The Multnomah County Board of Commissioners on Thursday, May 12, proclaimed May 2022 as Asian, Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander (AANHPI) Heritage Month.
The declaration, which is honored nationally, is a moment for communities to reflect on, celebrate and commemorate the culturally and linguistically-diverse AANHPI community.
The annual celebration every May is partly in recognition of the first Japanese citizen, Nakahama Manjiro, to immigrate to the United States. Manjiro arrived May 7, 1843. May also records the completion of the first Transcontinental Railroad – on May 10, 1869 – an achievement that would not have been possible without the strenuous labor of nearly 20,000 Chinese immigrants.
Commissioner Susheela Jayapal and Commissioner Lori Stegmann, the first Asian Americans to serve on the Board, co-sponsored this year’s proclamation, joined by community leaders who shared their own stories. Commissioner Jayapal introduced this year’s theme, “Advancing Leadership Through Collaboration.” The AANHPI Heritage Month theme is determined by the Federal Asian Pacific Council.
Commissioner Stegmann said the celebration is a time to recognize the history and achievements of the AANHPI community.
“We are one of the largest-growing demographic groups in our state,” she said. “But individually, our cultures are unique and diverse, which is why today’s proclamation is so significant as we honor each and all the ethnicities that make up our AANHPI communities.”
Helen Ying, executive director of the Asian American Youth Leadership Conference (AAYLC), joined the commissioners. Ying’s organization holds an annual conference that invites high school students from diverse ethnic backgrounds together to promote education, self-confidence and develop leadership skills within the community.
Ying said the conference’s impact on Oregon and SW Washington is deep and long-lasting. Two-thirds of the team planning this year’s event attended a previous event, and nearly half are current high school students.
Ying said the conference continues to inspire students to get involved in their community. Recently, Ying was invited to speak at a symposium where students discussed topics relating to the lives of Asian Pacific Islanders. She learned that the student who organized the symposium was inspired to do so after attending AAYLC four years before.
“I could go on with many more stories,” Ying said about the alumni that AAYLC has inspired.
Ying introduced another of those alums, Hoa Nguyen, co-chair of AAYLC. Nguyen spoke about her current position as the first Asian American elected to the David Douglas School District board. She also reflected on how AAYLC shaped her into a leader.
“The AAYLC was a place to uncover my story,” said Nguyen. “I was able to embrace my differences and similarities to break out of the mold we are so often expected to conform with.”
Working as the Director of Oregon’s American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) branch, Bandana Shrestha shared her experience of moving to the United States and learning that her race and culture left her deemed as “other.” Through healing and reclamation, Shrestha sees her culture, heritage and identity as her superpower.
Shrestha said each day, she puts into action the principles that she grew up with in Nepal, “principles of community, principles of duty and principles of service.”
AARP focuses on issues affecting those 50 and older. Shrestha said her role in AARP has also allowed her to put into practice a cultural keystone value: the values of respecting elders.
Commissioner Jessica Vega Pederson thanked Shrestha for her impact in the community and “the way that you show up for the community” – serving elders who might be considered to be vulnerable.
Toc Soneoulay-Gillespie, a refugee from Laos who arrived in the United States with her parents, shared how she is often reminded of her purpose in her current role serving the State of Oregon as director of the Office of Immigrant and Refugee Advancement.
Soneoulay-Gillespie recounted visiting the doctor’s office with her parents when she was 9. She remembers the receptionist telling her family that her mother would not be seen that day because there was no interpreter.
“That’s right, go home. Go back to your country,” a white man in the waiting room said as her family left.
Her father told Soneoulay-Gillespie, “This is their country. We are a throwaway.”
Today, Soneoulay-Gillespie, appointed in her current job by Gov. Kate Brown, fights to prove no one in community is a throwaway.
“This office represents a long overdue recognition of the value and contribution of immigrants and refugees,” said Soneoulay-Gillespie.
Commissioner Sharon Meieran recounted an event where Soneoulay-Gillespie had appeared, showing support for the other people attending. “That is who you are. You are that person who shows up and is the role model for all those other little kids and shows what is possible.”
Last, Candace Kita, director of cultural strategy at Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon (APANO), spoke about APANO’s work using arts and culture to nurture and support its community in Southeast Portland. The nonprofit has been serving the Asian and Pacific Islander community for over 20 years by developing leaders and advancing equity through policy advocacy, community development and cultural work.
APANO is housed in the Orchards, a 48-unit affordable housing development on S.E. 82nd Avenue with a large community gathering space.
APANO uses the community space to showcase artwork such as murals co-created by community members, in partnership with artists, small businesses and local organizations. The murals serve to honor and visualize the stories of community members in the surrounding area.
Kita said that using the arts to celebrate and uplift the Orchards community and the surrounding neighborhood is cultural work, “literally working on culture so that it benefits our communities.”
“One month is not long enough to teach or learn about the diversity of our communities,” said Commissioner Jayapal. “But it serves as a starting point for each individual, organization and business to educate themselves, connect with and actively support AANHPI communities.”