Quyen Dinh and SEARAC – Giving voice to the Southeast Asian American community and its economic security concerns

Quyen picA conversation with Quyen Dinh, Executive Director of the Southeast Asian Resource Action Center (SEARAC)

May was AAPI Heritage Month and this year’s theme was “I Am Beyond.” It is a phrase meant to evoke the rich and complex diversity of the Asian American and Pacific Islander community. What does AAPI Heritage mean to you personally and as the ED of SEARAC?

I grew up in Orange County, California, and San Jose, California, homes to two of the largest Vietnamese American communities in the nation. Growing up in these communities to me meant seeing a lot of Asian faces everyday everywhere: at school, at the grocery store, at the library, and driving down the street looking at cars passing by. So for me, every day was a celebration of Asian Americans being integrated in local communities. I didn’t know that AAPI heritage month existed. I got to live AAPI heritage month every day if what AAPI heritage means is celebration of AAPI culture and identity.

I took for granted that my experience was not that of the average American. When I moved to Washington, DC, I realized that I was the only AAPI person on the bus. I had forgotten that most of America does not look like Orange County, or San Jose, or California in general. I remembered that when most people think about those cities and California, they don’t think of people who look like me, or think about how it’s home to the largest AAPI communities in the nation.

I came out to DC to be an advocate because I love the communities that I call home, and this bus ride was just a reminder to me of why I came so far from California: to give voice to communities that most Americans think of only in passing. And the truth is that even though AAPI communities were seen in my community, we weren’t really known or understood by the larger community and especially by policy makers. The struggles and the challenges we faced were silenced and misunderstood, and definitely were not as loud as the rave reviews of the newest Asian restaurant which got much more attention.

As Executive Director of the Southeast Asia Resource Action Center, my job every day is to give voice to a community that many Americans don’t know about or understand. When my team visits congressional offices and let them know that they have a 25% Southeast Asian American constituency base, sometimes, this is new information for them. So as an advocate, AAPI heritage month to me was more than just celebration of culture. To me it was a reminder of self-determination, and committing to defining ourselves not just through shared accomplishments, but also through shared struggle to define our place in America and to shape the communities that we call home.

AAPI heritage month was also a reminder to me of the diversity and vibrancy of our multicultural identity, especially because the Southeast Asian American community is a relatively young segment of the AAPI community. For example, while the Chinese American community can count their roots back to the early 1800s with immigrants who built the Transcontinental Railroad along with Irish American immigrants, Vietnamese, Cambodian, and Laotian refugees didn’t arrive to the U.S. in large numbers until the mid-1970s after the end of the U.S. involvement in wars throughout Southeast Asia including the Vietnam War. I am proud to live in a country where the definition of AAPI continues to grow and be inclusive of new communities such as Southeast Asian Americans, and others such as Burmese and Bhutanese refugees who now comprise the largest and newest refugee community to the United States. AAPI heritage month is a reminder to all of America that we are stronger because of our diversity.

Why did you decide to become an aging advocate, to work around aging issues?

I became an aging advocate when I started doing work with young Vietnamese immigrant families in San Jose, CA where I ran an early childhood education program geared at bridging Vietnamese and American culture, knowledge, and practices around child rearing. I was blessed to work with not just parents of young children, but also grandparents who were the primary caregivers of their grandkids while their adult children went to work. I saw grandparents take great pride in raising their grandkids through teaching Vietnamese stories, songs, and games. I also saw grandparents who struggled to provide care for their young ones as they were facing serious health concerns, who felt isolated and alone, and who were torn between continuing to help out their adult children financially by providing care to their grandkids and struggling to meet the physical and emotional demands of caring for another generation. I saw grandparents and parents butt heads over everything from discipline to diet, and I saw grandparents and parents who came together to share, dialogue, and grow together through our parenting workshops. When we distributed our graduation plaques at the end of our 6-week parenting workshop, I saw grandparents who felt valued and appreciated in their families and communities. I am an aging advocate for those families I served, and my own family, because through them I have seen the transformative power of love in intergenerational families.

You often talk about the “model minority” myth. How does this myth disserve AAPI elders and the organizations that serve them?

The “model minority” myth is that despite being an immigrant community with little resources, AAPIs pulled themselves up by their bootstraps and are doing exceedingly well economically, educationally, and socially. The stories of accomplished AAPIs should indeed be celebrated, but not to eclipse the stories and data about real and serious needs that are often silenced. For AAPI elders, the “model minority” myth has resulted in lack of knowledge about the true needs of AAPI elders, and as a result, lack of knowledge on how to allocate resources to serve these needs. This results in mainstream social service agencies that take for granted how difficult it is for AAPI elders to even know about the services that are available to them when the majority of elders have limited English proficiency. However, mainstream social service agencies often interpret low numbers of AAPI elders accessing resources as “low need” as opposed to outreach failure. Organizations that recognize the needs of AAPI elders (from cultural understanding of how difficult it is to ask for help, to financial understanding that most AAPI elders live in poverty, and linguistic support for LEP elders) face a constant battle of educating policy makers, agencies, and even partners, about the need for providing affordable, culturally and linguistically competent services and outreach. It also results in organizations that are vastly underfunded given tremendous community demand that grows as the AAPI elder community grows, and as social service agencies face decreasing budgets while still lacking the staffing capacity and resources to meet the needs of AAPI elders.

What is the biggest issue faced by AAPI elders that readers must know about? How can they help?

The biggest issue faced by AAPI elders is being able to survive financially through very limited resources. This is especially true for elders who come to the U.S. as immigrants or refugees, such as the majority of Southeast Asian American elders. For elders who came to the U.S. as older adults, most made their living through low-wage jobs that didn’t offer retirement benefits such as 401Ks and pensions. For those that do have Social Security benefits, most rely on Social Security for their sole source of income. And for elders who arrived to the country as refugees, Supplemental Security Income (SSI) is an essential lifeline. AAPI elders who are low-income also rely heavily on Medicaid for health insurance. As a result, AAPI elders are vulnerable when these security net programs are on the chopping block for decreased funding.

When I think about economic security, I think about my grandma who came to the U.S. 20 years ago in her late 50s to be reunited with her children. Arriving to the country in her late 50s meant that it was hard for her to get a job. For the past 20 years, she has been taken care of by her adult children (my parents, aunts, and uncles) while also caring for her collective 13 grandchildren so that our family never had to pay for childcare. Now that she’s in her late 70s, my grandma relies on Medicaid and SSI for her income. I think about how fortunate my grandma is to have adult children who she can go to for help, but that so many other elders aren’t as lucky. As Americans, we should be proud of the social safety net programs that we have created through Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and SSI that provide support to the most vulnerable, and we should fight for these programs to be preserved into the future.

For more information on AAPI elders and three of the biggest challenges facing them (health, economic security and language access), visit the DEC’s updated AAPI Elders page.

Quyen Dinh is the Executive Director of the Southeast Asian Resource Action Center (SEARAC). The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Diverse Elders Coalition.