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Being the Only Brown Girl in the Room: We Are Stronger When We Think of One Another

Growing up in a multicultural household with a German American father and a Vietnamese mother made me very accustomed to being in spaces where my mom and I might have been the only Asian people or my dad was the only non Asian person in the room. An added benefit of growing up in the DC area is that I lived with a wide range of diversity, from my neighbors to the people my parents worked with in their daily lives, or at my Catholic church. There was no shortage of seeing others who looked like me as well as people who came from different cultures/backgrounds. When I went to college in New Orleans, my campus was diverse with people from the South and from the mid Atlantic states along with a substantial international population from South America, where I learned more about the Japanese and Chinese impact in Peru. I consider myself very fortunate to have been raised surrounded by people who welcomed anyone and everyone and that I came from a place of privilege. My personal experience may have been a little rose colored - I was 16 years old when I was elected President of the Student Body Government in my high school of 2400 students in Prince George’s County in 1989, an area that is predominantly African American and where to this day when I say that I graduated from Oxon Hill High School, African Americans who I meet in the government affairs space will give me the nod. I’m proud of who I am as an Asian American and I readily admit that I didn’t necessarily lean into my identity until much later in life. Since I moved in spaces where there was so much diversity and yet also grew up as the only person of color (other than my mom) when I went to family functions on my dad’s side, going into my professional career where the latter has been more prevalent, I recognize that I have an obligation to change how people welcome those with different backgrounds into the work that I do.

I always give credit to the 3 white women who championed me when I started because they helped me identify my talents and encouraged me to pursue opportunities that would lead to career advancement. I learned to fundraise and with that skill, I was able to move in different ways to where I could support the Asian American community by being a resource. I started my fundraising career within a very white environment and then took those skills with me to fundraise for organizations that work specifically with a constituency and that’s when I stopped being the only person of color. I still spend time with organizations that are not as diverse and it reminds me that there is still lots of work to be done in the form of representation. Being in the room gives me the platform to remind people that my work with the tri-caucus (AAPI, Latinx, & African American) as well as with our LGBTQ and disabled communities is part of the work that involves diversity and inclusion. I certainly can’t speak for the allies that I work with and when given the opportunity when those communities aren’t in the room, I want others to recognize that we are stronger when we think of one another. I don’t come from the mindset that thinks there are limited resources and that we can’t have more than one community represented. I want to see more of you and more of our allies all around.

Yes, it can be tiring to remind people that just because I’m Asian American that I will know everything about the many ethnicities that comprises the AAPI community. Even within the AAPI community, there is a lack of representation from those of Southeast Asian, Native Hawaiian & Pacific Islander descent. So it’s not just in “mainstream” spaces where the AAPI community needs to be in the room, it also includes broader AAPI groups that work within the community at large. It is a work in progress where I hope we can all do better. We will make mistakes and we will learn from them. I am encouraged to see Asian American leaders doing work that doesn’t involve only Asian Americans and that translates into the fact that we can be elected leaders even without a majority Asian American constituency. It means that we are working towards building coalitions and being active citizens where people can see that we can empathize as well as provide solutions to those who may not have a shared cultural background. There is so much responsibility placed onto those who are “the only” in the room. Please remember that there are other rooms out there with the same circumstance and we’re working to make that change. We’re here to encourage you and let you know that you have champions alongside you.

Madalene Xuan-Trang Mielke is the CEO & President of the Asian Pacific American Institute for Congressional Studies (APAICS), which promotes AAPI participation and representation in the political process.

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