In 1993, the California legislature had zero Asian Americans among its 120 members. That same year marked the launch of the Center for Asian Americans United for Self Empowerment (CAUSE), a nonprofit founded to address this lack of representation. Since then, more than 15 Asian Americans have made their way to Sacramento.
CAUSE doesn’t take credit for this breakthrough, but Executive Director Carrie Gan would like to think the organization played a small role.
Sitting in her Pasadena office, Gan described CAUSE’s push to cultivate greater Asian American participation in the democratic process, and to increase the community’s clout. From its beginnings, the organization has arranged government internships for college and high school students, and in recent years launched a pair of leadership development programs that cater to women and law professionals.
Beyond these specialized offerings, CAUSE also promotes one fundamental activity that almost everyone can join in on: voting.
The organization conducts voter outreach across the Los Angeles area in a variety of settings, from high schools in the San Gabriel Valley to after-work mixers in downtown LA and senior centers in Chinatown. Sometimes, this outreach simply entails registering people to vote, but often it can involve informative presentations about ballot issues. For example, CAUSE’s ongoing “Visions for LA” speaker series has hosted candidates for the city’s 2013 mayoral race, and the organization plans to hold a forum on health care reform in September.
While engaging the electorate is a critical component of Gan’s job, “it’s not a sexy thing that corporations and other foundations usually like to sponsor,” she said.
CAUSE has had greater success acquiring funding for its internships and leadership development programs, but Gan remains undeterred in her commitment to Asian American voters. She emphasized the need to serve the elderly in particular because they frequently require assistance in languages other than English. (The alternatives tend to be Cantonese and Mandarin, since CAUSE has roots in the Chinese community, but the organization has strong Korean and Vietnamese connections as well).
“These older adults, they’re so grateful whenever we go there,” Gan said in reference to her visits to senior centers. “I even had some call me on my cell phone two weeks later, saying ‘Hey, I lost my sample ballot, can you come by and give us something?’ And I had to drive there and drop it off for them.”
She relies on “broken Cantonese” to facilitate these encounters, but even that imperfect effort makes a big difference, demonstrating how “language is such an important tool in voter outreach.”
Despite the challenges of providing bilingual assistance, Gan explained that the elderly make for an excellent target audience, given that “they have time on their hands, and they are interested, and they’re all in one central location.”
Younger people, in her experience, show less enthusiasm. Those in their twenties often resist her voter registration attempts, citing the fear of jury duty as the main reason. She responds with appeals to their sense of civic responsibility, but she also understands that the call to vote will have more punch “if we can glamorize it a little bit more.”
To that end, CAUSE collaborated
with actress Kelly Hu on a pair of flashy public service announcements leading
up to the last two presidential elections. In 2004, they roped in Hollywood
luminaries Maggie Q, John Cho, Tamlyn Tomita, Russell Wong and Ming-Na Wen for “The Least Likely,” a faux sci-fi movie
trailer that highlights low voter turnout among young Asian Americans. Then in
2008, Hu appeared alongside George Takei in a martial arts homage entitled “Embrace Your Power,” in which a wise
master exhorts his protégé to seize her destiny through a voting booth.
Gan declared that “entertainment folks have a key role here in terms of reaching out,” but she also repeatedly underscored the value of what non-celebrities can bring to the table. CAUSE depends heavily on volunteers. That's how she got her start with the organization.
To that effect, Gan would like Hyphen readers to join her in mobilizing Asian American voters. “Just don’t be afraid to get involved,” she said. “Your voice does matter.”
For more information about the Center for Asian Americans United for Self Empowerment (CAUSE), visit www.causeusa.org.
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