Guest blog post by Tina Wei Smith, Executive Director of the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (WHIAAPI)
As the Executive Director of the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (WHIAAPI), it is my honor to serve the 22 million people who make up this important and quickly growing population of Americans. Our work has never been more critical as our nation and the AAPI community combat the health challenges of COVID-19 and its economic impact. WHIAAPI Co-Chairs, Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross and Secretary of Transportation Elaine L. Chao, could not be more committed to this effort as they advise President Trump on how the federal government can best serve these vibrant American communities.
As the executive director, my primary charge is to set an effective agenda for this initiative and its interagency working group. In the words of Secretary Ross, our task is to “develop, monitor, and coordinate all of the government’s efforts to empower the growth of this dynamic segment of our population and business community.”
I am also responsible for advising federal agency leadership on the implementation and coordination of federal programs as they relate to AAPIs and for assisting the Commissioners serving on the President’s Advisory Commission on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, or PAC-AAPI for short. I help PAC-AAPI craft and submit their reports to the President through the Secretaries.
As AAPI Heritage Month draws to a close, and as we approach the first anniversary of President Trump’s Executive Order on WHIAAPI and PAC-AAPI, I wanted to reflect on all that the Initiative and the Commission have accomplished already under our co-chairs.
At the start of 2020, both the Initiative and the Commission began the year with great momentum. In January, Vice President Pence led the swearing-in of the President’s Advisory Commissioners at the White House celebration of Lunar New Year. Secretary Ross, Secretary Chao, and Secretary of Labor Eugene Scalia also delivered remarks at the ceremony. From January through March, Secretary Chao and the President’s Advisory Commission on AAPIs hosted business roundtable discussion and listening sessions across the country, including Silicon Valley, Las Vegas, and Houston.
The world, unfortunately, has changed dramatically since those events. The COVID-19 global pandemic has stolen so many lives at home and around the world. Public health measures to contain the virus have also had painful economic impacts on many Americans. So many entrepreneurs and small business owners in the AAPI community have suffered disproportionately due to stay-at-home orders as a result of the coronavirus. Furthermore, AAPIs across our nation are keenly aware of increased anti-AAPI sentiments, particularly in the most densely populated urban areas. Nevertheless, we are grateful for and proud of the hundreds of thousands of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders who are employed in our healthcare industry and have served on the front-line workers battling the pandemic.
The White House Initiative on AAPIs is focused on ensuring that federal government resources are available to the AAPI community with particular focus on workforce development and economic opportunity. On May 25th, a joint letter from Secretary Ross and Secretary Chao was sent out to federal departments, agencies, and offices to establish a new interagency working group to implement the President’s Executive Order on the economic empowerment of AAPIs. Building upon previous work of former interagency working group’s representatives, the Initiative hopes to address issues such as access to the federal procurement process, federal disaster relief efforts for businesses, employers and employees, and workforce diversity and leadership development within the federal government. The first meeting for the new WHIAAPI interagency working group is planned for June.
The President’s Executive Order outlines nine specific areas on which the Commission is tasked to craft a report. Those areas include developing strategies to increase participation of AAPI enterprises in partnerships between the public and private sectors, training a new generation of skilled workers who are in demand throughout every industry sector, and conducting an analysis of the United States Pacific Island territories to help them diversify and grow their economies. At its inaugural meeting, the President’s Advisory Commission announced the formulation of four specific subcommittees in addition to the subcommittee focused on COVID-19: Passing the Torch, Breaking the Glass Ceiling, AAPI Women in Leadership, and Bridging the Income Gap.
We have since collaborated with the White House Office of Public Liaison on events, such as the Lunar New Year celebration, and look forward to more opportunities, including Diwali and Filipino American History Month. While in-person events such as White House briefings and roundtable discussions have been temporarily halted, we are moving several opportunities to a virtual platform that still allows us to connect AAPI business and community leaders to the federal government at this important time. The White House and WHIAAPI have hosted conference calls for the public on the Trump Administration’s whole-of-government response to COVID-19, including work to implement the CARES Act and combat incidents of hate against AAPIs.
For AAPI Heritage Month, WHIAAPI hosted a week of virtual events in collaboration with the Department of Commerce, Department of Transportation, Department of Labor, the Small Business Administration, and the Office of Personnel Management. Secretary Chao kicked off the week with keynote remarks that addressed pandemic concerns and discussed AAPI leadership in the private and public sector. She was followed by a panel discussion featuring AAPI business and community leaders on the advancement of AAPI to leadership roles across all sectors. Secretary Chao remarked that “by working together, we can help ensure that the Asian American and Pacific Islander community is served, protected and recognized for its many accomplishments and contributions to our country.”
The following day, Administrator Jovita Carranza provided updates from SBA on disaster relief funds in addition to her recognitions of the importance of AAPI Heritage Month. She was followed by a panel discussion on the federal procurement process for AAPI-owned small businesses. We also co-hosted with the Department of Labor and Office of Personnel Administration a virtual event on workforce development and on advancing AAPIs within the federal government. We were joined by Deputy Secretary of Labor Pat Pizzella and OPM Acting Director Michael Rigas, along with officials from the Office of Personnel Management, Department of Labor Civil Rights Center (DOL CRC), Asian American Government Executives Network (AAGEN), and the Federal Asian Pacific American Council (FAPAC).
Lastly, in partnership with the Minority Business Development Agency (MBDA), WHIAAPI cohosted the annual National AAPI Business Summit with Secretary Ross providing keynote remarks, followed by briefings from top DOC officials on federal resources and opportunities. Secretary Ross’s encouraging and inspirational remarks were a wonderful segue way into a lively discussion on how AAPI entrepreneurs can scale up their businesses in challenging times.
The President’s Advisory Commission on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders hosted their inaugural open meeting the following week. Even before their first meeting, the Commissioners have been hard at work, convening regular subcommittee meetings to address concerns of the impact of COVID-19 on the AAPI community, particularly small business owners. Before much of the country began to shelter-in-place, the Commission hosted several in-person roundtable discussions around the country to hear directly from AAPIs about the challenges they face. Most recently, PAC-AAPI held its first virtual AAPI Business Town Hall and will host more in the future to both deliver information to and receive feedback from AAPI leaders.
I look forward to the great work of this Commission and I am personally appreciative of their advocacy for the 22 million Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders and more than 1.9 million AAPI-owned businesses. Our work on behalf of the AAPI community is more important than ever and I want to echo the words of Secretary Ross at the Commissioners’ open meeting: “We hope the Commission can be a conduit to the AAPI community so that it can take advantage of the programs that have been created. The AAPI business community will be instrumental as our country strives to rebuild our domestic supply chains, our industrial base, the workers they employ, and the communities they enrich…the entrepreneurial spirit of the AAPI community will lead to new innovations that will save lives, capitalize on market opportunities, and return our country to prosperity.”