Board proclaims May 2024 as Asian, Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander Heritage Month

May 31, 2024

The Multnomah County Board of Commissioners on Thursday, May 30, proclaimed May 2024 as Asian, Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander (AANHPI) Heritage Month.

AANHPI Heritage Month, recognized nationally, celebrates and honors the rich contributions of Asian, Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander communities and uplifts the diverse cultures of these regions. This year’s national theme is “Bridging Histories, Shaping Our Future.”

“Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders are hugely diverse in both language and culture,” said Chair Jessica Vega Pederson. “At Multnomah County, our work is to provide a wide range of culturally specific services and language-specific services and materials across our continuum of care. These are access points that really make our Multnomah County government accessible to people and are a way for us to honor them every day.”

The annual celebration every May is partly in recognition of Nakahama Manjiro, who in May 1843 became the first Japanese citizen to immigrate to the United States. The month also commemorates the completion of the first Transcontinental Railroad in May 1869, an achievement that would not have been possible without the labor of nearly 20,000 Chinese immigrants.

Asian, Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander communities have lived and worked in Oregon for over 200 years, contributing to the state’s history, economy and culture. Notably, in the early 1800s, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders crossed the Pacific Ocean to the Pacific Northwest to establish fur trading posts along the Oregon Trail. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, people from South Asia migrated to towns up and down the West Coast, working in lumber and agriculture.

Commissioner Julia Brim-Edwards co-sponsored this year’s proclamation with the County’s Employees of Color Employee Resource Group. Commissioner Brim-Edwards, who represents District 3, said many of her district’s residents have roots in Asia and the Pacific Islands.

“I'm honored to sponsor the County’s recognition of this diverse community and all they have done to contribute to the social fabric of Multnomah County,” she said. “With the rise of anti-Asian hate in the United States, including many recent cases in Portland, this resolution and County proclamation send a message that we value, welcome and embrace the people and cultural traditions of the Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander community in Multnomah County, and that hate has no place in our community.”

Presenters shared that in addition to celebrating Asian, Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander cultures, it is important to push back against anti-AANHPI hate and improve outcomes for members of their communities — including within Multnomah County’s workforce.

From left: Jacinta Galea'i, Kāme'o Kahawai, Cayle Tern, Zumana Rahman

“The County needs more Asian and Pacific Islander leaders at all levels of the organization, and we need to retain them,” said Zumana Rahman, a project manager in the Health Department and chair of the Employees of Color Employee Resource Group.  

“Our employees represent, after all, the communities that we serve.… Community engagement is critical to the work that we do so that others may also reach their American dream. That safety, trust and belonging apply to everyone and that all are welcome here.”

Presenters also highlighted that Asian, Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander communities are extremely diverse, and lumping them together can have negative effects.

“Personally and for my organization, we actually don’t celebrate AAPI month, although we do support our partners who do. And the reason why is because the AAPI category and data aggregation has been very harmful and problematic for our community,” said Jacinta Galea'i, executive director of the Samoa Pacific Development Corporation

In Oregon, Pacific Islanders experience higher mortality rates due to COVID-19, cancer and heart disease compared to Asians. Galea'i also said Pacific Islanders are less likely to own a home than Asians in Oregon.

“That is why data disaggregation is very important for us and is something that we continue to advocate for,” she said.

Commissioner Sharon Meieran agreed with presenters who advocated for data disaggregation.

“I really appreciated the comments you made and the information you provided about data disaggregation,” she said. “We need to disaggregate. It is crucial to our role as we support, serve and uplift those who have been historically marginalized, disenfranchised or oppressed.”

“While today we absorb, honor, learn and appreciate, we have to acknowledge the continuing injustice of hate and discrimination of those of Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander descent.… These acts of hatred and discrimination are unacceptable and directly contradict who we are and we need to stand up against that.”

Executive Director of United Territories Of Pacific Islanders Alliance (UTOPIA) Portland Kāme'o Kahawai said “our vision is to create a world that celebrates and respects each of our identities, fostering self-determination and liberation of our communities.”

“We are deeply grateful for the Pacific Islander specific funding from Multnomah County that has enabled us to make meaningful strides in empowering our Pacific Islanders. However, our work is far from over,” Kahawai said.

Kahawai urged Commissioners and all stakeholders to recognize and prioritize the Pacific islander community in three ways: Data disaggregation, equitable resource allocation and the creation of inclusive policies.

“I know many of you hold intersecting identities that aren’t always represented in a single label or acronym,” said Chair Vega Pederson. “I recognize how each of us sees ourselves, how each of you sees yourselves, and the chance to uplift intersecting cultures and identities and organize in ways that provide moments of connection and celebration, as we do today.”

Commissioner Lori Stegmann said the celebration is a time to recognize the history and achievements of the Asian, Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander community.

“In order to get where we need to go, it is important to know where we’ve been,” she said. “It is no wonder that statistically, BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) communities suffer from higher rates of poverty and housing instability as well as poorer health outcomes and shorter lifespans. This is no accident. Institutional and systemic racism were designed to produce these outcomes. But despite these obstacles, things are changing.

“Even though it took 162 years before I was elected as the first Asian and the first Korean-American to ever serve on the Multnomah Board, I know I won’t be the last,” she continued. “Representation matters. Seeing people who we identify with and who understand our diversity is incredibly important. We need to see and hear the words that we matter, that our contributions are important and that our lives are significant.”

Cayle Tern, manager of civic engagement at Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon (APANO), said that Asian, Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander Heritage Month is also a time for people within those communities to learn about themselves. “This is a month where we get to focus and emphasize the wealth of our culture and traditions and to teach our youth,” he said.

“As an Asian American, I am your friend and neighbor in the community. We struggle through the same things as all Americans struggle through. But we overcome and we do it like many Americans. We overcome and we serve.… We do it by being a friend and a neighbor and a community member. We do it by being American. Whether you are Asian, Native Hawaiian, Pacific Islander, we are all Americans.

“And for those who hate, we are not going anywhere. Not going back to our country.”