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Journal of Asian American Studies 3.2 (2000) 237-241

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Review Essay

Redefining Advocacy for the Southeast Asian American Community

Social and political invisibility of Asian Americans makes advocacy work a necessary strategy for community work. Too often, policymakers rely on misperceptions about Asian Americans to make decisions or are unaware of the community's needs. Asian American community organizations employ a range of advocacy strategies to promote community visibility and voice. While advocacy historically can imply a top down approach, many Asian American community organizations redefine the use of advocacy to embody speaking in partnership with the community. Advocacy work happens at multiple levels in order to increase access to power. This work can include community members meeting with state legislators on the impact of welfare reform or one parent talking to a teacher about his/her child's education.

Effective advocacy work lies not just in the hands of professional advocates, but in the hands of the community members whose lives and families are directly affected by local, regional, state, and federal policies. Key is building the skills and knowledge base for the community to be its own advocate. This approach values the contributions of all community members, not just those with English-language skills and formal education. Lack of knowledge, skills, and understanding about institutions in this country exacerbate the lack of access caused by language and cultural barriers. Investing in individual empowerment has a long-term impact for the community.

Involving the Southeast Asian American community in advocacy work necessitates a paradigm shift. The concept of advocacy has a particular historical resonance for this community because of the history of war and homeland politics in Southeast Asia. Speaking out against the government could potentially get a person or his/her family jailed or killed. Because of these experiences, community members are often wary and distrustful of government and hesitant to speak out against those in power. Southeast Asian American community organizations are often young, volunteer-run, and confront organizational development issues such as lack of funding. Southeast Asian Americans also have different needs from other Asian American groups related to health, education, and poverty. This article [End Page 237] profiles the work of three Asian American organizations and their work with the Southeast Asian American community. These organizations create new models of advocacy work that is centered on community needs and strengths.

Southeast Asia Resource Action Center

Based in Washington, D.C., the Southeast Asia Resource Action Center (SEARAC) focuses on the representation of Southeast Asian American community in domestic and global policies and civil rights. Recent federal legislation targeting immigrants and refugees and the emergence of a new generation of Southeast Asian Americans has illuminated this community's growing presence and needs. Strengthening the foundation of the Southeast Asian American community emphasizes its place in U.S. social, economic and political culture. SEARAC hosts several national projects on information access, naturalization, community adaptation, organizational development, and community empowerment. Building political power also involves key alliances and coalitions with other national organizations.

To increase human political power, SEARAC supports local advocacy efforts. Through the Southeast Asian American Institute Project, SEARAC provides training and technical assistance to mutual assistance associations and other community-based organizations around the country to be more politically active and expand the scope of work beyond individual direct services. Training includes hands-on activities, concrete skill-building, and information on the community's legal rights. Activities have included training in media advocacy to refute stereotypes about Asian American youth as gang members, and role-playing meetings with elected officials. According to KaYing Yang, the executive director, "SEARAC provides training and technical assistance to community leaders so they can meet with decision-makers and help clients understand policy issues. The strategy is to empower people so they can have a voice and do it themselves." 1 SEARAC builds organizational and community capacity to reinforce national advocacy efforts.

Asians and Pacific Islanders for Reproductive Health

Asians and Pacific Islanders for Reproductive Health (APIRH), founded in Oakland, California in 1989, approaches reproductive health from a...


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pp. 237-241
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