Filipino Advocates for Justice's Geraldine Alcid (with baby) and Mobilize the Immigrant Vote's Rebecca Apostol discuss strategy at a seminar on voting in the Filipino community.
How much time would you need to make 20,000 phone calls? Would your fingers get tired from all that dialing? Would your ear start to hurt?
Better to divide up the workload like Geraldine Alcid, the programs director of Filipino Advocates for Justice (FAJ), did. Late last year, her small team — maybe half a dozen strong — put their fingers and ears to the test by making approximately 20,000 calls. It took nine weeks to complete the job, carried out in regular evening shifts at FAJ’s Oakland office. The nonprofit undertook the effort to gauge how Filipino voters in the East Bay felt about raising taxes on the rich.
Of those surveyed, an overwhelming 85 percent favored taxing the rich out of a sample size of about 880 responses.
After their poll confirmed this, FAJ began gathering signatures to put the Millionaire’s Tax Initiative on California’s November ballot. With a hybridized version of the measure expected to qualify, FAJ plans to pick up the phones again this fall to deliver the community’s votes.
As a general rule, phone bank volunteers reach a household’s voicemail much more frequently than they do an actual person. With such a lopsided ratio, the activity can turn into a major grind. And even when someone answers, conversations do not always go smoothly.
“Once they hear that it’s a Filipino person on the other line, that normally provides a lot of familiarity,” Alcid said. "But we still get lots of people who hang up on us and do all of that.”
Through whatever heights of
rudeness “do all of that” might imply, those who volunteered to make calls said they remained upbeat and focused during the task.
“We had a good rapport with each other, and we kind of pushed each other,” team member Sammy Gutierrez said. “It was good energy. Even if you had a bad call, it was like, ‘Oh well.’ You could joke about it.”
On occasion, a few of the callers were rewarded with a particularly heart-warming experience.
“Some of our senior citizen volunteer phone bankers have...run across the name of someone they went to high school with in the Philippines,” Alcid said. “It almost sometimes gets that small town feel to it, you know, like ‘I recognize this last name, are you related to so-and-so'?”
This latest undertaking is part of FAJ’s long history of political advocacy. The organization has taken a stand against Proposition 13, a 1978 ballot measure that created funding gaps in California’s public schools, as well as later initiatives that FAJ believed were threats to Filipino Americans.
"We’ve always worked on ...
ballot initiatives that really attacked immigrant rights, rights of the Filipino
community in that sense,” Alcid said.
More recently, in 2008, the organization threw its weight behind successful local measures to fund youth programs in Union City and Oakland. In 2010, it advocated against a proposition to repeal the Global Warming Solutions Act and supported another proposition to balance the state budget.
This year, FAJ has not decided whether to target any other issue besides the Millionaire’s Tax Initiative. However, the organization has larger challenges to grapple with.
For the very first time, Alameda County will integrate Tagalog into the process during the primary vote on June 5. Not only will there be translated registration forms, information guides, ballots, and polling place signage, there will also be bilingual poll workers.
Federal law requires counties to provide bilingual voting assistance if there are 10,000 voting-age citizens with the same language preference that concurrently have limited English proficiency. Alameda County just cleared the 10,000 mark for Tagalog speakers in the last census.
The move also represents a broader shift that could potentially elevate the entire Filipino community’s political influence. Already, three other counties in California support Tagalog-speaking voters. With Filipinos having one of the highest naturalization rates in the US, more counties could follow suit.
But FAJ faces an uphill battle to increase voter turnout. Possible reasons include a low number of Filipino candidates, a belief that policymaking has no personal impact, or even a fear of getting called for jury duty, according to Alcid. Moreover, the community’s first-generation members often prefer to follow political developments in the Philippines, or reject politics altogether because rampant corruption in the Philippines has turned them off to it. All these factors cause low electoral turnout, a problem that will hopefully be mitigated if FAJ and other groups can leverage the language angle effectively.
It won’t be easy. Alcid worries about the accuracy and accessibility of the translated materials.
“Election language in and of itself is already kind of difficult to navigate, and now you’re going to add deep Tagalog on top of that. We’ll see how that works,” she said.
FAJ must also take care not to offend the majority of Filipino Americans in Alameda County who speak English, and might be insulted by the notion that they need help reading ballots. This means that in the push to publicize bilingual assistance, FAJ must carefully frame its message.
How to spread that message is also an overarching challenge leading up to the election. No one devises neatly packaged marketing plans for watershed moments like these. “This is new territory for us,” Alcid said.
In preparation, Alcid and other organizers of various affiliations gathered on the evening of May 3 to set strategy. In one especially relevant segment, Rebecca Apostol from the non-profit Mobilize the Immigrant Vote (MIV), who has collaborated with countless coalition partners in coordinating grassroots campaigns, recommended “picking up the phone and talk to them (Filipino voters) in a language that they understand.”
MIV supported FAJ’s phone banking efforts by providing ballot measure analysis, voter education training, and lists of phone numbers to dial. But Apostol believes additional activity needs to happen to improve turnout.
“Our folks aren’t voting because people aren’t talking to them,” she said. “Those of us who have knowledge, the little bit that we have, we have to be more open about talking about it.”
The organizers discussed everything from educating voters about the primary to increasing voter registration. Turnout could be better this year because three Pinoys are running for State Assembly, including two from Alameda County — Rob Bonta and Jennifer Ong. All three will be taking a shot at history, since no Filipino has ever won a seat in the California legislature.
To build more political buzz, FAJ will host its 39th anniversary celebration, pun-ily titled “Rock the Balut” this Friday, May 18. The event aims to raise awareness about the importance of this election year for the Filipino community. Although there is no word on whether chef Dominic Ainza intends to serve fertilized duck embryos for dinner, Nato Green, Allan Manalo, and Nice Hat will perform political comedy, and collaborators like MIV will be honored at the event.
FAJ will also use this opportunity to raise some funds. With all those calls, the organization’s phone bill must be a monster, and it has to get paid somehow.
“Rock the Balut” will be held on May 18 from 6 to 10 p.m. at the Oakland Asian Cultural Center at 388 9th Street in Oakland, California. For more information, call (510) 465-9876.
This post is part of Hyphen Politics, an ongoing series that looks at where Asian America and politics intersect in the run-up to the 2012 general election.
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