In August, I was asked to take a part-time job with a non-partisan effort to get 10,000 young Asian Americans in Minnesota to register and vote on Nov. 6, Election Day.
I wasn’t sure what the three-month position would involve. But I knew I had to do it. I needed a job to pay my monthly bills. Plus, it sounded like a great opportunity to challenge myself and do something I never imagined doing – getting my peers to vote.
I’m young and part Asian, like the people we were trying to reach. It bugged me that voter turnout among Asian Americans is lower than average — 49 percent in 2008 compared to 64 percent of the total population. In a democracy, fewer votes means less power.
I also liked the campaign’s focus on young people. More than 60 percent of the Asian Americans in Minnesota are younger than 35. In the Hmong community, about 80 percent are. We need to make our voices heard.
The campaign leaders told us from day one that 18-35 year-olds are Minnesota’s future. So, for the next 12 weeks, my priority was to learn about the issues and educate my peers about the importance of becoming politically aware and informed about the issues that matter to us and our families. And, most importantly, to vote on Election Day.
The campaign at home
At home, I asked my 52-year-old father if he had ever voted. I was more curious than surprised when he said no. I asked why. He shrugged.
“You should vote this year!” I urged.
“I don’t think my vote matters,” he said. “Our political system is…”
This was going to be harder than I thought.
My dad is not uninformed. He watches the news and reads the paper, and is never shy to share his opinion.
But he has struggled. He was born in Korea to an American soldier and a Korean woman who gave him up for adoption. At six months old, he arrived in Minnesota malnourished, attention-deprived and in desperate need of healthcare.
He grew up in a white family in a predominately white neighborhood and was often teased for looking different.
My father had never really felt like he belonged. It was evident that he had never made an effort to vote because he had felt like such an outcast. I was determined to change his mind, not just for me but for him.
When people asked me what I did as an organizer, I explained that my schedule changed each day. I was constantly on the phone, email, and Facebook, and meeting college students on campuses in the Twin Cities.
Everywhere I went, I recruited new people to our campaign network and volunteer list. I walked up to students on the street, sat next to them on the bus and made conversations at every opportunity.
When I asked if they planned to vote, many said, “I don’t know” or “I don’t really care enough.”
I always tried to dig deeper. What was holding them back? What issues might motivate them?
Often it wasn’t that they didn’t care, but that they didn’t understand how to register or find out where to vote. I tried to leave every person with a sense of empowerment and a plan for making a difference in the election.
My inner organizer
Meanwhile, I continued to ask my dad if he would vote. He always said no, mostly to get a rise out of me.
One day when we were in the car together, I asked again, “Are you going to vote?”
“I don’t know.”
“I know you’re not registered. Are you going to register?”
“I don’t know how.”
This I could help with.
Later that week I handed him a registration form and asked him to fill it out right then so I could help him if he had questions. He said he was tired. He would do it tomorrow.
Help from friends, family
While organizing voters, I took full advantage of my networks of family and friends. My aunt let me borrow her car to get to meetings. Other friends tapped their friends via Facebook and got them to register.
One of my best friends from college, Suemee Lee, stopped by one day and asked if she could pick up some registration forms to take to Duluth over the weekend.
Suemee is quiet and shy, and I was thrilled by her willingness to help. I was even more blown away when she returned with all 25 pledge forms filled out.
“Sorry, Suemee, I’m a monster,” I said.
“No, you’re just really passionate…and you’ve turned me into a monster,” Lee assured.
For the rest of the campaign, her words never left me. They helped keep my passion strong, no matter how difficult some days felt.
Another week passed before I remembered that my dad still needed to register. One evening, I found him sitting at the kitchen table.
“Please fill out the form,” I pleaded.
My mom chimed in, “Ariel, you’re going to have to fill it out for him. He is not going to do it.”
“Give me this!” My dad snatched the form from my hand and began writing.
Crushing comfort zones
Another friend, Emily, helped me canvass before she left for Army Basic Training. She pushed me to walk up to every possible person and get comfortable with being uncomfortable. I needed to stand up for what I believed in and help others be a part of our vision.
She inspired me to keep chugging, even on days when I felt like little had been done toward meeting our goal of 10,000 new voters.
On Election Day, we got the results: Our efforts helped mobilize more than 13,000 Asian American Minnesotans to vote. And the entire effort was led by people like me, mostly in our 20s and working on our first campaign. For most of us, it will not be the last.
But the best moment came when my dad proudly showed me his red “I Voted” sticker and smiled. We are determined to keep our conversation going.