Asians are the fastest-growing demographic in the United States. Unfortunately, a large segment of this community is struggling. Often new immigrants, they are underserved and often voiceless. Today, I talk to Marjorie Hsu, the Chairman of the Board of the Asian American Federation (AAF), a nonprofit organization dedicated to raising the influence and well-being of the pan-Asian American community, about the challenges facing this community and how she and her organization are raising awareness and serving this underrepresented group. In addition to her work with AAF, Marjorie is a successful tech entrepreneur, former executive at Verizon, an advisor to several tech start-ups, and sits on the board of Red Bird Health Tech and Everykey.

Tell us about the Asian American Federation, how you got involved, and why it is important to you.

Having been an executive at Verizon for many years, I decided I wanted to do more to give back by devoting my time, not just through charitable donations. Verizon’s external affairs made the connection for me to, the Asian American Federation which was looking for new board members. I joined in 2012, continued while overseas as CTO at SingTel and then returned from Singapore and became Chair of the Board.

The Asian American Federation was founded in 1989 and, it is the only pan-Asian American leadership organization in New York City that produces original reports on the critical needs of Asian Americans and provides advocacy and nonprofit support to address those needs. Today, nearly 70 health and human service member and partner organizations are in the Federation. As a group, Asian ethnicities have had a muted voice and low visibility, but there is power in bringing Asian Americans together with one voice. I have always strongly believed in the ‘together we’re better’ philosophy.

When I joined AAF, we were focused on research and grant-giving, but have since expanded our work to include advocacy, robust nonprofit support, and direct services to increase access to large swaths of underserved our community. We’ve also solidified relationships with the Governor’s and Mayor’s offices—so when there is an issue that affects Asian communities, they call us for perspective on what people need and want. It is tremendously gratifying to see how our impact and influence has grown, but there is still much more we can do.

AAF’s Executive Director, Jo-Ann Yoo

It is important to note that Asians are the fastest-growing demographic in the U.S. In New York City, we are 16% of the population, according to the 2019 American Community Survey, but we received only 1.4% of the City’s available social services funding from Fiscal Year 2002 to 2014. And this is a tale of two communities—there are the so-called “model minorities,” who are educated and successful. Then there are the newer immigrants who are living in poverty, underserved, invisible, and voiceless. In my AAF work, I have made it a mission to bridge these two worlds.

What key issues is the AAF tackling right now?  

The census, which just ended, has been a major priority. The census drives funding for everything, from hospitals and schools, to the building of roads, to our representation in Washington. It is important that everyone be counted. But there have been issues in Asian communities—from language and cultural barriers, to lack of knowledge and distrust of the government.  As a Census Information Center, the Federation produced reports to share new insights, for example, 2010 census data showed that Asian American businesses had been creating the most new jobs in the NY/NJ region.

To motivate participation in the 2020 census, we conducted information workshops in New York and New Jersey with large AA communities. We also worked with local community organizations to help get as many people as possible counted. 

We’ve been getting into direct services, like small business support and development. We started in 2017 in one neighborhood in Flushing, Queens.  There were several Asian-owned businesses that were really struggling, and we realized they were stuck in the brick-and-mortar retail model and also had difficulty accessing the City’s small business services due to language access. We received a grant and worked with store owners to help them develop an online presence, train them in digital marketing and advance their businesses. All throughout, we have provided hands-on technical assistance to help them understand changing business regulations and, during COVID, get access to relief programs.

AAF’s Deputy Director, Joo Han

Another key initiative, which we’ve been prioritizing since 2017, is our work in mental health. It has been spearheaded by AAF’s Deputy Director, Joo Han, who shares that, “When data shows that young Asian American women ages 15-24 have some of the highest rates of suicide across all racial groups, and suicide is one of the leading causes of death in our community, we know how important it is that we have conversations to reduce the deep cultural stigma in our communities and offer safe and accessible spaces for them to receive support. From community education, to counseling, to mental health resources, AAF, along with our mental health partners, is changing how Asian Americans think and talk about mental wellness.”

When I see young people at our mental health workshops, I can see their relief at having a safe space to talk. It feels so gratifying.

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AAF sponsored immigration rally

How has COVID-19 impacted the work you do? 

Although it hasn’t been widely reported, Asian immigrants have been deeply affected by COVID-19:  personal loss, high rates of unemployment, their small businesses closing down, and a surge in anti-Asian hate crimes. The “Wuhan Flu” and other such labels stir up anti-Asian sentiment, but it has been difficult to gather data. While the Attorney General’s office tracks hate crimes, they have limited capacity, with very limited languages and dialects. It is likely most anti-Asian hate crimes go unreported. To better understand the situation, we have established an Asian hate crimes reporting tool, where community members can report any bias incident or hate crime in English, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Tagalog, and Vietnamese.

But out of great challenge comes great opportunity and we’ve been able to access more grant money to pass onto our direct service organizations. Food insecurity is a huge problem for many of our senior citizens, who are the poorest senior population in New York City – especially during the pandemic. We’ve partnered with a number of member organizations, such as Brooklyn Chinese-American Association and Hamilton-Madison House, to deliver food and groceries, and alleviate some of this concern. We are truly thankful for our donors and partners.

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AAF 2020 census neighborhood event

What can people do to help?  

We need New Yorkers’ support, whether through donations or other resources. Right now, it is taking a lot of creativity to raise money for nonprofits, especially as government funding has been slashed. Recently, a group of artists staged an online fundraiser—Artists for AAF—where, through an online auction, they sold their art, clothing, and jewelry to raise money on our behalf. We are also planning a virtual gala in early February. So please check our social media for details and join us.

AAF’s mental health initiative is only made possible with support and engagement from New Yorkers who care about making sure that everyone has access to the mental health care that we need and deserve. Particularly during this time of COVID-19, Asian immigrants have struggled due to loss on many levels – of loved ones, of financial security, of a feeling of safety in the face of anti-Asian violence. We need New Yorkers’ support so we can ensure our most vulnerable people are connected to culturally familiar services, so they don’t suffer alone and in silence.

Also, one of my goals is to double the size of the board. We value new and different perspectives. Our board members are brilliant and dedicated, and I want to get more passionate people to join us. Together, we can do more to help those who are struggling.

I was deeply motivated to hear what the Asian American Federation does for the community and inspired by Marjorie’s dedication to the work. You can follow the Asian American Federation on Twitter , Facebook or reach out to them via their website.