The blog of the Urban Institute
September 16, 2021

Four Lessons for How to Confront Challenges and Better Support AA/NHPI Communities

Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders (AA/NHPIs) have long experienced discrimination and interpersonal and structural racism. But during the COVID-19 pandemic, anti-Asian violence has been made more visible by the media, reminding people of Asian descent that their safety and well-being in America is still precarious. (We use the term AA/NHPI to acknowledge the distinct identities of these communities.) 

In a recent report, we identified more than 400 AA/NHPI stakeholders. From these stakeholders, we designed 24 interviews and four focus group meetings to learn more about the challenges and opportunities in AA/NHPI communities. We also reviewed existing literature and administered a survey to better understand the priorities, challenges, collaborators, opportunities, and knowledge gaps for these stakeholders’ organizations and the broader community. We talked with people across sectors, including philanthropy, business, government, social services, and grassroots organizations and classified the AA/NHPI ecosystem into 13 types of organizations with distinct roles in protecting and advancing AA/NHPI communities. 

From our conversations, we distilled four key lessons to address the challenges confronting AA/NHPI communities:  

1. Multiyear, collaborative funding is necessary for sustained policy wins 

Insufficient funding has long barred progress in AA/NHPI communities. Foundation funding for AA/NHPI communities constitutes only 20 cents of every $100 of US grantmaking, and three-quarters of our survey respondents cited lack of funding or funding instability as extremely challenging for advancing AA/NHPI communities. Interviewees lamented quick shifts in funder priorities, burdensome reporting requirements, and the constraints of short-term support. These issues leave grassroots organizations struggling to find sustainable support for ongoing operations and to address emerging and ongoing issues. As one AA/NHPI organization leader explained, “I hear a lot: ‘What’s new? And what's innovative?’ But funding our core needs as a community is what’s most needed right now. Nobody wants to fund organizing and organizers and training, like the infrastructure building, the capacity building, that it takes to build up a movement and sustain those policy wins.” 

2. Disaggregated data can help to address diversity and equity within and across AA/NHPI communities 

In a community as broad and diverse as AA/NHPIs, understanding the needs of different subgroups, particularly those who have been overlooked, is key to serving the entire community. The “model minority” myth, a tool rooted in anti-Blackness and white supremacy, obscures the social and economic realities of many AA/NHPIs. In Hawaii, AA/NHPIs as a group are underrepresented in the incarcerated population, but Native Hawaiians are overrepresented. Our interviewees also noted that issues of particular concern to Pacific Islanders, such as overpolicing, displacement and subjugation because of colonialization, and access to health care, don’t appear as readily without disaggregated data and are therefore hard to address as AA/NHPI-specific priorities. One leader of an AA/NHPI organization explained, “I think that as we look at this aggregate data, it’s not just about numbers; it’s about racial equity. It’s about the numbers accurately reporting what the conditions of these communities [are], the challenges that they face.”

3. Investments in multiracial coalition building can advance common goals 

Confronting racism and white supremacy is a historic and ongoing struggle AA/NHPIs share with Black, Latinx, and Indigenous communities. Three-quarters of our survey respondents reported some or most of their work collaborates with or focuses on non-AA/NHPI communities and allies. Several interviewees recognized the benefits and power of multiracial coalitions, addressing anti-blackness within AA/NHPI communities, and developing a shared understanding of systemic inequities. For example, some argue the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act would expedite the review of pandemic-related violence and bolster law enforcement to better collect data on such crimes, but several interviewees raised concerns that supporting such a law would ignore police violence against already overpoliced communities. Rather than further endangering communities, these interviewees shared a commitment to investing in long-term solutions that address the root causes of violence.  

Strategic opportunities exist to advance common challenges of AA/NHPI communities and allies, including income inequality, language needs, migration histories, housing affordability, policing, and mass incarceration. Investments in AA/NHPI-led organizations that focus on long-term solidarity building such as the Asian American Organizing Project, Empowering Pacific Islander Communities (EPIC), and the Asian American Leaders Table can help address shared goals, bring about transformative justice, and confront existing systems of power and privilege. 

4. Changing the narrative can promote collaboration and build capacity 

AA/NHPI issues are infrequently raised and inadequately addressed in public discourse. In our landscape scan, 83 percent of survey respondents reported that limited knowledge of AA/NHPIs poses a large challenge for the community. Current narratives around AA/NHPIs are often harmful, counterproductive, and steeped in stereotypes. One AA/NHPI organization leader talked about how “Asian Americans have the starkest wealth gap of any racial group… [but] are used as a wedge against affirmative action programs.” Interviewees advocated for developing narratives that lift and center the diverse histories of AA/NHPIs and for engaging in collaborative and cross-racial work. Stakeholders also spoke of the importance of working across sectors and including grassroots organizations to create more collaborative opportunities and to cultivate narratives that better reflect the reality of AA/NHPIs.  

What comes next 

The public report on the AA/NHPI organizational ecosystem shares a substantial body of evidence, explores a broader set of challenges, and provides recommendations with actionable strategies designed to advance AA/NHPI communities. Addressing anti-Asian violence should not be seen only as individual incidents but understood as representative of an ongoing effort to dismantle longstanding structural racism. And these four lessons provide a starting point for shared commitments that can reshape the funding landscape and build equity for all.  


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