Politics, government and public life for Southern California

Asian-American academy seeks to develop new political leaders

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For four years, Danny Chee Kwan served in the U.S. Marine Corps. But it’s not his two tours in Iraq and Afghanistan that inspires his interest in politics. It is his experience of coming home.

“The reason I want to be politics is so I can do more to help returning veterans,” Kwan said. “I’ve had six friends that actually committed suicide not too long ago. That’s more than the amount of friends that I had killed in combat.  There’s something seriously wrong with that.”

Kwan, 25, is one of nine young people selected by the Center for Asian Americans United for Self Empowerment – or CAUSE – for its summer leadership academy. The San Gabriel resident will work on veteran’s issues with Congresswoman Grace Napolitano as part of an internship program.

As Asian-Americans seek to exercise more political power in Southern California, CAUSE is working to find new young leaders who might run for office or serve in government.

“Basically our goal is to develop future leaders,” CAUSE chair Charlie Woo said.  “We want leaders that can cross cultural barriers and reach out to the community at large.” (Charlie Woo is a member of KPCC's board of trustees.)

Asian-Americans in state government

CAUSE began its internship program more than two decades ago when no Asian-American served in the 120 member state legislature. That’s changed – 12 now serve in the state Assembly and Senate. Asian-Americans make up a majority of the California Supreme Court and the state controller is John Chiang.

Political analysts talk a lot about growing Latino political influence in California, but Asian-Americans are the fastest growing group of voters. By 2025, Asian-Americans are projected to be 18 percent of California’s population and comprise more than 12 percent of registered voters, according to a survey by the California League of Conservation Voters.

Despite expanding political clout, annoying stereotypes persist, said Tanya Edmilao.

“Based on my skin color and the way that I look, people assume that I’m fresh off the boat,” said Tanya Edmilao, another participant in the leadership academy. “I’ve always had to explain, ‘Yes, I know I’m Asian, but I am American, too.”

Breaking those stereotypes is one reason she wants to get into politics.  She’s interested in dispelling myths.

“The lack of representation in mental health and domestic violence and rape – I feel like people don’t associate those issues with Asian-Americans because of the ‘model minority’ myth,” she said.

Edmilao, who is from Norwalk, is interning in the office of Assemblyman Jimmy Gomez. She said she sees her friends interested in issues but doing little to affect change.

“It’s a lot easier for people to be involved in ‘slacktivism,’ which is, ‘Let’s post something on the Internet,’” she said.

A diverse community

Both Edmilao and Kwan said they want to educate people about Asian-Americans – a highly diverse community. Edmilao said her parents are both from the Philippines, but her background is far more complex.

“I’m Filipino, and I’m also Spanish, and I’m also Chinese,” she said. “And American!”

Kwan’s mother brought him here from Malaysia when he was 3 years old, but that’s only part of his story.

“We’re Chinese, but we have Korean last names, and we were born in Malaysia,” he said as he chuckled. “So if anything, I’m more confused.”

Asked about the political process, the war veteran said he grows weary of elected leaders who start with good intentions only to be co-opted by special interests.

“I believe that I have the will and the strength to be able to continue holding on to what I want, and to be able to carry out the vision that I have for a better America,” he said.

For Kwan, that’s an America that treats its veterans better. He’s not sure he’ll run for office. That’s a post-college decision. He enters UC Irvine in the Fall. 

Edmilao, who’s a junior at USC, has no doubt about becoming a political candidate.

“I would love to,” she said. “That’s why I’m in this program: to find out what it might be like.”

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