Who Belongs? EP 11 - Engaging Asian Pacific Islanders, with Luisa Blue of the SEIU


May 10, 2019

Download an MP3 of this interview here.

In this episode of Who Belongs, we talk to Luisa Blue, who is the Executive Vice President of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), and an expert on Asian Pacific Islander civic engagement issues. She is also the highest ranking leader of Asian Pacific Islander background in the labor movement in the United States. This episode is also the fourth installment of our Civic Engagement Narrative Change project series.


Luisa Blue: Invest, invest, invest, in the API community. No more lip service. There are great API community organizations out there that don't have the resources, but can do a lot with limited resources.

Marc Abizeid: Hello, and welcome to this episode of Who Belongs, a podcast from the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society at UC Berkeley. My name is Marc Abizeid, one of the hosts of Who Belongs, and this episode will the fourth installment of our Civic Engagement Narrative Change project series.

Marc Abizeid: We're again going to have Josh Clark, a lead researcher from the Civic Engagement Narrative Change project, guest host this episode, and he'll be introducing our guest today. So, take it away, Josh.

Josh Clark: Thanks a lot, Marc. We're very excited to have our guest today, who will be speaking with Luisa Blue, who's the Executive Vice President of the Service Employees International Union, the SEIU, and an expert on Asian and Pacific Islander American civic engagement nationally.

Josh Clark: Luisa is herself the highest ranking Asian Pacific Islander American leader in the labor movement today, and a key voice in making sure that API concerns and issues get their due on the labor agenda.

Josh Clark: So, welcome Luisa, it's a pleasure to talk to you, as always.

Luisa Blue: Thank you so much. Looking forward to this.

Josh Clark: So Luisa, Asian and Pacific Islander Americans, well first are a very diverse group in terms of language, in terms of nationality and identities that that category holds, but Asian and Pacific Islander Americans, as a category, are the fastest growing racial or ethnic group in the U.S. today. And by most counts, they're also the fastest growing subgroup of potential voters. But if we think about programs for civic engagement, and Get Out The Vote, efforts to expand the electorate and so forth, it seems that the attention that Asian and Pacific Islander Americans have received has lagged behind a bit, that it's not keeping up with this fast pace of growth. Would you say that that's a fair assessment?

Luisa Blue: I would say that's a very fair assessment of the situation that the API community now face with presidential election coming up in 2020, so that is a fair assessment.

Josh Clark: Why do you think that that is?

Luisa Blue: I think, number one, no one really keeps track of the demographics of the API community, is one thing I would say. And then number two, I think because we are such a diverse community; there's 42 to 50 different languages, and then if you get down to dialects, right, even within the Chinese population, everybody thinks everybody talks, speaks, Mandarin; and that's not true. I mean there are different dialects within the Chinese population, and likewise with the Filipino population also, is that there's a lot of different dialects. So I think it's that, and then also third, because I would say the majority of the API community are still immigrants in this country. At one point, there was 70% of the API in the U.S. were immigrants, I think that's another factor. That they're not citizens yet, or once they become citizens, because of the lack of language access, they don't get fully integrated into the political landscape of the United States.

Josh Clark: Right, yeah.

Luisa Blue: So, and then I guess over the past almost three years now I've been doing this work for SEIU. There isn't enough investment in the political world for the API community, where we will hear that the API community is the fastest growing, they could be the deciding factor in future elections, and yet we don't we really see that much investment into those communities in terms of, in language resources, or even investing into the API media to make sure that the Asian ethnic media both TV and print, are pulled into that work, and also be able to help us provide the information that's needed within the different API community groups.

Josh Clark: Yeah, one of the explanations that I've read before, is that that Asian Pacific Island Americans, by and large speaking in general terms, are often concentrated in places where elections are less competitive. So, in larger cities perhaps, and so forth, and that maybe that ... Or not in as many swing states, and that maybe that has something to do with it.

Josh Clark: I wonder what you think about that? That's a bothersome conclusion to draw, because it suggests this is all about partisan calculation, more than really trying to get everyone involved.

Luisa Blue: Well, I think in general, folks that are involved in the political work, or the civic engagement work, they see California and New York, where the greatest concentration of API electorate is at, and just Hawaii off to the side there, because they definitely have power in Hawaii, so I think, okay, California, lots of APIs, same thing with New York, but the migration of API workers is broader than California and New York. I was surprised to see, say a city like Philadelphia back in 2016, where I was asked to go to Philadelphia, and I just never thought of Philadelphia as a API voter strong hold, but it. There's over 30,000 APIs, Asian Pacific Islanders in the city of Philadelphia alone. And I also learned that the state has an API state commission, which I found very surprising. Minnesota, growing Hmong population, definitely in Chicago, in Florida, especially in South Florida because of the health care industry. Lots of Asian workers, and then recently in Georgia, right, where there's a growing community of APIs, which I was really surprised to learn.

Luisa Blue: We were asked, can we recruit people who speak the following Asian languages, to help out Get The Vote Out. And the for SEIU, because we represent the largest number of API unionized workers, probably, we don't have accurate data, which is another problem, but we probably represent over 150 thousand API unionized workers, and it's because of the industries that we organize and then represent; so it's health care and public sector.

Josh Clark: Yeah. You mentioned a number of interesting things. I mean for one, it's interesting to me that you, as someone who's worked in civic engagement with Asian and Pacific Islanders for many years, that you are surprised to learn of new places where there are large populations and new arrivals. And so, it seems like there's an issue of how communities can make themselves visible, right?

Luisa Blue: Correct.

Josh Clark: And you also mentioned a lack of good data, and of course data in many places, well for many groups in the United States, but also in other countries, have started to see demographic data such as that that's collected in censuses as a key instrument for becoming visible and making sure that the group is seen as a group, recognized for it's size, and becomes an undeniable force, in a way, through these numbers that make groups visible.

Josh Clark: So I wondered if we could talk a little bit, actually, about the upcoming 2020 census? The census is of course extremely important for a lot of reasons; congressional apportionment, allocation of federal funds to states, and counties, and cities, and for many researchers like myself, but also for businesses, and folks who are working on policy development, the census is kind of like a first stop for understand the relationship between people and places really, in the United States.

Luisa Blue: Yeah, some of the national Asian Pacific Islander organizations that I've met with over the past few months, they are concerned about the census because historically APIs have been under-counted in the census work, and I think it's because no one has reached out to those communities. And what we have learned, last year there is this new rule that the Trump administration wants to get passed, that is targeting APIs, well not APIs in general, but targeting people in this country who have Green Cards, for their ability to access services.

Luisa Blue: The main services that are accessed by immigrant communities, with the Green Card, is Medicaid, because somebody always needs medical care at some point that they're here, and they're totally, under the current situation, they're totally within their rights as taxpayers in this country, to access those services. And now the Trump administration wants to go after that, that people with Green Cards should not have access to those services, it's called The Public Charge, and when the draft rule first came out and we were mobilizing the API community to respond, provide public comments to that, what we found was that people who, for instance, had a clinic appointment, they were so afraid that they were going to get deported for going to their medical appointment, that they stopped going to their medical appointments at the clinics. And so we're just very, very concerned that, as this Public Charge rule comes out, that more and more of our API community will not want to count themselves in the census.

Luisa Blue: So, there is national groups that have come together that want to address that, and we also see the census work as setting the stage for API civic engagement in 2020. And because of the diversity within our API community, we want to start that work now, because we know that there will probably be more cuts to the Census Bureau's operating budget. This time they want people to participate in the census online. We're not clear if there's going to be, in language, online census count work, other than Spanish. Hopefully they'll have Spanish, but we're not confident that they will have API languages for people to access online. And then in addition to that, we're also concerned about whether or not members of the API community, especially our low-wage workers, will even have access to a computer at home. So, we're really concerned about that, so we want to figure out what's our plan now, to get the word out now, this year, within the API community organizations and non-profit organizations to make sure that they begin educating their constituents that use the services, about the census.

Luisa Blue: And SEIU also is very interested in getting the word out about the census count within our membership as a whole, even though the census work is what I call, not in our lane, per se, but we do want to partner up where we can, with API community organizations to make sure that we get that word out, and then internally within SEIU that we also have our own educational process, to get that word out and make sure that all of our members participate in that count.

Josh Clark: Right, well like you mentioned, it can be a bridge to other forms of civic engagement as well, and it's great that you're approaching it that way.

Josh Clark: I think that you laid out two different layers that I wanted to go in to in a little more depth, about the census, and Asian and Pacific Islander Americans relationship to it this upcoming year in 2020. You mentioned, we talked first a little bit about, there's the mistrust element, there's the fear element, and then there's the lack of information; and those are actually two layers, as you know, that the Civic Engagement Narrative Change project investigated a bit in Nevada, a place that you know well, last year in our statewide survey of Nevada.

Josh Clark: So on that survey, we decided to included a number of questions that were about the upcoming 2020 census, what people knew about it, and how people felt about the Census Bureau and federal statistical agencies. And the survey was somewhat unique in that sense, because not a lot of surveys ask those types of questions, even in the lead up to census years. But it was actually also unique because we over-sampled to be sure we would have statistically reliable findings on different groups, including Asian and Pacific Islander Americans.

Josh Clark: And some of what we found was interesting. The levels of mistrust among Asian and Pacific Islanders of the Census Bureau, and federal statistical agencies, was relatively high. The percentage that said they didn't have confidence of the Census Bureau to keep their information confidential was about half, it was actually 55%. Interestingly that's the same as the whole population of Nevada, so Asian Pacific Islander Americans were typical of the state. I wonder beyond the Public Charge issue, if you can say a bit more about anything you've been hearing, whether in Nevada or nationally, about community level concerns or fears about the census. I suspect the debate about whether there'll be a question about immigration status, or I'm sorry, citizenship status rather, is one of the things driving some concerns as well the Public Charge?

Luisa Blue: Yeah. I'm sorry I forgot to mention that, but that is definitely one of the main concerns people have is having that citizenship question, because of the lack of resources and knowledge about the census. People don't want to lose their Green Card, or people are very concerned about whether or not they're documented or undocumented, the underground work force there. So, there is a lot of concerns about that. Like now are we going to have to share our personal information to such a level that now they're going to know where we work? Are they going to show up at work and threaten us with deportation? So, there is a lot of that fear. And also, because historically the API community has been under-counted in previous census, it's just a lack of information that's out there to provide community groups, but also the API community at large, to understand what the census is and how having an accurate count really impacts a lot.

Luisa Blue: We can talk about the re-districting, but we can also talk about how it impacts funding for public schools, funding for social services at the local level. I mean basically impacts our lives, and a lot of API community folks do not know how important the census is, because it does impact your every day life. So getting that information out there will be really important so that they know that they have to participate.

Luisa Blue: And then also, what are the safeguards there, and make them feel more comfortable. Because they all think they're going to get deported, that ICE is going to show up at their place of work, or show up at a clinic, or show up at a community group where they get social services. That's the kind of fear that they have, and I'm sure might be the same with other immigrant communities, but within the API community it's really real.

Luisa Blue: And then just the lack of in-language materials that are out there for the census work. For them, as they, my understanding on the census work is, there's a period of time where they want people to do it online, and then after a certain period there's supposed to be house visits done. It's going to be really important that people who are knocking at the doors, encouraging people to participate in the census, look like them, and can speak their language. And at this point, we don't know whether the Trump administration will invest in that kind of resources. And we're hoping in certain states, especially where we have a sympathetic legislature, that they will hopefully address those concerns and make sure that there's in-language materials, and that people who are knocking at the doors will actually speak that language. Which requires folks to do micro-targeting to make sure they send in bilingual, bi-cultural folk in targeted areas where it's limited English speaking.

Josh Clark: Yeah, that's really important. That's very important. You mentioned the misperceptions and fear related to potential deportation. I think the survey that we did in Nevada, as you know, confirms that about almost 40% of Asian Pacific Islander Americans in Nevada in our survey believed that the census was a tool that's used to help determine who's in the country legally or not. That actually is about the same rate as the state at large, so it's not as though these communities are more misinformed or anything, but these misperceptions are widely held and I'm sure engendering a lot of fear, and you said those fears are very real in Asian Pacific Islander communities.

Josh Clark: You mentioned earlier that in the past there hasn't been enough outreach. I wonder, besides issues around having in-language folks from the Census Bureau going door to door, who you think are the best kind of messengers for reaching APIA communities and being able to convey the right information that they would need to participate, and what that would look like?

Luisa Blue: That's a good question. Let me just start from the ground level, the grass roots level. I think the community organizations that interact with the API community on a daily basis are absolutely key. The challenge there is whether or not they have the resources to also take on doing the census work within their constituency, or the communities that they serve. So making sure that they have the resources that they need to be able to carry out that work.

Luisa Blue: The other thing is making sure that a national API organization has the ability to reach deep into the community to provide the educational materials. So the Asians Advancing Justice, they have played that role in the past census work, in being on point for the overall API community, but 2010 is very different from 2020. It's been ten years, so it's basically trying to get an analysis of which organizations are out there that Asians Advancing Justice can partner with, and then there is this umbrella organization, it's called NCAPA, National Coalition of Asian Pacific Americans, I think is what it is, NCAPA, and it's headquartered in Washington, D.C., but it is an umbrella group of different API organizations, and the role that they will play alongside Asians Advancing Justice in getting the word out, and coordinating those activities.

Luisa Blue: So that is what I think needs to happen, and one of the things that at least we're doing here in California, coming out of the Public Charge thing is, we have One Nation, AAPI, and we plan on holding meetings to get feedback from community groups and community leaders on the impact that the Public Charge will have within the API community and to be able to have a written report that then we can share with elected officials in Washington, D.C. that then can use to inform them of the work that they need to do within the API community.

Josh Clark: Yeah, you mentioned earlier the fact that not everyone understands how important the census is in terms of how federal funds get allocated to the communities, the impact on schools and other public goods. It sounds like that's maybe the beginning of a narrative possibly. Do you think that a narrative for pushing back against some of the fears, do you that's a way that, in this context, this as you said 2020 context that's so different from 2010, do you think that'll be a strong way to push back against some of these very real concerns?

Luisa Blue: Yeah. Yeah, no I do think it will be, and as I met with some of these national API organizations, it's` kinds of a joke, right? I was like, look, we support the census work, we want to get an accurate count, but SEIU is a labor organization and so census work has never been in our lane. We're like an echo chamber, and we'll support the work, but we're nowhere near being the experts on the census work. So, I've told them, we are going to depend on you, Asian Americans Advancing Justice and NCAPA, to educate us as well in terms of what has been effective 10 years ago when you did the census work with the API community. But yeah.

Josh Clark: Right.

Luisa Blue: But I know that when there's investment made into the API community that there are positive results that come out. And I say that because of the political work that SEIU started doing with the API community in the 2016 election, and then also in the 2017 elections, that it did make a difference. And Nevada, it's now a blue state, who would have guessed that? And I think it's because we did invest in the API community and then also paid particular attention to the Filipino community because they were the largest chunk of the API electorate in Nevada. And I know it made a difference in Minnesota, where we partnered with API organizations there, and now their state legislature elected enough Hmong representatives that there's now a Hmong legislative caucus.

Josh Clark: Wow, that's really impressive.

Luisa Blue: So, I know, wherever we can invest ... Yeah, it does make a difference. And for the Public Charge public comment, when the draft rule first came out, there were over 200,000 public comments and over 20,000 of those public comments came from the API community. Yeah, and that didn't happen just by itself, it was because there was organizing on the ground between SEIU and these API organizations to educate their constituents and just get the Public Charge public comments out there. Good guidance, right? A lot of education on that.

Josh Clark: Yeah, this is an example of how doing civic engagement work, not just on election cycles, these things can snowball. And I kind of, I wanted to circle back to something you said earlier about using the Get Out the Count, so to speak, effort in 2020 for the census as a moment for building, potentially towards more participation in the 2020 election.

Josh Clark: How do you think that will transpire? How do you think that can be done the right way, to make sure that the census is building sense of active, civic involvement in communities that have been under represented?

Luisa Blue: Yeah, I think, again it's this coalition work that needs to happen on a conscious level, and what I've noticed if, as an example, APIA vote, I've noticed in their email blasts, they are now starting to talk about the census. It's coming, here's what you need to know. And here is a webpage or a phone number if you have more questions about the census work, give us a call, and we will provide you with the information, or connect you with a API community group, or another community group in your area, to teach you about the importance of the census work.

Luisa Blue: So I'm beginning to see that, and then I know Asians Advancing Justice is beginning to put information out there also on the census, and have reached out to their organizations in different parts of the country to begin talking about that. And recently Asians Advancing Justice had a conference, about a week and a half ago, in Georgia, and I know that they talked about the census there and then also linked it to the importance of civic engagement. Because Stacey Abrams really tapped in to the growing API community in Georgia when she was running for Governor, and she also acknowledged the importance of her campaign working within the API community in Georgia, to Get The Vote Out.

Luisa Blue: So, it's slowly coming around.

Josh Clark: Well our time here is almost done, but I wanted to see if there was anything more, any last word you wanted to add, before we wrap things up today?

Luisa Blue: Invest, invest, invest, is what I'm going to say, in the API community. They just have to continue to invest. No more lip service. Invest the API community, because there are great API community organizations out there that don't have the resources, but can do a lot with limited resources, in a way that most people don't understand that they can. That's my last word, invest. Get good data. Keep track of the data, and invest.

Marc Abizeid: And that concludes this episode of Who Belongs, a podcast produced by the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society. I'd like to thank our guest, Luisa Blue, who is the Executive Vice President of the Service Employees International Union or the SEIU, and an expert on Asian Pacific Islander civic engagement issues. She's also the highest ranking leader of Asian Pacific Islander background in the labor movement in the United States.

Marc Abizeid: I'd also like to thank Josh Clark, a researcher with the Civic Engagement Narrative Change project for guest hosting this episode as part of the series we're running in collaboration with the Civic Engagement Narrative Change project. For more episodes of Who Belongs, check us out online at haasinstitute.berkeley.edu/whobelongs. Thank you for listening.