Co-Director Helena Berbano explains the importance of the Asian American Pacific Islanders' vote

With the impending American presidential election drawing ever closer, AAMUnite is highlighting the importance of voting to Asian Americans. Speaking to Resonate, Co-Director and Founder Helena Berbano discusses the organisation’s mission and its challenges in doing this work.

Asian American Millennials Unite (AAMUnite) is a digital non-partisan initiative that encourages Asian Americans to get out and vote. Co-Director Helena Berbano founded the AAMUnite in January 2016, with recruitment in February and March to eventually launch the organisation in April. Berbano herself is a second generation Filipino-American currently residing in Massachusetts. She describes the organisation as a “start-up” run by a “collaborative of young professionals and college students”.



What was your incentive to start AAM Unite?

Need. At the time of AAMUnite’s inception, no group was specifically tasked in their mission to engage the Asian American Pacific Islander millennial demographic pertaining to just voting. There are a lot of people in the field who do AAPI voter outreach or voting in general. Other groups are organising and advocacy based – but there was no one at the time that focused on the millennial demographic within the AAPI community. I laid out that need and inspiration for us to be like a Voto Latino for AAPIs. They focus on specifically on Latino millennials or Rock The Vote for Asians.”

What difficulties did you encounter during its inception?

We were building something from the ground up. Hitting the ground running was the most difficult part – but we knew we needed to do it now considering the importance of the 2016 election. We had to establish our identity to make us unique in the field while also pushing out our content. Then there’s the added layer that we’re all volunteers and aren’t getting paid to do this.”


Social Media Manager Abby Golfo canvassing in NY.

Why do you think Asians in America are reluctant to vote?

“A lot of us are new immigrants here in the US. Most of us are first, second or third generation. Our families don’t have a long history of voting in the US. Like most things that we get accustomed to, it takes time. My mom has always been a voter, but unlike my white counterparts, politics was not talked about at the table. She didn’t take me to the polls with her growing up.”

“Amongst Asian Pacific Islanders, there’s a sizeable chunk of our group that is linguistically isolated.”

“Another layer is that a lot of our families have strong ties to their home countries. As a result their attitude towards politics often transfers over. For instance, Cambodians are a population that experienced trauma when voting. Some were forced to vote through violent means, so there’s that association there. Another example is the Filipino community in America. My family has been through WWII, martial law, election rigging – it’s hard for that not to transfer over when looking at the US electoral system.”
“There’s also the factor of language barriers. Amongst Asian Pacific Islanders, there’s a sizeable chunk of our group that is linguistically isolated. This makes the understanding of our voting system even more difficult. There are some states that have multi-lingual materials but there is certainly a lot of improvement that needs to be made. For most, if not all cities and towns, you need to meet a threshold (x amount of the population needs to be Japanese for example) for there to even be some multi-lingual materials.”

How do we overcome the problem of language barriers?

“This is a complex question, but it goes back to a lot of these great groups on the ground. A lot of AAPI nonprofits do in language outreach and create in language materials. That helps solve part of the problem. Though a bigger question is, how do we reach everybody? That is still a question I am not equipped to answer. One thing that is for sure, is that we need more folks out there doing in language, culturally competent outreach.”


Clarisa Punla from AAMUnite’s Leadership Committee canvassing in NY

Why is voting important?

“It’s your voice and your perspective. When we choose not to vote, the politicians that get elected represent us less and less. One thing I always say is that if you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu. Politicians pay attention to communities that vote. If we don’t vote, we don’t see ourselves represented. Politicians typically don’t push out our policies if we are not out at the polls. A local politician once told my colleague, “I hear you and I support you in person but your community doesn’t vote so I’m going to pass on supporting this measure”. That has always stuck with me.”

How are you encouraging Asians to vote?

“Through our platform, which is primarily digital – through social media. We are pushing out election information like deadlines and nonpartisan voting guides. Sometimes people don’t know that there’s a deadline to register to vote in your state. Sometimes people don’t know what going on besides the presidential election.

In terms of targeting – we’re concentrating on the states that have large AAPI populations. So California, New York and Florida. We are not producing materials yet, but we are linking and promoting them. We’re not trying to reinvent the wheel. There are a lot of great organisations that do that, for example Asian American Advancing Justice has put together a great voting guide for the community.”

“Our focus is on identity as well as the election”

“I know about these tools because I work in the field, but I find that the average Asian American millennial does not think ‘oh I’d better go look at all of the great non-profits’. They’re getting their information from mainstream sources – like social media channels. We exist to push out all of the sources that not a lot of people know about.”

“We’re also creating content on our blog to engage. Our focus is on identity as well as the election. Our pacific civic voice is so greatly linked to our identity as Asian Americans. Here in the US, Asian Americans have a reputation of not being civically engaged.”

Where do you think this reputation came from?

“A lot of it has to do with things that have been socialised in the US. Asian American Pacific Islanders have always been ‘othered’. We’re still seen as the perpetual foreigner who is just here. It’s very strange how we’ve always been segmented but accepted at the same time as this model minority that succeeds. It’s very paradoxical to a certain extent.”

What would you say to people who don’t have faith in either Clinton or Trump?

“We’re non-partisan, so I won’t comment specifically on the candidates. What I will say, is that there’s a lot more at stake than just the presidency. Local positions are up for election and ballot measures. All politics is local. There are other things to vote on. There are other offices that are on the ballot.”

“When I’m having a one on one conversation, I go back to my own experiences and how I’ve seen local government work. In the US or in my state of Massachusetts, you see populations come out that traditionally don’t vote and actually really make a difference.”

“They turned out at the highest they’ve ever turned out at a local election”

“For instance, in Quincy we had a lot of groups doing outreach to the predominantly Chinese American community and they turned out at the highest they’ve ever turned out at a local election and they elected the first Chinese American City Councillor that is a millennial. They went out and they voted. We’re getting there.”

Where do you pull the data in from?

“A lot of it is done by non-profits. Our data needs to get better. AAPI Data is a great organisation who are on the forefront of collecting our data. They have a couple of reports out. APIA Vote also released a great study about numbers. The larger issue at hand, is that we’re not being polled. When you turn on CNN, they’re not polling Asians as much as they should do.”

What can supporters of your campaign do to help?

“Continue to spread the word by following us on our social media channels and blasting out the things that we’re sharing. Blast our content about resources that people don’t traditionally look at.”

“Another thing to note is that we’ve got a lot of things going on. We’ve got a pledge to vote campaign that’s being launched soon, in tandem with our first event here in Boston hosted by us. We’re also having a Twitter chat that we’re hosting with a lot of prominent Twitter personalities, focusing on AAPIs and our civic identity. We’re also accepting proposals from folks who want to write pieces and focus on the election. People can DM on Twitter or email us.”