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An exploration of how "New Americans" might contribute to civil society

"Where is that path that gives you the greater good?" -The Honorable Norman Mineta


The Association of Americans for Civic Responsibility (AACR) held its tenth annual roundtable conference on May 8, 2013, at Syracuse University's Paul Greenberg House in Washington, D.C. The theme of the conference was "Many Ethnicities, One America." Participants discussed what it means to be an "ethnic American," how to overcome challenges to rights and opportunities, how to best foster civic engagement, what ethnic American organizations and communities can learn from one another, and how these groups might work together.

The conference commenced with welcoming remarks by Mr. Chad Tragakis, Senior Vice President of Public Strategies at Hill + Knowlton Strategies, Dr. Joy Cherian, President and Founder of AACR, and Dr. Michael Schneider, Director of the Washington Public Diplomacy program of Syracuse University.

Dr. Schneider, who moderated the first session, began by highlighting the challenges of being an immigrant in America, particularly for those who struggled to get here, learn a new language, find a job, support their families, and educate their children. The promise of work has long been the main attraction of the U.S., and through politics and by taking advantage of the laws and ideals of fair play, many groups have moved forward to overcome poverty and deprivation.

The first session considered the challenges for people who are ethnic Americans and the corresponding challenges to American society. The panelists were asked to consider the challenges faced in their own personal and professional lives. They were asked to consider what citizenship means and what the civic responsibilities of a good citizen are. They were also asked to consider corporate and institutional responsibilities, and the overlap and difference between institutional civic responsibility and corporate social responsibility. The session was followed by lunch and a keynote address by The Honorable Norman Y. Mineta. The final session, moderated by Jose Nino, Co-chair of the Hispanic Alliance for Prosperity Institute, focused the discussion around best practices, lessons learned, and steps to take for moving forward.

Panorama View of First Session
PANEL: Why this forum, why now?

Dr. Schneider posed the question, "what does it mean to be a citizen of the USA?"

Dr. Ved Chaudhary, Co-Founder of Hindu American Seva Charities
Like the history of discrimination against Jews at colleges and universities, it has been found that Asian-Americans are now being discriminated against during the application process. The Fisher v. University of Texas case has made many take notice of the unspoken quota against 16-18% of the incoming population. The reasoning has been the same as for the Jews: that Asian-Americans do not share the same culture and do not possess leadership skills desired by the school. This has led some Asian-Americans to abstain from identifying their Asian origins during the application process, and many have even changed their names to avoid being identified as Asian. Aggregated data shows huge discrepancies not only in higher education, but in the professional world, where Asian-Americans have been shown to be the most disadvantaged in government jobs and at corporations.

Dr. Sambhu Banik, Professor of Psychology & Counseling, Bowie State University
There are more than 180 ethnic groups in the U.S. Incidents like the Boston bombing and 9/11 have led to targeting of entire groups - whether it is Sikh, Muslim, or as in this case Chechens - and not just the culprits. There must be a way to correct this sort of stereotyping by presenting proper challenges to inappropriately narrow mindsets.

Ms. Delfy Khonikbopyeva, CIDI, USAID
From the get-go, it has always been "us" vs. "the other." Incidents such as the Boston bombing have caused people from communities to "unpack" their identities. Many balance multiple identities, especially difficult when one's ethnic or religious community is under the gun.

Ms. Eleonor G. Castillo, PhD Candidate, University of Maryland
Another challenge is the perception that engagement can properly stay within one's ethnic community. There is a disconnect between embracing one's ethnic identity and integrating into larger society, whether politically, socially, or economically. Communities can become marginalized because of a lack of civic involvement and a lack of access to elected officials or to people who understand the governmental process.

Mrs. Achamma Chandersekaran, President, Heritage Translation & Publishing
Another challenge is that minority institutions never had political involvement on their agendas. There was the mentality of "make money and then go back home." However, many never return home for a range of reasons. The issue becomes communities' self-segregation, and not assimilation into the mainstream community. This is something that is typically observed only with first-generation citizens. The second generation is more involved in public affairs, more politically engaged - even managing to become elected as government officials, whether on the local or national level. Voting is the core to good citizenship.

Mr. Chad Tragakis, Senior Vice President, Hill & Knowlton Strategies
Mr. Tragakis observed that some ethnic groups seem to be closer-knit than others and questioned whether it takes multiple generations to assimilate into the mainstream community, or whether the process is accelerated through intermarriage or marriage outside the ethnic group. He asked also, is where one is raised a factor along with faith, culture, and nationality?

Ms. Barlin H. Ali, Program Coordinator, CIDI, USAID
Ms. Ali discussed the prevailing view that those with foreign names, no matter if they were born and raised in the U.S., never seem to fit in. An example was the Somali diaspora. People always question those with traditional names, and typically people tend to adopt Anglo nicknames. If children were educated to be proud of their culture and heritage, they will take up the challenge to educate their peers. This brought up the challenge of how to educate the larger community and build bridges.

Ms. Manpreet Teji, Program Associate, South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT)
Asked how the educational system recognizes "each and every time a new group" enters a broadening American society. There is a struggle to find a way for the larger community to accept communities as U.S. citizens, and not as "others." Not all minorities who are U.S. citizens receive welfare and other subsistence benefits. This issue must be brought to the table.

Mr. Joseph Melookaran, JMA-Information Technology, and President, Asian American Chamber of Commerce, Overland Park, Kansas
Mr. Melookaran mentioned mentoring as a way to help other immigrant communities by teaching others how to get involved and connected with local leadership and helping them become assimilated into the mainstream community by applying lessons learned to the new incoming communities. However, this may be more feasible in smaller cities than in larger ones.

Mr. Prakash Khatri, Attorney at Law, Rockville, Maryland
Another challenge to overcome is the impact of media and the emergence of 24-hour ethnic television programming that may have a dramatic impact on the assimilation into the larger community. Immigrants sometimes fail to assimilate because the hundreds of channels that are available remove incentive when they choose to be exposed to those programs exclusively. However, the second generation tends to be able to assimilate better.

Dr. Michael Schneider
Coming into the U.S. with English as a second language is an advantage, but it is only one factor - and integration into the mainstream culture depends also on cultural affiliation and how strong the ties are to the original culture and traditions.

Ms. Eleanor G. Castillo, PhD Student, University of Maryland
There is a perception that Americans are "blonde and blue-eyed," and everything else is labeled as "not American." Perhaps the curriculum in public schools is to blame - a look at what histories are being taught in American classrooms, and which stories are being excluded and reflected in these curricula are warranted. All histories of America should be included, not only the dominant ones. How these histories of "being American" are framed impact whether communities feel marginalized or not.

Ethnic and racial identities, on top of cultural affiliation, play a role in how we see those in our communities, and those outside of it. Multiple identifications exist - whether it is by faith, or nationality, or by a subgroup to which they belong. This becomes a challenge because everybody has "comfort zones," and we naturally associate ourselves with those of the same nationality, language, or religion. But staying within these confines must be "unlearned," because only then will we be able to overcome prejudices.

Mr. Jose Nino, Hispanic Alliance Prosperity Institute
A focus on the Mexican community shows that the average Mexican-American has a sixth-grade education. People tend to focus on these disparities - this is common among all ethnic communities. The need to assimilate becomes ever more important, because unless these communities participate fully in the political process, they will constantly be marginalized and taken advantage of. Mr. Nino noted the difference between "immigration" and "migration" - all immigration is by definition legal by U.S. law, however, not all migration is. American laws do not separate the two, and because of this, there will still be problems down the road.

General Edward Rowny, American Polish Advisory Council
General Rowny discussed geographic and regional determinants. Using the example of Poland, where one comes from within the country may determine what "type" of immigrant one becomes. People from urbanized areas tend to go to where the jobs are in the U.S., and other less fortunate immigrants tend to go to ethnic enclaves, such as Chicago for many Poles. Another challenge is a temporal one: people who came from a struggle and whose only experience with politics is Communist Party brainwashing may have a very different inclination toward civic responsibility; the "American Dream" to them is to build a business and steer clear from politics.
Dr. Edward Slavko Yambrusic, American Croatian International
Dr. Yambrusic discussed the Croatian community, which came to the U.S. as a group that just wanted to get by, without great expectations. After the 1950s, when other communities were fighting for constitutional rights, the Croatians mobilized, and Catholic universities played a huge role in providing education, which then gave the community a step forward to participation in politics. Later generations, and new immigrants, come to America with higher expectations and have institutions that are responsible for pushing national policy to evolve in order to accommodate new immigrants and find a balance for the larger society.

Dr. Schneider concluded the first session by summarizing the discussion and stressing that it is important to work at both the local and the national level to address the challenges of political participation for many ethnic communities. It is also important to address the challenges of identity and how to retain the identity of the local community as well as its "American" identity and to combat rivalries and external threats.


After lunch, The Honorable Norman Mineta, Vice Chairman, Hill + Knowlton Strategies, former U.S. Secretary of Commerce, and former Secretary of Transportation, delivered the keynote address. He shared his personal experience of being held at an internment camp in the 1940s, and the discrimination that he faced by the government as a Japanese-American. He also shared his personal story of what happened during the 9/11 attacks, and how these tragic events sparked an increase in hate crimes and racial profiling. The attacks also sparked a conversation on how to keep vigilant in the protection of all constitutional rights for U.S. citizens, no matter their ancestry, and also not to lose one's particular ethnic or religious identity.

Former Cabinet Secretary Hon. Norman Mineta (at the center) delivers his keynote address.

The session ended with a Q&A session, moderated by Chad Tragakis, which covered varied concerns from how to educate the public about "fear of the unknown," to Asian Pacific American Heritage Week. A brief video biography, "Norman Mineta: A Boy From San Jose" produced and directed by E. Samantha Cheng, Heritage Series LLC, Washington, DC, was shown.

PANEL: Best Practices and Insight Exchange

This session was moderated by Jose Nino, who invited three prominent members of the Latino community to talk from their own experiences of how they have achieved some successes and what some of the best practices have been.

Honorable Martin Chavez, former Mayor of Albuquerque, New Mexico, Ibarra Strategy Group
The Latino community, like all other ethnic groups, is not monolithic and there are many diverse groups within the larger Latino community - Mexican, Californian, Texan, Cuban, etc. However, it is important to focus on commonalities rather than differences and work together to find solutions to gaining access to the government for change in society. While it has been found that immigration is not the number-one issue for Latinos, they are united because of the rhetoric from some political leaders and officials and the nature of their messages. Moving forward, it must be noted that the Hispanic community is a large group with a tremendous economic impact in the U.S.

Ms. Mary Ann Gomez, Executive Director, Congressional Hispanic Institute
There exists a connection between different ethnic groups because of the commonalities in terms of discrimination faced. There should be a focus on learning about public service and shaping future leaders by integrating education, public service, and business. Programs such as these are aimed to give opportunities to students and to teach them about issues that affect their community. There is also a need to open conversations between different communities and to include others, not just focus within the Latino community.

Mr. Jose Nino, Hispanic Alliance Prosperity Institute
The U.S. was built on the idea of bringing people from other countries that were not wanted there - whether they were running from religious prosecution, war, or for economic reasons. While the first generation tends to be more nationalist, the following generations tend to give more emphasis on culture - food and music - which is a huge part of the American economy.

Mr. Jake Sanchez, Managing Partner, Moccasin Head Enterprises
Racial profiling and targeting of people exists in parts of the country, and Latinos can be stopped on the street and asked for their papers. This highlights the need for education; however, it's a double-edged sword because many people in the country who are building policy are building it on "myth, innuendo, and fear." There exists this mainstream attitude that borrows Latin culture, but only wants unskilled Latin labor. This group is constantly targeted for bringing down the economy despite the millions of non-Latinos that are unemployed or on welfare programs. The solution is to take what has been learned in terms of advancement and teach it to others.

Some of the participants with Hon. Norman Mineta, Chief guest at the conference. (From left- Mr. Pious Thattassery, Dr. Sambhu Banik, Hon. Mineta, Mr. Sunny Wycliffe, Dr. Parthasarthy Pillai,& Mr. Chad Tragakis.
Jose Nino summed up the session by asking the panel to consider other issues in the larger community such as women's issues and gay and lesbian concerns. Groups advocating reforms advanced to the front and got results because advocates were well organized and promoted their concerns with the public by building coalitions and gaining media traction.

Dr. Schneider concluded the conference by summarizing the discussions and expressing his views on best practices. Dr. Schneider cited several factors for the achievement of rights and of respect from the broader society: hard work; appeal to bedrock American principles of fair play, equal opportunity, and free association; creation of a coalition for human rights and civil liberties; and the promotion of interest of others through music, food, and the arts.

Citing his own personal family history, General Rowny added that it also essential that children of the first generation of immigrants retain knowledge of their history. By mobilizing youth and getting institutional and media support, members may identify themselves and build on the American sense of fair play and equal opportunity. Gaining support from other groups - bi-national American communities - and protecting the rights of all communities is the only way to move forward.

Finally, the organizers and moderators called for suggestions for future conferences. Suggestions included being hosted by a different ethnic group every year and reaching out to additional bi-national groups.

Dr. Joy Cherian, President of AACR thanked participants for thoughtful consideration of needs and opportunities

This report was prepared by Ms. Tahmina (Tammy) Mehdi, Washington Public Diplomacy Program, Syracuse University.

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