About a year ago, I asked the Council on Asian Pacific Minnesotan’s Executive Director, Kao Ly Ilean Her, to write a story for a diversity newsletter I was working on for a corporate client. The result was a moving reflection of Ms. Her’s own journey from Laos to the United States. She recalled the seeds her mother carried—seeds of survival: mustard green, rice, squash and more. Ilean carried memories of her birth land, not toys and the other treasures we think of children holding dear.
As I look back at the two years I’ve spent as Chair of the Council, I have many thoughts and reflections. I recall our accomplishments, the hard work of our staff and board. So often, the hard work isn’t high profile or publicly applauded because its constant, tedious and although dedicated, there’s simply too much to do to sit back and rest on laurels. As a chair, I hope that my service contributed something to the greater good.
My own background and life’s work has been in marketing communications. I’m proud to have helped the Council with much needed branding, a refreshed and dynamic website and a voice in the private sector. I have been an advocate for the work of the Council, a builder of bridges, to borrow a term from CAPM’s strategic plan. I have not spent a lifetime in the halls of the Capitol; therefore my view and work there have been with a certain innocence and naiveté. I have appreciated the kind words from seasoned legislators who have appreciated my lack of political experience, knowing that I’ve worked more from the heart and conscience. I have been proud to have been involved in Council initiatives such as Heritage Month, the Asian Pacific Cultural Center (APCC) and Asian Day at the Capitol.
The most meaningful truths revealed to me during my term as chair are the stories of API people in Minnesota. The Council is made up of representatives from our API communities, appointed by the Governor following an application process. There are approximately forty Asian groups that are the API community, but only sixteen board members. Each board position can reflect one representative from any given Asian country. My own ethnic ancestry is Japanese.
I have been witness to incredible people, both on our Council and in our communities. Our stories are diverse and as different as the number of countries we represent. We are rich with history and current affairs affecting our families and friends at home and abroad. I have been warmed and enlightened about one of Minnesota’s newest refugee communities— the Karen. What an inspirational people. We’ve felt the tragedy of the tsunami directly from our good friends from the Sri Lankan community. We’ve witnessed the tragedies of the Bhutanese and in Myanmar. And we’ve felt the pain of our differences here, in Minnesota, within our own API community. I am saddened by the memory of the vandalism to the sculpture that represents peace at Phalen Park and the destruction of the Hindu temple in Maple Grove. Our worldviews are brought into perspective here in Minnesota because we walk among those stories and places everyday via the people who live them personally.
My own story is older than most. I have traveled my family’s journey over the past few years. And I’ve been influenced by the journeys of other Americans who have lived with oppression and prejudice like segregation and violence. It’s a fitting reflection given that this day I write is Dr. Marin Luther King Day and the eve of the most historic Presidential Inauguration in our history..
Growing up in Minnesota I was painfully aware of being different. My father’s family landed in Minnesota following internment during World War II. We were among those deemed a threat to the United States by virtue of being at war with Japan. My own family has been in the United States since the 1860s, citizens with pride for our country. Nevertheless, Executive Order 9066, an act of racism, was not only illegal, but it also forever changed the lives of Japanese Americans.
I went to the “camp” where my family was incarcerated in Arkansas. I met others like me—those whose lives are forever different than the dreams our parents and grandparents had for us. I am awed by stories and by the people I met who have had a profound impact on our world today. People like Yuri Kochiyama, a Japanese American interned in Arkansas who went on the be a grassroots civil rights organizer and cradled the head of Malcolm X as he lay dying from the gunshot wound of hate. I am amazed at the courage of Japanese Americans in the 442nd Infantry who were put to impossible missions and succeeded— as the most decorated U.S. fighting unit in the history of the armed forces. They fought two wars; the world war in Europe and the war of racism at home. My own story is told, through the voices and by the examples set by my brothers and sisters on the West Coast and throughout the United States following their own families’ relocations. I am proud to be among a group of people who continued to believe in the United States of America, and would not be held down for long.
So, what do I carry? I carry the dreams of fathers, mothers, brothers and sisters. I carry a changed soul for those whom I’ve met and have been privileged to know, with their immense experiences. I carry the awe of people who will risk everything for a better life for their children. I carry the desire to affect change. I carry pride for who I am and for the future, carried on by my son.