(Photo: Native Hawaiian Chamber of Commerce)

Pathways to work for diverse, vibrant AANHPI communities

Acknowledging and supporting economic mobility for the Asian American, and Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander populations in the U.S.

The term ‘Asian American’ is often used to describe all Asians living in the U.S. But, that catch-all, pan-ethnic label doesn’t capture the breadth of heritage and lived experience that is central to many of their lives. Nor does it begin to address the economic diversity of people of Asian descent spread out across our country.

“When asked how they describe themselves, U.S. Asian adults place greater emphasis on their ethnic origins rather than pan-ethnic or regional labels,” according to the Pew Research Center.

To better understand and serve this population, last year the White House “directed the development of an ambitious, government-wide interagency plan to advance equity, justice, and opportunity for AA (Asian American) and NHPI (Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander) communities,” or collectively AANHPI communities.

Ethnic diversity is notable in the 2020 Census demographic characteristics which includes 41 detailed Asian groups and 31 detailed NHPI groups. Among these groups are populations that are experiencing economic disparity – immigrant and refugee women, business owners without sufficient access to funding, and people living in poverty who don’t have a pathway to workforce education.

WorkingNation takes a look at several of these groups in different cities – Asian Indian, Hmong, and Native Hawaiian populations – to learn about efforts that are being made to boost the residents’ economic mobility. Upskilling, entrepreneurship, and short-term training for in-demand jobs are among the pathways cited by our interviewees.

But as one interviewee explains, “It’s a population with power that does not recognize its power. Integration and collaboration is still very complex.”

The Census Bureau Talks Numbers

“We don’t use the term AAPI. The terms that we do use – which are based off the terminology the Office of Management and Budget has outlined for collecting data on recent ethnicity for federal statistics – are ‘Asian’ and ‘Native Hawaiian and other Pacific Islander,’” explains Brittany Rico, survey statistician for the racial statistics branch in the population division of the U.S. Census Bureau.

Rico explains, “I think it’s a really important topic to discuss disaggregated groups in the Census. We learned [in 2020] that 19.9 million people identified as Asian alone. What we mean by Asian alone is individuals who only report their race as Asian and no other race group. And then there were 4.1 million people who identified as Asian in combination with another race.”

The Census Bureau also notes, Roughly 690,000 people identified as Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander (NHPI) alone, but almost 900,000 identified as NHPI in combination with another race.”

Rico adds, “One way to expand our knowledge on this is to look at the 2020 census detailed Demographic and Housing Characteristics File A (DHCA). There are actually 41 Asian detailed population groups that the detailed DHCA provides data for. So, there’s a wealth of data.

“What’s unique about the data that we have available in the detailed DHCA is that we also look at less populous Asian groups. For example, the Timorese population is a much smaller population compared to Asian groups that we normally hear about. There were only 67 people who identified as Timorese alone in 2020, and then there were 163 people who identified as Timorese alone or in combination with another detailed group.”

Rico says, “There were fewer detailed Asian groups in 2010. In 2020, we provided new tabulations for 18 more detailed Asian groups, and we also have 10 new tabulations for Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander populations.”

Joyce Hahn, a survey statistician with the Census Bureau’s foreign-born population branch in the population division, explains, “The data visualization is very user-friendly, and it really allows you to explore population counts for these detailed race and ethnicity groups as well as American Indian and Alaska Native tribes and villages. And you can do this at the nation, state, and county levels.

“You can map the largest detailed race in ethnicity groups, the second largest detailed race ethnicity groups. And you can also rate the detailed groups by population size for a specific area. So, a state that you’re interested in or for a particular county.” 

Rico offers, “Another survey that we have is the American Community Survey [which] allows you to look at population counts, detailed groups for race and ethnicity, and to look at a lot of those social economic characteristics like income, poverty, educational attainment.”

Hahn also previews an upcoming Census Bureau resource, “In September, you can look for the detailed Demographic and Housing Characteristics File B (DHCB). It includes household type and tenure information for the same detailed Asian and NHPI groups.”

The Census Bureau tells WorkingNation, “Household type provides statistics on household structure – for example, if it is a family or nonfamily household. Tenure provides statistics on whether the household is owned with a mortgage or loan, owned free and clear, or renter occupied.”

The Asian Indian Population in Bellevue, Washington

The Asian Indian alone population became the nation’s largest Asian alone population group in 2020, growing by over 50% to 4,397,737 between 2010 and 2020, according to the official population count from the 2020 Census. The median household income for Asian Indian alone households in 2022 was $152,341.

Lalita Uppala, executive director, IACS

“There are 175,000 to 185,000 Indians in Washington State itself. At least 30% of Bellevue is foreign-born. And we are the largest immigrant community in the city of Bellevue. We are pretty much 20% of that 30%,” says Lalita Uppala, executive director at Indian American Community Services (IACS).

The mission of IACS is to “connect, serve, and empower our immigrant/refugee community,” explains Uppala. She notes services are “planned for community by community.”

Uppala says, “The first of the Asian Indian immigrant refugees did come from India in the early 1960s as employees of the Boeing Aerospace Company. That was when our first bout of immigrants really arrived in Washington and that was a big influx of aero-tech engineers that came in.

“With that immigration also were an influx of refugees that were coming in from Canada who established the restaurants, small businesses in Washington.

“The next big influx of the immigrant community was in the mid-1980s to early 1990s. And it has exponentially grown with the tech community that came in with the presence of Microsoft and, then later, with other tech companies,” she adds.

Uppala notes the need to also be aware of blue-collar workers, “We have a severe stereotype in a tech community that is extremely educated, but we also bring our refugee community and immigrant population that is not educated and does the daily-wage jobs and are part of the gig workers economy.”

She also reminds that members of the community are often unable to work in the occupations for which they were trained before arriving in the U.S. “We found that particularly with our health care workers – especially with physicians, dentists, and nurses who immigrated to the United States and may not necessarily have had the capacity to get reskilled – became part of the lower-rung of the health care worker industry.

“The barrier to getting skilled education and upskilling yourself is pretty high in terms of funding it, in terms of language, and the ability to put food on the table and roof over your head.”

Salima Bangur, women career support services, IACS

Salima Bangur is with IACS’ Women Career Support Services. She explains, “In our community, there are a lot of the tech workers who come on H-1B visas. Their spouses are the ones who do not have work permits. They have graduate degrees, but when they come here, they cannot work.

“So, they take a back seat. It’s sometimes seven to eight years before they get a visa. Meanwhile, they’re raising a family. These are young moms who realize that so much time has passed with no experience here that they have lost confidence.”

Bangur continues, “We help them – starting all the way from resume writing to communication skills to interview.”

Additionally, Bangur notes, “One of our signature programs is the mentorship program where we assign a mentor to them who works closely with them. They may not necessarily be from the same field, but they help them with confidence-building.”

Ekta Arora, women career support services, IACS

She adds, “There are always the tech jobs that people are constantly upskilling in the community. That comes with a big gap when they are looking into the job market. We help them figure out what career path they want and how to upskill.”

Ekta Arora – also with IACS’ Women Career Support Services – says it’s important to be current, “Upskilling the skills that are immediately applicable and actionable for these mentees to land their next best opportunity.

“We do provide a lot of practical workshops for this reason. We just did a workshop on using ChatGPT for improving resumes and interviews skills. And we are coming up with how to improve your LinkedIn profile because that’s very important when looking for a job.”

The organization also helps women in crisis, according to Bangur, “Women come in, they want a job right now. They need a job because of the personal situation they are in.”

Arora notes, “We have Anvi Closet where we use recycled, good condition clothes for our mentees going through crisis services. We provide professional clothes to them for use if they’re going through a job hunt process. They can use while they’re in the process of settling down.

“We are also coming up with a clothing line with the Anvi Closet brand name that would be supported by our own mentees who are in the alterations business and help them start their own business.”

Uppala says, “We look to touching at least 350-plus people each year with the work that Anvi does in terms of career fair and outreach with workshops.”

Career Fair 2024, Indian American Community Services (Photo: IACS)

She says the community continues efforts to recognize its influence. “It’s a population with power that does not recognize its power. As an immigrant or a refugee, you come with the assumption that you have to fit in and that you are probably the round peg in the square hole,” explains Uppala.

“So [there is] that whole analogy of being able to fit in and conform to the culture that you are surrounded by, but also you bring with you your ‘isms’ of casteism, classism, and racism. We are divided by language and religion very deeply, and we have a lot of patriarchy.”

Uppala continues, “So along with some amazing cultural values that we bring to this larger community, we also grapple with that. I would say our immigration journeys are made easier because we walk on the shoulders of our Black and Indigenous community. But the integration and the collaboration is still very complex.

“The American Dream is not going to be so easy to attain. To be innovative, to be creative, and to be nurturing – that’s very critical for us as an organization.”

The Hmong Population in the Twin Cities, Minnesota

The Hmong population in the U.S. numbers 335,612, according to recent Census statistics. Additionally, the median household income for Hmong alone households in 2022 was $88,572.

“With the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Southeast Asia after the Vietnam War, large numbers of Vietnamese, Cambodians, Lao, and Hmong sought refuge in the United States. In 1975, Hmong refugees began their move to Minnesota,” according to the Minnesota Historical Society.

May yer Thao, president and CEO, HAP

“We were founded back in 1990 by the Hmong community – for the Hmong community,” explains May yer (pronounced ‘mine-za’) Thao, president and CEO of the Hmong American Partnership (HAP), based in St. Paul – about the creation of her organization.

“We were transitioning out of refugee status because we’d been here since the late 70s, 80s, and 90s, but there were two big issues in the community at the time. One was unemployment and then two – were issues our youth was facing – gang violence, truancy, runaway youth.

“We are the largest Hmong-serving nonprofit in the nation. We’re the largest Southeast Asian-serving nonprofit in the state because we now have expanded our services to other Southeast Asian immigrant and refugee groups. And the larger immigrant refugee group in general, as well.”

Thao says Minnesota has a history of being supportive of immigrants and refugees. “Minnesota has just always been one of those states. It’s been very welcoming, especially in the sense of government assistance and other resources.”

She continues, “The Hmong, like many refugee communities, are very tight knit. We’re very clan oriented. When we relocated to this country after the Vietnam War, we were relocated all over the U.S. and then it was hearing about where different clan members, different families had been sponsored into. It was by word of mouth.

“We’ve been very successful. I think about the huge political power the Hmong community has here in the state. I think about the buying power that our Asian American community has here in the state,” says Thao. “We’ve done some really, really good things here, but we still have a lot of disparities to fight against and to overcome.”

With a Hmong population of about 95,000, Thao says the Twin Cities has a broader, diverse Southeast Asian population. “I’m going to define our community that we serve as the Asian ethnic groups who hail from Southeast Asia. That’s the Hmong, the Karen [of Burma], our Lao, our Cambodian, our Thai, our Vietnamese.”

She says, “These are our communities that continue to see the greatest disparities, still. We’ve seen a small number of wealth grow in our community – a small percentage, but the bulk of our community still lives in poverty. Resources need to be allocated to these communities.”

Among the resource pathways available to the community is the HAP Academy OIC. Thao explains, “OIC stands for Opportunities Industrialization Centers. OICs stem from the civil rights movement in the 60s from the Black community.”

HAP established its OIC in 2019. Thao says, “We serve all underserved, low-income families –primarily from high school-age all the way up to mid-level career. But our sweet spot is the late teens, right as they’re graduating from high school or leaving high school to about the mid-twenties.”

The Academy has four career pathways including IT, health care, transportation, and manufacturing. “These are informed by the state’s needs, workforce development needs,” says Thao. “We continue to look at building more robust curricula under those four career pathways, but then to start expanding into other career pathways, as well. For instance, we’re looking at skilled trades, hopefully in the near future. We’re looking at early childhood, as well.”

HAP Academy OIC – transportation track (Photo: HAP)

Thao says programming is free for students and there are also wraparound supportive services, including funds for car repair, rent assistance, and specific work-related clothing. The length of the trainings ranges from six to 18 weeks.

Collaboration with the business community has been crucial, according to Thao. “We have to have jobs to place our students into. I would say the partnership is significant to [the employers], as well. They understand that they need to turn to nonprofits, those who do workforce development, to help create a pipeline for themselves.

“They’ve been wonderful in collaborating with us, whether it’s attending our job fairs or working with us to coordinate site visits to their companies or having their people come in and talk to our clients and students about all the job opportunities.”

But Thao stresses, “We are very selective about our employment partners because we need partners who are truly going to offer our communities family-sustainable wages and the opportunity to grow their careers if they so desire to.

“I’m not looking to place our communities into manual labor jobs, and they have nowhere else to go, dead-end jobs. It’s fine if that’s where our community member wants to be. But if they want to grow, they should have access to those opportunities just like anyone else.”

Thao says the organization is looking to expand its reach, “For the last several years, we’ve had over 200 folks come through our courses. We’re serving about 250 a year. We were fortunate last year to get a $2 million direct appropriation from the state to create more impact. So that is one of our outcomes with the direct appropriation dollars – to serve over 400 students by next year.”

Thao says that opportunity must also extend to leadership. “I’ve had several conversations with these employment partners and potential new partners, and there is very much an awareness that they need to diversify these opportunities for our communities, especially leadership opportunities.

“That is something I push all the time. I get on my soapbox about that, but I’m glad these employers are beginning to understand that if they want to recruit and retain from our communities, then they need to have leadership that looks like our communities.”

Despite the challenges faced by the Southeast Asian population, Thao says, “What makes me feel optimistic is there is a growing number in our community that now knows how to navigate these systems because that’s what it is. Systems. That’s why we have so many state legislators who are of Hmong descent right now. We have nine. This is historic for the Hmong community.

“So again, there is a small percentage of the community that has learned to navigate these systems, but the bulk of our community still has not. There’s a certain savvy that some of us have been privileged with. Me, as well. Even though I came from a refugee community, I was exposed to so many great people who mentored me. So many experiences that exposed me to a bigger world. And not many of my community have seen those experiences I’ve seen.

“But I have hope that our younger folks, our young women – especially in the Hmong community – are the ones who continue to lead in terms of leadership, in terms of higher education attainment, in terms of professional career attainment. Our young women are leading the way.”

The Native Hawaiian Population in the State of Hawaii

The Census statistics indicate the Native Hawaiian population is tallied at 185,466  with the median household income for Native Hawaiian alone households in 2022 amounting to $74,089.

Andrew Rosen, executive director, NHCC

“We were formed in 1974 by Native Hawaiian business people who felt that there needed to be an organization that really served fellow native Hawaiians in business,” explains Andrew Rosen, executive director of the Native Hawaiian Chamber of Commerce (NHCC). “We’ve got to serve the needs of Native Hawaiian commerce, and that’s through resources, training, networking, events.”

He notes – with 345 Chamber members, “I would say close to 90% of our members own micro- and small businesses.”

Rosen – who, previously, was part of the organization’s working board – points out, “We almost went under during the pandemic. We’d never had an executive director. I always saw the tremendous high potential of opportunity for the organization to serve our members and the community, but we didn’t have an executive director.

“They made the investment, and I was so proud and humbled that they asked me to do this. We’ve been in the role 18 months, and it’s allowed me to expand what we’re doing, getting into advocacy, which is one of the main things we should be doing.”

Rosen explains, “[Native Hawaiians] represent 22% of the population in the state. And here in Oahu, where we have a million people, we’re 26% of the population. We only represent 10% of the small businesses in the marketplace.

“So, we’re significantly under-delivering the percentage of our population to the percentage of small businesses. Really what contributes to that and makes it harder is lack of strong education, access to funding. And now you add in the challenge of the economy.”

To support micro- and small businesses, the NHCC launched Hoʻomana for Micro Businesses – designed to help owners “increase their odds for long-term success and sustainability.” Last summer, the first cohort of Ho’omana, which means ‘empowerment’ – consisted of eight owners.

Ho’omana for Micro Businesses (Photo: NHCC)

All had already established their businesses, including an architect, the owner of an HVAC company, and someone with a driving school. Rosen says one cohort member is a doctor, who said, “I learned so much about medicine, but I never learned about the business of medicine.”

Rosen says the program was conducted over two weeks each during the months of June, July, and August. The cohort would meet Monday through Wednesday from 7:30 to 9:30 am. He adds, “We charged minimal amounts to the students to make sure that they had a little skin in the game and would want to come.”

“We focused on three things – a stronger business plan, brand identity guide, and then marketing, which now includes creating an e-commerce storefront,” he says.

Conscious Business Leadership sat in on all the classes and provided coaching to the participants, notes Rosen.

Additionally, he says, “We had two top professors from Shidler College of Business [at University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa] for marketing to do the development guide and the marketing. We used their facilities because it was summer and no was there, which was great.

“I was sitting there, I was taking notes and going, ‘Oh my God, you forget how much you forget, right?’ And I was like, ‘I’m enjoying this.’ So, as they say out here, I was getting chicken skin or goosebumps. I felt good that we were providing real, genuine, high-level education.”

The next cohort on the island of Oahu is getting underway in mid-June with possibly another – in the first quarter – on the west side of the island.

Looking ahead, Rosen is hoping to expand the Ho’omana program to other islands. He says the Office of Hawaiian Affairs (OHA) has reunited all the neighboring island Chambers. “And so, the Maui Chamber, for obvious reason, I called and said, ‘I’d rather have people in person, but there’s no way you’re going to be able to bring people in person. But would you like to participate?’

“We’re hoping to educate 50 people a year and then do a series of mini trainings to try to reach an additional hundred businesspeople. We really found that with the training sessions, if we condensed and did more of those throughout the year – virtually and in-person – our goal is to ultimately reach, over a year and a half, 150 Native Hawaiian businesses.”

Rosen says he was struck by the bravery of last summer’s cohort members, “After the three months of the Ho’omana pilot and really being in the trenches with everybody, you could really hear and empathize all the things they’re dealing with, like raising capital, not having a strong business plan to be able to secure that capital.

“One of the participants said, ‘I just felt so comfortable being around fellow Native Hawaiians. I could engage. I wasn’t afraid to speak up.’ Afterwards, I would run into them by their cars, and they’d be congregating together and speaking. It was really nice.”

Rosen ends the conversation with WorkingNation by saying, “I’m just grateful that, hopefully, we can keep this thing going, keep improving it, and help our community.”

Bringing Visibility to the AANHPI Population

Rico of the Census Bureau says, “What’s really unique and meaningful about the data that the U.S. Census Bureau collects and that we’re able to share with the public is that the data – such as the 2020 census, the detailed demographic characteristics on these 41 detailed Asian groups – it really expands what we know about the composition of the Asian population in the United States.

“The disaggregated data for the Asian population allows us to really get a snapshot of – not only the largest groups within these populations, which I think we frequently hear about more – but to also learn more and bring visibility to less populous Asian groups that reside in the United States. I think the key takeaway from the data is to have that ability to bring visibility to the diversity within the Asian population.”