6 Years, 6 Lessons (and 1 to Grow On): Opening Federal Government's Doors to the Asian American and Pacific Islander Community

Guest Post by Kiran Ahuja, Executive Director of the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (2009-2015)

Photo credit: Asian & Pacific Islander American Health Forum

I'm on vacation! This week, I'm taking a much-needed break to recharge the batteries and get a change of scenery. To keep things going around here, I've enlisted the help of several friends of the blog to submit guest posts on various topics of their choosing. Here's one from Kiran Ahuja, exiting Executive Director of the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.

I am humbled by the opportunity to serve as the Executive Director of the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPIs), housed within the Department of Education, for the past six years. The Initiative is working to improve the quality of life and opportunities for AAPIs through increased access to, and participation in, federal programs in which they may be underserved. During my time, I learned a lot, so I wanted to take the opportunity to share with you some of my big takeaways – so here are the Top 6 Lessons (and 1 to grow on) learned as Executive Director of the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.

7. If you believe in something, work as hard as you can to make it a reality. It has been humbling to have been given this opportunity to serve both the AAPI community and the Obama Administration.

When I started in this role, I had no road map; I had a phone, a desk, our Executive Order, and the firm belief that this would not become an Initiative in name only. I wanted to build a team of diverse strengths so that we could focus on addressing the diverse needs of our community. Over the past six years, we've built a dynamic staff, a Presidentially appointed Commission, an Interagency Working Group spanning 30 federal agencies and offices, and a network of 250+ federal regional staff, and a youth ambassadors group.

6. If you keep saying it -- people finally believe it?! From our first days, we talked to anyone who would listen, trying to dispel the "model minority" myth – that all AAPIs are homogenously affluent, successful, and unaffected by poverty. With recent articles and editorials on the model minority, I think the collective push to dispel this myth is finally gaining traction.

5. AAPIs comprise an incredibly diverse community with different histories, migration stories, and cultures, and we are growing by leaps and bounds. The Initiative celebrates that diversity and shares a common goal to empower all AAPIs to achieve their American dreams. Experts predict we will eventually be the largest racial/ethnic group in the country -- and we should be ready to serve these communities as best as we can.

4. Our network of regional federal employees rock; they seek to increase the government's connection and understanding of AAPIs in communities across the country. With a network of more than 250 regional federal employees and counting, they are making sure the federal government delivers on the President's promise that "no community should be invisible to its government," regardless of where community members live. Through this Regional Network, we've reached more than 100,000 AAPIs in more than 40 states and the Pacific Islands, connecting them to resources, from social security to health insurance to immigration services, to help improve their lives.

3. Doing the work is just as important as talking about the work. We must keep aspiring to better explain our priorities and accomplishments in plain language so that all the communities we serve can know about our services. Hopefully you all have liked our weekly highlights, and postings on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter. If you haven't connected with us, join us at whitehouse.gov/aapi.

2. The Initiative espouses an important ideal – that we are one Federal Family! As a government-wide initiative, we rely on federal officials all across government. And we have made great partners along the way, without which we wouldn't have accomplished as much. We need to continue cross-governmental collaboration to truly identify and serve the diverse needs of America's communities.

1. Community leaders make great public servants! I have been inspired everyday by the tenacity and passion of AAPI leaders around the country. I have been honored to learn from them about the true needs of our growing community and how best the government can work to better serve AAPIs.

So perhaps harnessing that passion into serving the greater public good could be for you!

Since my next gig is at the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, what better way to end than make a plug for coming to work for the federal government?

Kiran Ahuja was appointed on December 14, 2009 to the position of Executive Director of the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPIs), housed in the U.S. Department of Education in Washington, DC. In this capacity, she was responsible for directing the efforts of the White House Initiative and the President's Advisory Commission on AAPIs to advise federal agency leadership on the implementation and coordination of federal programs as they relate to AAPIs across executive departments and agencies.

For almost twenty years, Ms. Ahuja dedicated herself to improving the lives of women of color in the U.S. Well-known as a leader among national and grassroots AAPI and women's rights organizations, Ms. Ahuja served as the founding Executive Director of the National Asian Pacific American Women's Forum (NAPAWF) from 2003-2008. Through her leadership, Ms. Ahuja built NAPAWF from an all-volunteer organization to one with a paid professional staff who continue to spearhead successful policy and educational initiatives, expanded NAPAWF's volunteer chapters and membership, and organized a strong and vibrant network of AAPI women community leaders across the country.

Ms. Ahuja grew up in Savannah, Georgia, where her understanding of race, gender and ethnicity was formed as a young Indian immigrant. She attended Spelman College, a historically black college, and the University of Georgia School of Law. Following law school, she was chosen as one of five Honors Program trial attorneys for the U.S. Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division, where she litigated education-related discrimination cases and filed the Department's first peer-on-peer student racial harassment lawsuit. In addition, she participated in the Division's National Origin Working Group as part of a core group of attorneys who organized response efforts for the Division after the September 11 terrorist attacks.

She now serves as Chief of Staff at the U.S. Office of Personnel Management.


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