guest post by eddie lee: get your hopes up, our moment is now: a case for a new generation of asian american political leadership

Aloha! I'm on vacation, taking a much-needed break from blogging for a bit. But it's all good, because I've enlisted the help of some great guest bloggers to keep things going around here. Here's Eddie Lee of the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders on why getting your hopes up is a good thing.

In 2007, I dropped out of college to take part in something I believed in. Four years later, I work for the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, serving as a liaison to the AAPI community. While I was met with naysayers and barriers along my path to where I am today, hope never left me. My story and the stories of this community are proof that dreams do come true as long as we don't lose hope.

Hope isn't just a word, or a campaign slogan. It's a way of life in which we choose to invest ourselves into something unseen, something seemingly foolish. It doesn't come easy. In fact, it's supposed to be hard. It took several moments in my life to understand that.

I will never forget the summer evening in 2005 when I was interning for a Congressional committee in our nation's capital. My khakis noticeably wrinkled and shirt half-tucked, I found myself at a banquet sitting next to an older Asian man wearing thick brimmed glasses. During our conversation I shared with him my aspiration to work for the White House one day. "Don't get your hopes up," he responded. "Very few Asians work there. In fact, an Asian American will never make it to the White House. Not in our lifetime." He laughed, as if the world laughed with him.

I was reminded of the man's remarks a year later in my junior in college, I joined forces with my Pakistani-American friend to run for the president and vice president of the Harvard student body. Over the course of 22 days, we put aside exams and papers to pour our hearts into running an intense campaign that encompassed three campus-wide debates, 1200 doors knocked on, 11 endorsement meetings, and one too many all-nighters. Reality hit on Election Day, when I asked my own roommate if he'd be voting. He replied, "No, elections are pointless." Don't get your hopes up.

Yet losing my own race did not deter me from volunteering for the Obama campaign the following year. At the end of my summer, I was offered a job. It meant taking a leave of absence from college to work on the campaign for the next year and a half. This was in August 2007, when freshman Senator Barack Obama was losing in the national Gallup polls by 22% to Hillary Clinton. The response from my parents was obvious: Why now? What about your college degree? What if he loses? Don't get your hopes up.

As I think back to that fateful day in 2007, I recall vividly the uncertainty I felt as I turned in those forms to start working on the campaign. This fear followed me through sleepless nights on the trail. Its whispers grew louder as doubters made it their duty to remind us that we were wasting our time. When fatigue evolved into exhaustion, hives broke out across my whole body. I was forced to spend two days in the emergency room, unable to function.

But neither the campaign nor I gave up hope. On November 4, 2008, one man stood before the world and delivered a simple yet powerful message: hope is alive.

Don't get your hopes up. To those who aspire to leave a mark in this world, these words are toxic at best. The keep-your-head-down, don't-stand-out, save-face mentality plagues our identity. They are a reflection of the low expectations we set for ourselves. We've come to adapt this mindset to protect ourselves from the worst-case scenarios. It's often instinct to think of all that could go wrong before imagining what extraordinary potential lies ahead. After all, it's much easier to stay quiet and accept what the world offers than to take matters into our own hands.

The consequences of our inaction are evident. While the AAPI community has made significant strides in American society, we're barely getting started. AAPIs still have significantly low voter participation rates. Consequently, we are underrepresented in Congress. And sadly, our voice is yet too small outside government: in the boardrooms, city councils, PTA meetings, schools town halls, in too many places where decisions that affect our lives are made. Often, we are not even in the room or on the ballot.

These sobering numbers tell part of the story: 12.6% of AAPIs live in poverty; 14.4% drop out of high school; more than 10% have the preventable Hepatitis B disease; 21% lack health insurance; 31% reported incidents of employment discrimination; A significant subset of the community lacks English proficiency; more AAPIs have lost their homes proportional to any other group. The problems that require leadership are all too real.

I can see why choosing to hope and taking political action aren't attractive options. We live in a time where the gridlock in Washington DC has been stronger than ever before. And despite the best intentions of some, the impact we make in Congress, in the board meetings, or in the voting booth seems inconsequential at best. I understand why we ought to guard ourselves from the notion that we can really accomplish much, or that there's really anything worth hoping for.

Yet, the reality is there is so much to be hopeful for. I derive my hope from the passion of those in our community who are resilient in the face of adversity. I see it in the faces of Vietnamese-Americans who survived a devastating hurricane in the Gulf Coast and came out stronger and more mobilized than ever before. I see it in the courage of nine immigrant students at South Philadelphia High School who led and won a campus-wide protest against bullying after being brutally assaulted by their peers. I see it in the hearts of Muslim and Arab Americans who respond to acts of ignorance with patience and courage. I see it in the pride of our LGBT brothers and sisters who have chosen to live openly even though some in the world have colluded to convince others that they are anything but deserving.

I see it in the lives of my own parents, who immigrated to America to provide unlimited opportunities for my brother and me. By overcoming great challenges to earn doctorate degrees and tenured professorships, they and thousands of immigrants exemplify the power of determination and persistence found in so many of us. We stand on the shoulders of all of these heroes and look to them for our reason to hope.

Simply put, we are stronger than we will ever know. I believe there will be a day when the reach of AAPI political activism will meet its potential; a day when the needs of this community will find adequate representation in the halls of Congress down to the PTA meetings across the street. And yes, there will be a day when the thought of an Asian American president will not seem so out of reach. But until that day comes, it's incumbent upon all of us to provide leadership to help move this community and this country forward; to take the steps, both big and small, to become a voice wherever it may be needed. What happens in this next generation of political activism will affect the lives of generations to come. And it's vital that all of us play a role. But more importantly, when we hear the words of the man with the thick-brimmed glasses, it's vital that we not lose hope.

Get your hopes up.

Eddie Lee works for the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, coordinating youth and social media outreach. He also co-founded Jubilee Project, a nonprofit organization that produces videos to raise awareness and money for a good cause.

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