Q&A: Liani Jean Heh Reeves, Oregon Commission on Asian Affairs
What is your primary charge as Chair of the Oregon Commission on Asian Affairs (OCAA)?
The Commission was created by statute in 1995 by the Oregon Legislature and then Governor Kitzhaber after a group of community members identified the need for a government agency that serves the needs of the APA community. Its mission is to advocate for the educational, social, political and legal rights of the APA community. Because it is a state agency, it serves as a liaison between the community and government. As the chair, I make sure that the commission is following its mandate under the statute. I’m also responsible for developing and shepherding projects that are in line with our mandate, to make sure they’re implemented properly and to help establish relationships between the community and the government.
I became chair in 2007, following Carol Suzuki, who served as the Chair of the commission during the time it was defunded by the Oregon Legislature in 2003. During this time, the commission remained a state agency in statute, but it was given no funding to fulfill its statutory mandate. Carol, as the chair, had to lay off the commission’s staff, sell off its assets and package up its records and essentially store them in her basement. She was able to keep the commission going out of her home until the commission was merged into the Office of Advocacy Commissions and refunded in 2007.
We’ve tried very hard to have members of the Commission who are as diverse as the community both in terms of ethnic backgrounds and socio-economic and professional backgrounds. We are always recruiting for new people who are willing to serve on the commission and who can bring a dedicated work ethic and diversity to the commission.
What community need does the Commission seek to address?
Mainly, accessibility to government. Community may be disenfranchised or not able to access government for a variety of reasons. It could be mistrust of government, or language barriers, or maybe lack of understanding of how the process works. We try to work with government agencies to make sure they’re addressing those types of issues, so the community feels or understands that they can access government in a way that’s not threatening. We try to work with the community and especially community-based organizations like the Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon (APANO) to educate the community about different rights, such as voting, or how to lobby the Legislature. The Commission, along with its community partners, tries to break down some of those barriers to accessing government and services.
What are some of the key priorities and initiatives?
One of our priorities is to figure out how state agencies can better serve Asian communities. Another priority is advocating for the Asian community about their rights. The Asian Pacific American Voter Education (APAVE) project was a collaboration between the Commission, the Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon, and the Oregon Asian Pacific American Bar Association. During this past election season, the APAVE project found a variety of ways to go out into the community and do non-partisan “get out the vote” work.
We held four community summits, where we talked about the importance of voting, the history of the right to vote, and educated people about their rights around voting. For example, you have the right to bring somebody along to help you understand what you’re voting on. A lot of our communities are served by nonprofits; we wanted to educate nonprofits about what they can do in terms of affirming the voting rights of the community through voter education, without threatening their nonprofit status. We also engaged in phone banking and going door-to-door in different neighborhoods to encourage people to vote and worked with the Asian Reporter to publish a non-partisan APA Voter Education Guide. This guide was then translated into a number of Asian languages and posted on the APAVE website.
Why is voter education an important priority for OCAA?
The right to vote was something that people have fought hard for. Some people have the notion that their vote doesn’t count –which isn’t true. Especially in Oregon which is a relatively small community, there are many elections that are won or lost by a handful of votes.
Important decisions are being made by legislators and elected officials that we put in office. If you don’t have a say on who goes to office, you don’t have a say on how they vote. If you don’t vote on ballot measures that affect our community, then decisions are made without your input.
Since taking on leadership of the Commission, what are the accomplishments that you are most proud of?
One thing I’m really excited about is the Commission’s series of agency and community meetings, which has included the major state agencies, including the Department of Education, Department of Corrections, and the Department of Human Services. It was an opportunity for agencies to talk to the commission and community about their services, and how they’re serving the APA community. We’ve had some very high-ranking officials from the agencies come and talk at the meetings, to basically take ownership and establish accountability about what they have or haven’t been doing to meet the needs of the Asian community.
We started the meetings in 2008, and it’s been a great relationship-building exercise. The meetings have been a good way for both the community and the agency officials to learn about challenges, barriers and opportunities to improve services and outreach.
Why is OCAA important for the Asian Pacific American community?
OCAA is the only state agency dedicated to the APA community. We serve as the direct link to government – we have direct access to legislators and key decision-makers. When someone like Education Superintendent Susan Castillo comes and talks to our community, it signals more accountability and credibility.
For the community at-large, we serve as a link to government. If the community itself is not getting the response it needs, we can reach up and over into government and make that connection.
From your vantage point, what are some of the most misunderstood things about the APA communities?
Across the board, there’s a belief that our different communities are all alike. I’ll give you an example from a recent meeting we had with the Department of Education. We asked them to talk about how they’re serving Asian communities: how many Asians are in the public school system? What are APA graduation rates?
The Education department came with a lot of statistics that they were really excited about. Out of all the races, Asians were the highest-ranking group in math, and they ranked equally with white students in reading measures. And Asian Pacific Islanders have the highest graduation rates out of all student groups. It’s clear that from their perspective and the measures being used, Asians are doing pretty well. Of course, the statistics don’t break down Asians by ethnicity.
Other national groups track student performance by ethnicity. There’s a recent report published by the National Commission on Asian American and Pacific Islander Research and Education that found that majority of the members of the Laotian, Cambodian, and Hmong communities – age 25 and older – only have a high school degree or less. That also applies to Pacific Islander communities. Unemployment rates among Southeast Asian and Pacific Islander communities are three to five times higher than East or South Asians.
So, looking at the statistics on our communities kept by the State Education Department, it’s easy to conclude that Asians are the model minority; that we’re doing just fine. But that approach leaves a significant segment of the population falling through the cracks. When you get statistics that say Asians are doing fine, then they start cutting services and outreach to Asians.
With all the agency meetings we’ve done, our biggest message back to them is the importance of breaking down performance results by ethnicity, and that it’s really important to look at the other factors that come to play in our communities. We’re not all doing fine, and we really need to confront the one-size-fits-all approach to our communities.
When we make the point about the diversity and breadth of Asian Pacific Islander communities, I think agency leaders come away with a better understanding of our unique challenges. We take every opportunity to educate the public on the issue.
Why is the Commission important to you, from a personal perspective?
I have spent my entire professional career in government. I have worked in the Attorney General’s office and spent a lot of time in the Legislature and the Courts. It’s so rare to see other Asians, and it’s kind of lonely. My personal interest in OCAA is to get more Asians engaged in government, and to get them to feel more comfortable entering government, working up the ranks to high-level positions, and maybe even running for office.
There are a lot of reasons why communities may not want to engage in government, but there are also lots of barriers to engagement. Some of our communities come from places where there’s a strong distrust of government. And with all large entities, there is a “one-size-fits-all” approach to how they conduct business or deliver services. But sometimes that just doesn’t fit with our cultures.
How does your professional background and training as a lawyer play into your leadership of OCAA?
The Commission is a creature of statute, and being able to maneuver that world is important in making sure that the OCAA fulfills its promise. Also, the professional relationships that I have made as a lawyer certainly help in doing advocacy work.
How does your cultural background impact the way you lead the Commission?
I’m a Korean adoptee, raised by a Caucasian majority family. My background has taught me to function in, and navigate, a mainstream world. I have been raised as a majority person, and so I think that helps in identifying and navigating the things that the Commission needs to do to make systemic change. But of course, I look Asian, so I have also had the experience as a person of color. This helps me understand, at least to some degree, the unique needs and challenges within our communities. My transnational-interracial experience helps me understand both worlds.
Colors of Influence || Winter 2011