Credit: Photo courtesy of Diana Hwang

I met Diana Hwang in 2009 in Boston at a convening hosted by a local donor seeking to launch a “pipeline” for women of color to run for and win political office in Massachusetts. There were about 15 women of color in the room, most of us from community and political organizing. Diana was the only Asian American. She was young, and energetic as she explained to me that she was piloting AAWPI, the Asian American Women’s Political Initiative. At the time, AAWPI was the first and only political leadership organization for Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) women in the US, and it is still the only one today.

We sat in that room that day excited at the idea of creating a vehicle for building political power for women of color. We were shocked when the donor, a progressive white woman, introduced a small group of white women from UMass/Boston who were already slated to create such a vehicle for women of color. We were not invited to build our own pipeline, but to provide them the information they needed to build it for us. The room got quiet as the women of color looked around at each other, our eyes asking, “Are you seeing what I’m seeing?”

After just a few minutes of this silent nonverbal organizing, a piece of paper was slipped to me across the table: “We have decided you should be the one to name what is going on.” I sighed but did as requested, and we asked the white women to step out of the room so that the women of color could openly discuss what would be needed to move forward.

We quickly agreed that we wanted to lead the project ourselves. Any project to increase the political power of women of color must do so in an aligned way from the start, building power at all levels. We spent the next two years designing and building this pipeline. US Rep Ayanna Pressley—then working as a legislative aide—was the first leader we approached to run for office.

Since then, it has become more common for women leaders of color to run for office and win—though what our pipeline contributed to this change is unclear. As Yawu Miller, Senior Editor of The Bay State Banner, the 57-year-old Boston-based Black newspaper, points out, “Black women have been elected at higher rates than Black men now for a few decades.”

The current mayor of Boston is Michelle Wu, the first Asian American and first woman to be elected to that office. However, AAPIs are underrepresented in politics in the US. Hwang notes that, “though the population of AAPIs in the US is 6.1 percent, 0.9 percent of all elected officials across the US are AAPIs. So, we would need over seven times as many to have equal representation, just base representation.”

For Hwang, one of the core challenges facing the building of political power of AAPI women is the invisibility they face, even in communities of color. I recently interviewed Hwang, and she says, “When we say women of color, when we say people of color or BIPOC, oftentimes AAPIs are missing from the table, they’re missing from the conversation. I think it’s the exclusion, it’s the invisibility that’s the issue. It’s so deep.”

When Hwang started AAWPI there was skepticism about the need for such an effort, even in the Asian American community, including among women.

Hwang shares,

They’d say, “Why just women? Why not all Asian Americans?” I had a friend who is now completely on board, but when I pitched this idea, he said, “So why don’t you just start an organization for Asian American women who have 12 cats and are 7 feet tall? It’s too narrow.” There really wasn’t an understanding. It felt so niche for people. And again, even from Asian American women where you expect an understanding, there wasn’t a consciousness of why it mattered.

But Hwang was seeing something different: “I was seeing that women’s organizations didn’t recognize or really prioritize my identity as an immigrant, and Asian American organizations didn’t prioritize or recognize the things I cared about as a woman.”

However, Hwang soon learned that the barriers of entry to politics are high all around and at all levels. She recalls,

For 10 years, we struggled even to be seen as legitimate. There was a point in time I stopped applying for funding because we just kept getting rejected. And the way I describe it is that there are multiple barriers of entry. First, I have to convince you that Asian Americans aren’t all doctors, lawyers, and engineers. And for the most part, I lose a lot of you. When in reality, Southeast Asians have some of the highest poverty rates in the nation—37.8 percent, for instance, of Hmong Americans. Then I have to convince you that Asian American women are a priority, then I lose more of you. And then I have to convince you that civic engagement and building political power among Asian American women is the strategy. And for the most part, I lose everyone. It’s too many layers. Because it’s not direct services. It’s not direct need. It’s not tangible. It’s very long term.

Hwang keeps coming back to the narratives about Asian Americans:

Asian Americans are smart, right? They all get into Harvard, that is the media narrative that gets pushed out. And that’s the narrative that sticks. To the point where we gaslight ourselves, thinking “Oh, yeah, we’re all smart. We don’t have need.”

With the limited resources that exist, it shouldn’t go to Asian Americans, right? Because we have no need. And now you’re just limiting it to women. So why? And then why should we build power? If Asian Americans have no need, then why should we build political power? For what?

When she learned that 0.2 percent of philanthropy dollars go to Asian American organizations and 1.9 percent to organizations serving women and girls, Hwang realized it wasn’t just happening to her. “It is a common practice,” she says.

There is a lot of work to do, much of it having to do with invisibility. Hwang notes, “There is very little data on the AAPI community. When you look at studies, the sample of AAPIs is always point something, minimal. They are never really sampled. So, when we talk about being invisible and not having a voice, it is at multiple layers. Our voices aren’t even considered in X study about Y.”

However, Hwang recalls one study that did include Asian Americans: “There was a year when there as a bunch of mental health legislation that passed in Massachusetts. Asian American women from 15 to 24 had the highest rates of suicide and depression across all races and gender…and there were no Asian Americans at the table when decisions were being made about new mental health laws.”

For Hwang, it is not a coincidence that Asian Americans are overrepresented in this mental health indicator and underrepresented in political power: “The Asian American community is heavily immigrant, and many come from countries where being politically active is unsafe. There is a lot of trauma in our community.” She found that even Asian American giving circles are wary of supporting political power building.

She also notes that AAPIs have not created a shared identity in the US. As with “Latinx,” the demographic category “Asian” is comprised of many different communities, but an added challenge is that Asians don’t share a language, as Latinx people do.

Nevertheless, although rendered invisible, institutionalized violence against Asian Americans, and Asian American women in particular, is long standing. Hwang says,

I never had an opportunity to take Asian American history, never had an option, was not offered. When I was in college, we were still fighting for even one class on it. It took the Georgia mass shooting that killed six Asian women for me to self teach that before the Chinese Exclusion Act, there was something called the Page Act which literally banned Asian women from coming to this country because there was an assumption they were prostitutes. And that’s not the story we tell.

It took the Georgia mass shooting of Asian women, who were targeted by this guy who blamed them for his sex addiction. And that narrative is not new. The Georgia mass shooting was a real awakening for our community that we will always be seen as “the other,” and keeping our heads down, staying silent, is not an option.

Hwang didn’t set out to be a political organizer. She grew up in a Taiwanese family in Houston, TX, and after graduating from college moved to Boston for her first job as a Massachusetts State House aide. She recalls,

I remember being really excited and telling my dad, and he was so worried about me he almost started crying. And he said to me, “You’ll never be one of them.” And I understood, and I think I’ve always understood that that was his immigrant experience in this country. And so really changing that, our community’s feeling of not being seen and heard, is why I started AAWPI.

I didn’t vote until I was 21, because I just didn’t know. We didn’t talk about politics. Later, I learned from my dad that he’d never met an elected official in his life. He’s in his late 70s. I mean, that is true disenfranchisement.

When Hwang arrived in Boston, she was surprised to find—given the reputation Massachusetts has for being a progressive state—that Boston was less diverse than Houston. She says,

It was strange, going to the Massachusetts State House in 2006, 200 legislators, zero are Asian American. When I went to City Hall, I was one of two Asian American staff and the only Asian chief of staff. And I thought, in these buildings, these places of such power and influence, Asian Americans are invisible. And this is what my dad meant. That’s what he felt. When you don’t see people who look like you in spaces, you can’t imagine you belong.

It’s not surprising that the central question for Hwang in developing AAWPI is, “How do you fix the invisibility?”

Her role as a staffer was part of it. She explains, “The staff role is so important because it is actually part of the pipeline. You get in there, you figure out how the system works, you’re empowered.” The first AAWPI program Hwang launched was a political fellowship. She shares,

I was just trying to create what I wish I had had. So I created a State House fellowship program, particularly for low income and immigrant AAPI women, because the people who have privilege are the ones who can intern there. But who we really want in these spaces of power are people from the community, close to the community.

She recruited for the fellowship at local community and state colleges. She paired fellows with legislators’ offices that she trusted to mentor well. She then created a training program that provided an understanding of the political system and tools to engage it. And she provided space for the cohort to problem solve together and vent about the experience of being in white spaces.

All of this was done with $10,000, the first investment in AAWPI, made by the aforementioned pipeline for women of color in politics. Hwang used the money to provide stipends to the fellows, and she worked a part-time job to sustain herself—a practice Hwang has unfortunately had to sustain over most of AAWPI’s history. She says, “There’s so much sacrifice that has to happen because there’s just not a lot of support for new ideas and for the need in our community.”

It wasn’t easy recruiting for the fellowship. Hwang shares, “When I would recruit, the women would say, ‘I don’t feel qualified to apply.’” But she managed to support seven fellows the first year. She has sustained this level of engagement, supporting seven to nine women a year for the last 12 years and over 100 women overall to enter political organizing.

Hwang says,

I think our superpower is community. We go deep with these women. In my first iterations, I was so anxious about making sure they had knowledge, trying to teach them things, basic things like how a bill becomes a law, how the budget works for the state. These are things that are inaccessible. What does government do? What is the difference between federal, state, and local?

The last few decades have shown how important state and local government are. Those seeking social change have found that they can often have the most impact at the local and state levels. Hwang says, “How many races have been won and lost by one vote? It’s where you can actually make a difference.”

Hwang continues,

What I realized over the years is the thing they appreciated most about it was the community, was this feeling. Because we basically told them, you’re worthy. It was actually the space where they could just show up as they are, be valued for who they are, and told that they’re worthy and powerful as they are.

Clearly, a key aspect of Hwang’s leadership is that she creates a culture that encourages a strong sense of self. And it has worked. In spite of the fundraising and other challenges, AAWPI is a hugely successful program. Over 90 percent of its alumni have gone on to work or volunteer on campaigns, become community organizers, or run for office themselves.

Hwang credits this success with the emphasis on going deep. “I think there’s a lot of emphasis sometimes on numbers—‘You need to touch this many people’—but we’re trying to change culture. We’re trying to change this very accepted notion that we don’t matter, even to ourselves.”

And the women who go through AAWPI stick around. Previous participants mentor future cohorts, lead the program’s next iteration, and serve on the board. Hwang calls this work “a labor of love.” She explains, “There’s such a deep love for the community. And I think for me, that’s the indication of our success the most, that they loved it so much that they would come back.”

Along the way, Hwang herself decided to run for office. She shares,

I was scared. I’ve been around this, and I was really scared. The best way I can describe running for office now is that you have to be vulnerable to connect to your community, but you’re also a thing. You’re treated like an object. And I feel like a lot of what running is is holding opposites. Everything is personal and nothing is personal. And it’s scary.

Her experience running for office further shaped her work at AAWPI.

I think the reason I show up with such love, care, and empathy is because I’ve felt all of those things. In every space of women and women of color, we talk about impostor syndrome. It just naturally comes up. And there are always people who ask, “When does it go away?” And I say, “Actually it never goes away.” My new definition of what impostor syndrome is is that the system wasn’t made for us. It just wasn’t. White men can fail up. But as women and women of color, you can do everything right and still fail because people are not used to seeing our leadership. People are not used to seeing people like us lead. So just the way you’re talking, the way you show up in an authentic way is scary for other people.

Though she didn’t win that first run, Hwang does not regret running for office. The process itself connects the candidate to the community and her family and can be very rewarding. She recounts two meaningful moments in her campaign.

One of the things that we did was have my dad actually write a letter to Chinatown, asking for their help. I don’t really know that much about my dad’s life. And we were on the phone with my mail consultant who was helping to craft this for him. And I heard stories I never had heard before. He was talking about how he grew up poor in Taiwan, working the farm when he was 11, and he almost had his hand cut off. And that’s when he realized he needed to emigrate to have a better life for his family. And I never heard this story. And I remember my consultant asking my dad, “Do you think Diana would be a good state senator and why?” And my dad said, “Yeah, I think so, because she would always have the community at heart.”

It was a four-month campaign. You’re exhausted, you’re tired, you’re hungry, and you’re running to all of these things. And there’s no time! But I went and cried in a corner for five minutes, because it was just…I’d never heard those stories. I’d never heard my dad be so vulnerable. He talked about depression. He talked about his struggles in America. And it was really powerful.

And then on election day, I was standing at the Chinatown polls greeting voters. And a mother and her seven-year-old daughter came up to me, and the mother said, “I came to vote for you because she told me to.” And one of the things I realized is representation matters. Seeing yourself in someone doing things, big things, matters. Bravery inspires bravery. And that’s why it’s just so critical. Most of the stats say you have to lose to win. But even if you lose, you never really lose.

In spite of the initiative’s success and the commitment of its leaders, AAWPI was on the verge of closing in 2021, even though it was still the only organization doing this work. It was never able to raise the money needed to operate. Everyone was doing the work in their spare time, and the leaders were burning out. Hwang shares,

It felt like I was banging my head against a wall. Foundations that seemed to be really aligned would turn us down. I would talk about the deep need in Asian American communities, the invisibility of AAPI women, and over and over again, I was met with skepticism and apathy. What our community was facing was being reflected back at us: we were invisible and unworthy.

Fortunately, a small influx of money finally came to AAWPI early last year. Unfortunately, it was in response to the Georgia mass shooting. Hwang says,

We just realized how urgent it was to really change the invisibility that leaves our community so vulnerable to hate—and most of anti-Asian hate is directed at women. And that is not new. Fifty-two percent of AAPI women have been sexually or physically assaulted in their lifetime. But we are also the least likely to report, so it is absolutely higher, and probably significantly higher.

We felt like we had to continue. It was what we could do. It was more critical than ever, and we had to do it.

So AAWPI expanded to Georgia this year. The Georgia mass shooting motivated a national funder to step up in a way that hadn’t happened before.

And not just the large donor. The organization was receiving small donations as well. Hwang says, “After the Georgia mass shooting, we got over one thousand $1 and $2 donations. Every single minute, there was another donation that came in for $1. We got over one thousand in two days. There was a real recognition that we were being targeted.”

Hwang was in deep mourning over the mass shooting, and the last thing she wanted to do was ramp up after 12 years trying. She shares,

As a community, we were going through collective trauma. And, in the pain and grief and fear—which happens to so many of us in our communities—we had to continue doing the work for our community, because if not you then who?

And so, we came up with a plan to meet the urgency of the moment. Part of iterating for so long is that after a while you know what to do. Our team kept going, but this time people were finally paying attention and it allowed us to garner support we’d never seen before.

AAWPI set out to take its local infrastructure building work national—to activate, elevate, and support AAPI women at all stages of the political pipeline. It has a rapid expansion plan. After this year’s expansion into Georgia, it plans to expand into Pennsylvania, Texas, and California. These are all states where Asian Americans are the fastest growing population and where their votes can make the difference. The goal is to mobilize 50,000 AAPIs and AAPI women by 2025.

These states also have progressive, pro-choice AAPI women running for office. In Georgia, there are three right now. Bee Nguyen is running for Secretary of State. State Senator Michelle Au was redistricted out by Republicans of her state Senate district, so she’s running for state representative. She’s one of the only practicing medical doctors in the legislature. And Nabilah Islam, who is considered Georgia’s AOC, is running for state Senate. Each of these are firsts. Bee would be the first Asian American to ever hold statewide office. Michelle Au was the first Asian American woman, and Nabilah Islam would be one of the first Muslim women, in the state Senate.

One of the changes the initiative has made in expanding to other states is to shift from fellowships to community engagement and mobilization projects. Participants receive $10,000 towards their efforts, as well as political leadership training, individualized coaching, and mentoring. Projects range from building a community garden in Boston Chinatown that hosts voter education programming to mobilizing Muslim women to vote through their mosques in Georgia.

Participants are partnered with community organizations so that their projects are rooted in and informed by what’s already happening on the ground—such as the Chinese Progressive Association in Boston and Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Atlanta in Georgia. This also helps build capacity for these organizations. As Hwang says, “We’re part of an ecosystem.”

AAWPI is actually one of three organizations launched by Hwang, the c3. These types of organizations cannot engage in political activity but can do voter engagement. The c4 organization is AAWPI Mobilize, which can engage in some political activity, but such activity cannot be its primary purpose. AAWPI Wins, a political action committee (PAC), raises and distributes money for the purpose of electing progressive AAPI women. It is the first PAC to elect Asian American women in the US.

Thus, the early end of the pipeline helps to mobilize and elect the later end of the pipeline, and the later end of the pipeline helps to inspire the early end. “That’s the full pipeline we’re trying to create, an ecosystem,” Hwang says, “And to do this you also need an ecosystem of organizations.”

What currently exists in terms of political infrastructure for women is focused on training programs. What’s missing is individualized support. Hwang says,

When we ask candidates what they are missing, what they need, it’s helping them fundraise, hiring staff. And that’s the point of building the early end of the pipeline. You’ve created volunteers and staff that can help elect the later end of the pipeline. So, it’s really individualized. Whatever it is they say they need from AAWPI Mobilize, we’re there.

AAWPI’s finances are finally on an upswing. The organization recently won a $100,000 grant in the inaugural Gold Futures Challenge award for AAPI organizations. But it’s going to take much more for it to meet its goals. As Hwang says, “We’re still in startup mode. To be honest, we’re working more than full-time but aren’t able to pay ourselves a full salary. A lot of us are still doing this for the mission.”

Hwang’s goal is to raise $1 million by the end of 2022. That would allow AAWPI to pay its staff a living wage. She hopes to get the organization to $3 million by 2025, which would allow it to meet its current expansion goal. This is the minimum needed to launch the foundation of a national infrastructure for progressive AAPI women in politics. Hwang says,

We had 10 years of really understanding what worked. So we are in a strong position, and there’s always learning to be done, but for us…we are intentional about building deep community, we don’t want to lose the thing that matters, which is this feeling that each of these women feels seen…That is what keeps people in community. That’s what keeps our fellows coming back.

I think we have our model down. Of course, we’re always innovating, we’re always making changes, but I think the base level of what we envision is solid. We’ve been working towards it for 13 years. It’s really about how much more of an impact we can have.

AAWPI just wrapped up its Atlanta pilot, and Hwang, as usual, is struck by the participants’ stories.

They each told their stories, and it was just so powerful. We have fellows who are queer, Muslim, formerly unhoused, undocumented DACA recipients. Another one’s father left her mother because she was born a girl. They all talked about being raped, sexually assaulted, and being in abusive relationships, all of them. And one of the most poised fellows talked about being suicidal and that she was just healing from it. One hijabi woman who worked at the Georgia State House talked about how regularly she’d be in meetings with legislators and staff where they’d refuse to continue the meeting until she left. This is what we do to women of color in our society. When one of them arrived at our welcome dinner, she admitted that she thought this was a scam and that she’d get to the airport and have to fly home, because that’s how little people have believed in them.

For me, when I’m asked about what I find to be my most successful, it’s the love that they showed each other that first weekend and that they’ve continued to show each other. That’s the power of this unique space we’re creating, and it’s also our greatest challenge…to allow them to heal while these extraordinary women are building political power and community.

So, that’s what keeps me going. We need their unique lived experiences. We need their heart, we need their leadership in our communities, as these broken systems are just so clear and hurting our communities now more than ever.