking hands is no longer the only way to engage.

It was during this campaign that Hang realized that she and her community had been politically active all along. It just went by a different name: community organizing. “Growing up, we would go to rallies, to protests or door-knock, but I never thought of it as politics,” she says. “I thought of it as only something that my uncle was dragging me [to]. I didn't know the language of politics.”

It really wasn’t until recently that community organizing became accepted in the realm of mainstream politics. When Barack Obama ran for president in 2008, his critics derided him for his inexperience by calling him “just a community organizer.”

In getting more AANHPI women into leadership roles, this is what Hang, who was a trainer at the New American Leaders training session, is working to get across to the next generation. Politics is a new game in this day and age. The fancy gala fundraiser of tuxedoed men shaking hands is no longer the only way to engage.

Dagher likes to bring up the campaign of Shahana Hanif, who last year became one of the first South Asian Americans to be elected to New York city council. “She's Bangladeshi American, and she knew in order for her to be able to run and win her race, she had to involve the Bangladeshi community,” Dagher says. “So in tandem to her English campaign, she ran a campaign in Bangala, and that was actually spearheaded by her mom. That's not what is perceived as a traditional American campaign story. But that's what brought the win home.”

Yet still, Hang stresses that under an umbrella as widespread and diverse as the AANHPI qualifier, there is no one perfect blueprint for running for office.

“I hope that one of the things that people took away from that training is that you don't have to run as an Asian American. You don't have to run as a Hmong American. But you can't deny it. You can't run away from it,” Hang says.

Instead, Hang said, you can use it as your power.

Published on July 25, 2022

Words by Vivian Ho

Vivian Ho is a freelance journalist based in London. She previously worked for the Guardian US and the San Francisco Chronicle, and is the author of “Those Who Wander: America’s Lost Street Kids.” She will pet your dog if you let her. Find her on Twitter at @VivianHo