For three decades and counting, the Asian American Federation (AAF) has made a difference for the enclaves of Asian communities throughout New York City and state. The organization has worked to not only get New York’s Asian community involved politically but to oversee the well-being of these often disenfranchised people.

But in order to help the disenfranchised, much of this work begins with ensuring they are both visible and properly represented. This is why the decennial U.S. census has been pivotal to the work that they and dozens of their partners have conducted for over 30 years, and 2020 will be no exception. 

The AAF was one of six New York-based organizations awarded $100,000 by the City Council and the Mayor’s office in September to do what they do best: find and help organizations who want to ensure a better census count, and by association, a better understanding of the Asian community and its needs. 

In order to do that, the AAF is constantly monitoring the state for philanthropic groups who want to help with the census, but may not have a grasp on how to go about it. 

“We’re a non-profit focused on leadership,” AAF’s Research and Policy director Howard Shih. “We work with 70 organizations that provide social services and advocacy to the Asian community. We get these groups together and so they can convene, as well as put them in touch with policymakers and key decision-makers and elected officials, so they can talk about issues that are important to the community,” Shih said.

In a way, the AAF works as an incubator for these organizations. They guide them through the maze-like bureaucracy that is becoming an efficient non-profit in New York years before the decennial census. This helps get these pro-Asian groups off the ground, funded and legitimized in their first couple of years before they are off on their own to assist the government in getting a count.

The AAF itself raked $1.9 million dollars in 2017, nearly doubling the $1.07 million they made in 2016, all of which was financed through contributions, donations, and most importantly, grants. It is this expertise in grant writing that has proven most useful as it is one of the main ways that the AAF helps other organizations.

In addition to helping conduct census outreach, the AAF will use the statistics following the count to help get an idea of how large the community is, how to address its issues and which of their available resources are worth expanding upon.

“Without high-quality data from the Census Bureau, my job would be much more difficult,” Shih said. “We would have to do our own surveys, we’d have to do all sorts of other research completely in house. And so it becomes vital for us to make sure that the census is as complete and as accurate as possible.”

The AAF uses this data to help local officials, government agencies, community leaders, and businesses understand the changes taking place in their communities and affect what their work and the work of their 70 plus partners will look like for the next decade.

“We’ve done a brief on all the different Asian communities in each of the city council districts and state legislative districts,” Shih said. “So that our member agencies can go and say to their elected officials ‘look, your district is 10% Asian or 30% or even 50% Asian.’ They’re able to show the languages that they speak. We’re able to show people in power who’s in their communities and why they need to care about them and how to be of service to their Asian constituents.”

As many as one in four Asian Americans are living in poverty in New York. Making sure that these people are accounted for is key to funding organizations that work to alleviate social issues like homelessness and job insecurity. The AAF has also been working with the Department of Aging to showcase how rapidly the Asian-Americans aging in New York in hopes of finding short-term and long term solutions for potential health issues and social services. 

One of those organizations is the Queens-based Adhikaar. Since 2005, Adhikaar has worked to improve the lives of the Nepali-speaking community and getting their voices heard in the social justice movement through lobbying and political advocacy. 

“We have assisted thousands of individuals and families,” campaigns & communications manager Prarthana Gurung said. “We’ve trained hundreds of new leaders and successfully changed policies and created new laws at local, state, national, and international levels, including the New York State Domestic Workers Bill of Rights and the International Domestic Workers’ Convention.”

Adhikaar also worked with AAF on the Liberty Defense Fund. Started in 2013, the fund is the nation’s first statutorily created immigrant services office dedicated to providing legal support and Know Your Rights training to immigrants. They also assist immigrants looking for work and residency in the state.

In preparation for 2020, Adhikaar is now working alongside the AAF on the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund’s Complete Count Committee. The Committee’s goal is to have a fair and equitable 2020 Census by coordinating messaging, community outreach in hard-to-count Asian communities and opposition to federal initiatives that would hurt the chances for a legitimate count.

Another AAF partner is the Council of People’s Organization (COPO). Founded in 2002, COPO works to assist low-income immigrant families, particularly South Asians and Muslims, to reach their full potential as residents of New York City. This included building community relations between Muslim and non-Muslim community groups and government agencies, as well as services like computer and English classes, citizenship prep, and census outreach.

“We are the largest Muslim-Arab South-Asian servicing organization in Brooklyn,” COPO Executive Director Mohammad Razvi said. 

With the help of the AAF, COPO grew from a small volunteer effort in Brooklyn with just 1000 square feet of office space, to an active group with 20,000 square feet in office space 17 years later. In 2010, AAF helped COPO apply for a grant to found the Muslim Census Committee.

“The committee is about disseminating accurate, correct information about the census,” Ravzi said. “We’re doing translations, presentations about knowing your rights and what it entails. There was a massive issue with the proposed citizenship question in our communities that we kept people informed about throughout.”

For the 2020 census, COPO is also helping unemployed South Asian New Yorkers apply for census jobs.

“Their knowledge, understanding, and advocacy of the community is unbelievable,” Razvi said. “Their leadership is amazing in this space. They advocate on our behalf, on how to make sure the resources are shared, not just look for resources just for themselves, but they also assist others to get resources. You don’t see that kind of engagement in other Federations.”

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