The challenge for Asian community organizations: Will the same old banquets grab the next generation of AAPI leaders?

Nai-Li Yee receives a Lifetime Service award from the Chinese American Council of Colorado, and flowers and hugs from some former students from her Colorado Chinese School, which she founded over 20 years ago.

Erin and I attend a lot of banquets. That’s what happens when you’re involved in the local Asian community. I don’t know what it’s like in places like LA or San Francisco, where there are a lot more Asian Americans and a lot more organizations, but there are something 30 Asian community groups in the Denver area, and we end up at banquets, fundraisers and events all year round for a handful of them. Many of the dinners are held at Palace restaurant, the spacious eatery owned by Johnny Hsu, who supports the community and welcomes their members.

That’s where we found ourselves last night, attending the 12th Anniversary Celebration dinner of the Chinese American Council of Colorado. It’s an umbrella organization of Chinese community groups that serves as a funnel between the community and the larger Asian American community, and offers services as varied as free income tax filing, health fairs, and volunteers at the annual Colorado Dragon Boat Festival.

The food at Palace was great, as usual: an eight-course feast that included Xi Hu Beef Soup, Wok Fried Pepper Shrimp, Whole Fish with Salt Ginger Chef Sauce, Nan King Pork Loin and Golden Fried Chicken.

The evening ran long, but it was worthwhile to see the unity in the Chinese community, which is not always so united. One reason may have been the Lifetime Service Award, which was given to Nai-Li Yee, who helped found the Colorado Chinese Language School in 1974, and has been involved in the AAPI community ever since, and is universally respected.

The spirit of unity last night could also have been because of the keynote speaker, Colorado’s First Lady Jeannie Ritter, who gave a somewhat rambling but customized (not pre-canned) speech on volunteerism.

Lee deserved the kudos, so it was nice to see the community’s support for her (a bunch of former language students even showed up as a surprise and gave her flowers, photo above). She embodies the spirit of volunteerism.

Ritter’s talk touched on a topic that got me thinking about the future of the non-profit organizations that serve as the backbone of the AAPI community. They’re all run by a core group of volunteers who tend to e older, and who’ve put their sweat and energy into these groups for decades. Ritter pointed out, correctly, that though the CACC does great and important work, it’s time for its leadership to think about nurturing the next generation of leaders and hand off the organization — even if they don’t agree with how it might be run in the future.

This is an important issue, and a transition that’s starting to happen in just a precious few groups.

The Mile-Hi chapter of the JACL has a young leadership now, and the group of Nisei who ran the chapter for years are less visible (the JACL’s challenge is for the young leaders to find ways to keep the knowledge and experience of the elders on hand instead of chasing them out entirely). The OCA’s Colorado chapter is also led by young leaders, but like JACL, is in a period of transition. The FACC, the Filipino American Community of Colorado, has a constant flow of young members active in the organization, which is great, because families are so strong in the Filipino community.

The Colorado chapter of NAAAP (National Association of Asian American Professionals, a real mouthful) is alive with young members, and it shows: Their events are well-attended and abuzz with a different spirit than the coat-and-tie banquets at the Palace, even if the event is after-work and the members are wearing office attire. After their monthly events, a dozen members or more go to nearby restaurants to eat and drink and continue their pan-Asian networking. I can’t see that happening after many other Asian community groups’ meetings.

The other groups feel older, even if they include younger members and volunteers. Maybe it’s simply the formality of fundraising dinners, which seem so… old-fashioned. Maybe we should all study Barack Obama’s presidential campaign, which drew an army of young volunteers, and was able to raise scads of money over the Internet.

As technology evolves, non-profit groups should evolve so we can serve our communities better. Social networking allows us to be connected virtually, and build communities of passionate stakeholders who are wired to each other, and to their other networks.

Don’t get me wrong — dinners are great. As anyone knows, I love food. In fact, I was upset last night when we got to Palace and I discovered I’d left my cellphone at home, because it meant I couldn’t post Twitter updates (“twEATs”) about every course.

From left, Joe Nguyen, Andy Vuong and Annie Guo network via Rock Band at an AAJA Denver group mixer.The Denver Asian America Journalists Association group, for which I serve as president, will continue to meet every month at various Asian restaurants around town, just because, well, you know, it’s so sociable to meet and gossip over pho, dumplings, dim sum or Korean food. At our last event, we even had Rock Band set up at Bam Bu, a great little pan-Asian restaurant, and we had a blast AND did some serious networking.

We just don’t require coats and ties — that’s just much too adult.

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6 Responses to The challenge for Asian community organizations: Will the same old banquets grab the next generation of AAPI leaders?

  1. Karl Chwe says:

    Excellent post. As it happens, the Youth Strengthening Youth Program or YSYP, a program of the Asian Pacific Development Center, seeks to develop the next generation of Asian-American leaders. Graduates of my program are already taking leadership positions in various organizations in the area.

  2. anna123 says:

    Great post, I”m a long time lurker of Nikkeiview, and had to de-lurk to comment on this insightful post.

    What is written in this post is 100% true!! in my area there are a few “”prominent”” AA organisations, but they are run by the oldies who have no idea how to adapt to the changing times/ or maybe instead want to prevent new blood entering and rising up which might threaten their own “”power”” in the organisation….

    Theyve did alot of good work in the past, but now they are aging, not many new members are comming in, yet they seem happy to remain in this situation, stagnating, the whole time the younger generations arent even being cultivated to care .

    These organisations are destined to die out with their elderly leadeship and stagnate and decay from within…..unless they can adapt and have long term vision to continue the legacy of their work….I’d have to agree that the Obama political campaign is a good model to follow for modern activism…..

  3. Gil Asakawa says:

    Thanks, Anna123… maybe you can get involved in some of these stagnating groups in your area, and shake things up! Sometimes just having someone taking charge and making some noise will attract a whole new membership to an organization!

  4. anna123 says:

    Thanks for your kind suggestions Gil Asakawa. Um…I was for a short time a member of a particular organisation that i wont name here (but its very established, over 70 years old, and now receives funding from government grants) and what i saw there was pretty disappointing, and frustrating. Its was so pathetic, they didnt have their youth idealism or energy/drive to change the situation, always saying “”we should do this, we should do that”” but they are performing for outsiders, not empowering their community.

    The leadership was old, decrepit, their building was rundown, old, yet they were not interested in improving their situation, only enriching themselves and holding onto their own sense of power. I felt sorry for the second generation of members (the few members of men and women in their thirties) who had absolutely NO power in the organisation at all, and also the third and fourth generation of members, young people from 10-25yrs who had no political activism aspirations at all, only interested in joining to take advantage of the free facilities on offer at the hall. Even then, total paying membership was only around 200 people, only 20 of those were in their thirties and around another 20 were twenty or younger. The rest of the members were in their 50’s or older. And they werent powerful people in their fifties either, they didnt have strong networks to other organisations, they had no money, (most were pensioners who joined because they didnt have anyone at home to talk to, and they could play chinese chess or mahjong at the hall with other old people) they couldnt even organise( /or didnt want to )simple demonstrations of support for the AA community here.

    Each year the older members are dying, and no new members are being recruited to replace them. Last financial year only 2 people joined, while 7 people decided not to renew their membership/or were unable to since they passed away. Those two new members were me and my friend. I joined as i was interested in what these guys could do, my friend joined because of me. In other words they didnt have the ability to market themselves, i specific sought them out after reading an old article that mentioned them on the net, and that was because i was already interested in AA issues.

    At the end, my friend and i decided not to renew our membership, we left in disgust(well my disgust, and her apathy). When a system is so weak , so pathetic, yet so corrupt and divided, with no long term vision, and the administration is filled with small minded individuals interested in petty office politics talking about this person, that person, instead of doing work, Its better to just start anew.

    Why try to save a rotting, decaying , sinking ship, with corrupt officers, an shortsighted captain, squabbling crew, when you can build a brand new ship from scatch? One with vision, honesty, and true drive to better their community? its harder to start from scratch, but maybe more truthful too…..

    These organisations will be extinct within 1-2 decades, maybe new groups will form to replace them, the path chosen by AAs will be more apatheic and assimilationist with out the vision to do anything……

  5. Gil Asakawa says:

    Hi Anna, that’s too bad, about your example. I think when that happens (and I an think of national organizations that suffer from the same sense of decay to a great extent), the younger members might do better by just starting a new organization with a fresh vision and clearer, more modern mission. That way they won’t be burdended by the baggage of the previous organization.

  6. Pingback: Gil Asakawa: Chinese Youth Foundation Takes Over Chinese American Council’s Annual Fundraiser |

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