Jun 27, 2008

APAP, "Political" Organizing, and the Movement(?)

I've been meaning to write a piece about a wing of the "left" (or marginally left-of-center, I guess) in Asian America that I feel may be getting too caught up in "political" organizing and party politics (see here for an example of this, through the decent but still heavily Democratic Party-focused Asian Pacific Americans for Progress). These guys aren't the enemy for the grassroots movement building efforts - not at all, and probably a lot less so than some of the mainstream organizations, but they are picking up a lot of steam and interest from the younger set, and I wonder if this is going to have an impact on people who could get involved in grassroots/organizing work for Asian American communities. Throughout this piece, the "political" organizing I refer to is connected political campaigns, not peoples' political power (though of course, I'm not saying they are always mutually exclusive).

I'm a bit worried that if people begin to buy that the only way to affect real change is by getting involved in the strictly political arena, the legitimate outsider voice -- the one that should more accurately represent where the communities themselves are at -- may lose support from the younger generation. Political organizing is pretty mainstream, and I can't really figure out how people move community agendas with all the concessions they have to give up through party politics. These groups seem to be pushing that it is only through political organizing that we can really have an impact on how government policies affect our communities. Beyond that, voting and PAC stuff is very citizenship status specific: non-citizens, even permanent legal residents, are barred from a lot of activities. So how do you make sure your work still represents the interests of these folks when they aren't part of the pool you're drawing in for your trainings/activities/fundraisers?

I think they may be conflating access for some with power for all. I just don't subscribe to the idea that just because there are more Asian faces in political campaigns and appointments, that that will somehow translate to community power: the American political system is too confusing and removed from the people to actually give folks access to power solely through this mainstream approach. And that's in the best possible scenario, when the party operatives that are trained by APAP and other efforts, are actually grounded in community-based beliefs. I don't know if I buy that they all (or even most of them) come from that perspective. After all, aren't John Yoo and Wan Kim Asian Americans who were/are in influential roles in the Department of Justice? So I'm not feeling it.

For a while, I have had this feeling that there are three different things happening in the Asian American "community" of groups/efforts (not counting the PACs and outliers like Committee of 100 or the 80-20 Initiative):

1) Mainstream policy/service organizations. These are mainly local, with their requisite national group in DC: there are Asian ethnic group-based coalitions/groups (NAKASEC, SAALT, OCA, JACL), issue-based groups and coalitions (APIAHF, AAJC, NAPAWF, National CAPACD), and a range of others. This is kind of the old guard - they are more traditional in focus, and almost wholly 501(c)(3) organizations, which gives them the government, foundation, and individual moneys, but makes it tough for them to take more aggressive stances (or actions) against government action. In addition, the younger folks involved in these organizations tend to be more of the professionalized community worker - one or more graduate degrees, theory and academic skills, but often, distance from the communities that they are working with (or in their parlance, "serving"). I was one of these folks - buying into the idea that you need to have the advanced degree to move forward (part of it is just survival as the field gets crowded with people).

2) Organizing/Radical Collectives. There is a small but growing national network (API Movement, I think it's called) of radical/left groups and collectives, and I think more of an effort to bridge the distance between them. Many of these focus on movement building, taking their cues equally from the heyday of the Asian American Movement in the 70s and other liberation movements. But they are generally poor, not as concerned with the big political or national policy stuff, and sometimes not as easily accessible or visible to the younger folks rising up looking for somewhere to plug in. In desi communities, the best efforts have trained young people through programs like YSS and OY! But it seems like those efforts are more or less on hiatus right now, and it's not clear how these different groups reach out to the unconnected who are interested in being more active.

3) "Political" Organizing. This phenomenon, which is not new but seems to be picking up a lot of steam, really comes from political operatives who have been involved in campaigns for key Democrats (it's always the Dems for this kind of work - money attracts money for the Republicans, and folks organize in other ways for that side of the duopoly). I don't have too much against these folks, except that sometimes it's hard to talk to people without feeling like they have been totally co-opted by the Democratic Party and have a lot of faith in a system that does not care about the less fortunate in their and other communities (see, immigration reform, voting rights, American military conflicts, and a whole host of other things that are more important to our community members than to government electeds and their operatives). That said, there's something sexy about elections and "political power" that draws in the younger, middle class folks with a lot of energy.

Again, I don't think this is a bad place for some focus - it's just that it feels like more and more people go to this work without any experience in grassroots/community-based work, whether that be service delivery or straight-up organizing. So they bring their own interests to the table. Civil rights, check. Affordable housing and access to government benefits? Not so much. Glass ceiling? Check. Rights for the undocumented that extend beyond slogans? Not if it's not going to "win us seats." The calculus of big-party, big-money political organizing is not grassroots and it's not community-based. And I'm worried that the "best and brightest" who are trained to go out and get engaged are looking towards mainstream spaces as the source for power rather than the real communities that they claim to represent.

That all said, there's a space and place for all of these - but they aren't talking to each other. The political folks think they have everything figured out, but aren't far left enough to take more aggressive stances (like creating PACs that actively push a strong Asian American community agenda that comes from the people). So they are seen as sell-outs by the left and too "political" for the non-profit sector. The Left groups get too negative on everyone and often just don't engage the mainstream groups - so there's neither accountability nor dialogue. And the mainstream groups? Well. They tend to just be oblivious until you knock some sense into them. And the neverending quest for funding (blame both the foundations and the groups themselves) leads them to bring more conservative people onto their boards who are uncomfortable with things that aren't even that controversial. So in a community that isn't that large, we have at least these three major things going on, no one's talking to anyone else, and so, where are we going?

Maybe things are better on a local level?

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