Tom LaVenture reflects on ten years at Asian American Press

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Tom LaVenture, managing editor of the Asian American Press, stepped down last week to take a reporter position for the International Falls Daily Journal. He leaves a job that he could only describe as a labor of love, and can only say that to move on is necessary for both the AAP and himself. Like any organization, AAP needs new and fresh perspectives and people. He looks forward to its transformation into a more national presence with improved online multimedia presentation of information.

Ted Meinhover interviewed Tom LaVenture about his experience as editor of the Asian American Press:

Ted Meinhover: How did you first find yourself working in St. Paul as the editor of the Asian American Press?

Tom LaVenture: That is a story that I have been trying to simplify since starting here in June of 1997. I realize now it is impossible because there were so many variables that came together to lead me here.

First, I believe that my military experience in the 1980s and 1990s, winding up with a three month tour in Saudi Arabia, and nearly two years in Panama, made me feel a little like an outsider when I returned home to finish school at the University of Wisconsin – Superior. The student population was about 2,500 then, and included a good ratio of international students from China, Taiwan, Japan, Sri Lanka, India and many other counties. The Southeast Asian students were just beginning to appear in 1995 and there are many more at the school now.

I gravitated toward this group as most of the people I started school with had graduated and moved on. It helped that the concentration in my Political Science major was mostly international studies and ethnic conflict courses, and I took the first-ever offered courses in Japanese language at UWS.

I made many friends with Asian students who were in my political science and communication arts studies. I attended their functions and would go together to UMD and UWS Asian and multicultural events, and the Bayfield Apple Festival. I would drive some of them to the Twin Cities when they needed to take Graduate School English language tests at the University of Minnesota or at Concordia. It was during one of these visits that I dropped Masahiro Kagayama off at Concordia and drove down University Avenue. I walked into the Asian American Press building, as I was a Journalism minor and about to graduate a few weeks later. I met Mr. Nghi Huynh, the publisher, and the next thing I knew, I was moving to the Twin Cities in June to begin working for the paper.

This was not a full time writing job and I agreed work for related nonprofit projects: Asian Community Health Center, Asian Pacific Tobacco – Free Coalition of Minnesota, Southeast Asian Youth Media Project, Asian Business & Community Foundation and many others. This proved essential in my integration in the Asian community, as I met other organization leaders and advocates as partners on various projects. Working with community leaders on these most important issues helped me to gain a perspective to write for the Asian community paper. Tom Morley was the editor then, and Greg Salisbury after him. He left in March, 2001 and I stepped in to the most personally fulfilling job I will probably ever have.

T.M. – Do you feel you have been a part of the Asian American community here, or simply an observer?

T.L. – I have made many friends. I see some of them once a year and some of them every week. I have always been hesitant to call myself part of the community for the obvious reason that I was not raised in the Asian community and really just joined everyone here ten years ago. When I was given the Council on Asian Pacific Minnesotans 2005 Leadership Award, I was overwhelmed and could not believe I was standing there on stage with great people who have spent a lifetime doing great things for the community. I always felt that I was perhaps just very visible in doing my job. But, no one has ever said to me that they questioned the award and it was the proudest day of my life.

Your question also touches on the area of mainstream media and ethnic community media. My journalism schooling taught me to be an observer and the importance of objective reporting. Accepting that disparities and institutional racism persists – and that even within the most well-intentioned bureaucracy there are still hurdles that require loud voices, an APIA paper must focus on the news and groups that are pushing for these issues against blind resistance. That requires a level of coverage that may appear to be advocacy on issues of importance to the pan-Asian community. Without journalism training it would not be possible to separate the rhetorical from newsworthy information with purpose for minority media.

I have had to know where the community stands when advocates talk about the latest immigration law changes and how it pertains to reunification for families that have been separated two decades or more. Or when Filipino veterans of the Second World War are dieing off as they wait for the U.S. government to recognize their service for America at the time it was a territory. The same goes with the myriad of health and social policies that impact disparities or with hate crimes legislation and unchecked, regressive proposed laws that would result in unnecessary and punitive policies toward immigrants and refugees.

When it comes to Adult Basic Education, specialized jobs training and MFIP requirements for new Americans, if being an advocate means that I am taking seriously what the specialists say that new American kids need to be equal with their piers by the time they graduate – against all types of resistance, then that is the purpose of the AAP.

The Asian community is diverse economically and socially, in education levels and the number of generations in this country. They are all over the political spectrum. So, it is not possible to find one voice on most issues or candidates – while I always featured the Asian candidates, no matter their political party.

The one bias that I do have is tobacco use. There is no gray line there for me. I find it hard to listen to someone say that smoke-free communities will violate the personal rights of smokers. Tell me what you think the next time you see an adult smoking in a car with children sitting in the back seat. Go to a restaurant in Wisconsin and see how bloodshot your eyes are at the end of dinner. Smell your clothes. This was Minnesota a couple of years ago and its much better now.

T.M. – How has the Asian American community in the Twin Cities changed over the past six years?

I became editor in March, 2001. In the months leading up to 9-11, there was great change and optimism in all areas of the community. This was no utopia, but people felt there was genuine progress over the past decade. Much of that success came from Dr. Bruce Corrie’s Asian Pacific Policy Roundtable, and getting elected officials together with community leaders led to a lot of real change.

Whether it was getting candidates to understand issues of importance to the APIA community, or the wider issues to communities of color, the Forum helped make progress with state and local government on issues from improving the process to government contracts, or awareness of racial overtones in redistricting, the Forum succeeded.

After 9-11, the air of optimism changed to stagnation. I was happy to attend the many events at the Islamic Center and other Mosques and even at the State Capitol in the effort to get the community to better know Minnesota Muslims. Those initial meetings were very constructive. I had been to only one Sikh event before visiting the Sikh Gurudwara to hear them express their concerns to the Department of Transportation about their policy of removing turbans and headdress for license photos.

I hope that it does not take disasters to keep these dialogues among communities going. Lets hope the Asian Pacific Policy Roundtable can get started again this year.

T.M. – What are some of the greatest challenges faced by the Asian American community?

T.L. – Well, you heard most of it already. I would probably misspeak to try and reiterate the details of all the important issues that the APIA nonprofits are advocating. Some of the standout issues are with more support for early childhood education; addressing health disparities and the special needs of new Americans on mainstream programs such as MFIP.

The very tragic murder suicides of spouses and children in recent years illustrated the need for addressing domestic violence and for improved community support in cultural transition of new Americans. The gang issues come and go but there has got to be a better way of addressing gang issues than waiting for a child to join a gang and make a mistake as a teen that will get them locked up for the rest of their life.

I would be very happy to see the Minnesota Asian/American Health Coalition (MA/AHC) realize their goal of building a pan-Asian health center in the Twin Cities. The Asian Community Health Center always came up just short of realizing an APIA clinic. MA/AHC has a coalition of health professionals and a network of support in a methodical and long term approach to building a clinic that is strategically located and service oriented to the needs of local pan-Asian groups. The Twin Cities is one of the only major metro areas with a large APIA population that has yet to build a health center, and that may be due to the population dynamics, good health services already present.

True immigration reform is a priority and I would hope that it won’t be as punitive as current legislation predicts, and that policies on reunification and hope for refugees and asylees is given new life.

By-in-large, the major challenges, I believe, are with finding the pan-Asian voice where there are common interests and needs. The Council on Asian Pacific Minnesotans is a pan-Asian voice. The Dragon Festival and the Asian Pacific Cultural Center are examples of pan-Asian unity and shows the community at its best when everyone works together.

T.M. – What are some of the greatest achievements of the community?

T.L. – I have watched as a generation of Asian youth grew into adulthood, comfortable in both their ethnic and mainstream communities. They respect the sacrifices that their parents and grandparents made for them to come to America. They remember the challenges of growing up and work to change the community for the better. It is no longer those new people, but of watching with amazement as a community emerges and its individuals rise to serve and set an example.

There are fewer “first Asian this and first Asian that”, because more APIA communities are represented at all levels of society in Minnesota. I am most proud that Minnesota’s APIA community has developed an identity of its own, and is seen as a beautiful and distinct community by the more densely populated APIA communities elsewhere.

This is evident with the growth and prominence of Mu Performing Arts and their cadre of talent; and the successive Data Summits produced by the Minnesota Asian/American Health Coalition – to bring forth the ethic and racial health data to push for disparities legislation and funding for the health center. I could just go on and on but then would leave someone out.

Now that I have said all that, I will close by saying that the experience has transformed me more than anything, and I would not presume to be an expert on any of these issues. I have had the benefit of advice and counsel from the best people around, including the staff of the AAP who have set me straight on issues more than once. I am just happy to have had a front row seat during one of the most exciting periods of the state’s history.

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