Elevating API Voices in Advancing Racial Equity

Posted on December 12, 2017

The Weissberg Foundation is cross-posting this piece Hanh Le co-authored for Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPIP) in her capacity as co-chair of AAPIP’s Metro DC Chapter


Conversations about race are not new to our country and our communities. The frequency, intensity, and urgency of these conversations, however, seem heightened in these times. We see powerful and inspiring advocacy, organizing, and civic engagement efforts led by communities of color and our allies to advance racial equity. It is critical for these conversations to move beyond the binary as we continue to face egregious race-based injustices that inflict harm on people’s day-to-day lives and suppress their longer term outcomes.

While our nation’s deep political divisiveness hinders the advancement of equity and reparations for the harm caused by past injustices, there seems to be growing momentum and desire in the philanthropic sector to advance racial equity. That said, momentum and desire need to be followed by changes in practice and real action.

How can Asian and Pacific Islander individuals lift our voices individually and collectively—including standing with AND for other populations of color—in service of advancing equity for our communities? In convening our November 9th program, “Elevating Our Voices in Advancing Racial Equity,” the Metro DC chapter of AAPIP and our co-conveners Gates Asians in Philanthropy hoped to give participants an opportunity to hear insights from API leaders with varying experiences and perspectives on this issue and provide participants time and space to explore the role they might play in elevating API voice—including their own voice—in advancing racial equity.

We invited Lori Villarosa, executive director of the Philanthropic Initiative for Racial Equity (PRE) and a former board member and chair of AAPIP National, to share her insights and facilitate the conversation. Our featured panelists were Keely Monroe, Democracy Program Manager at the Funders’ Committee for Civic Participation (FCCP); Neel Saxena, executive director of Asian American LEAD (AALEAD); and Vega Subramaniam, co-founder and principal of Vega Mala Consulting. Our 40 or so participants included APIs from all walks of philanthropy; local, regional, and national nonprofit organizations; and business, both large and small.

Lori kicked off the discussion by sharing the PRE infographic, “What Does Philanthropy Need to Know to Prioritize Racial Justice?” Based on data collected between 2005 and 2014, the infographic provided the following national context:

  • Despite changing demographics and increased societal awareness of the impacts of systemic racism, the data available through the Foundation Center shows no progress on expanding funding for people of color;
  • Funding targeting specific racial/ethnic communities stagnated or decreased, and fewer than half of grants designed to reach communities of color named one or more specific racial/ethnic groups as a focus; however,
  • Using 5-year comparisons between 2005-2009 and 2010-2014, growth in funding to groups using racial justice language showed slight gains, increasing from 1.1% to 1.7%. And importantly, this reflected activity among all types of foundations—private, family, community and corporate—that are funding explicit work on racial equity or racial justice.

Panelists then shared strategies that can be used to uplift API voices and perspectives in racial equity discussions.

  • Keely emphasized that we have the power and influence to lift up the work of API-led organizations; remind funders that they can support and engage in advocacy for API communities; and to engage ourselves in mentorship relationships that can empower both mentor and mentee to be stronger advocates.
  • Neel highlighted both professional and personal strategies. Within the context of an organization, he suggested ensuring diverse and inclusive boards; investing organizational assets in funds that positively impact low income communities and communities of color; and making sure that funders are doing their part to support the diverse needs of the diverse API community. Neel also encouraged us to think about how to leverage our roles outside of work, such as providing cultural context and feedback to teachers about more inclusive curriculum and activities in our children’s education.
  • Vega talked about the issue from a talent management and organizational development perspective, pointing to the Race to Lead: Confronting the Racial Leadership Gap study that found “the percentage of people of color in nonprofit executive director roles has remained under 20% for the past decade.” She advocated for building API leadership in our organizations—by bringing in new API talent as well as by developing the leadership of existing API staff. Vega also talked about the great diversity within the API community and cautioned us against replicating internally the suppression that our communities already face externally in society.

The insights and ideas our speakers shared ignited engaged discussion among our participants. Feedback in response to our post-program survey indicates the majority of participants learned something new about advancing racial equity. That said, they were more ambivalent about having left the program with at least one action they themselves would take to advance racial equity. This gap between knowledge and action indicates that we have more work to do in empowering ourselves with skills, confidence, and urgency to act on our knowledge.
This is work our AAPIP-Metro DC chapter will continue to do. We look forward to collaboration with AAPIP National and our fellow chapters across the country. Indeed, how can we not?
Additional resources on the particular intersection of API communities and racial justice:


Hanh Le is co-chair of the AAPIP-Metro DC Chapter. Hanh serves as executive director of the Weissberg Foundation in Arlington, VA. A co-founder of the Cherry Blossom Giving Circle, she also co-chairs the Washington Regional Association of Grantmakers’ Racial Equity Working Group and serves on the board of Asian American LEAD.

Rosie Abriam is co-chair of the AAPIP-Metro DC Chapter. Rosie serves numerous national organizations including FilVetREP, Forward Together, the Leader Project and AAPIP. She recommends for ALY Fund, a donor advised fund with East Bay Community Foundation, and is the past president/CEO for The Center for Asian Pacific American Women.