Jackie Bong Wright

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Young Vietnamese Heads White House Initiative on AAPI

By Jackie Bong-Wright

John Duong, 28, from California, was appointed May 28 by President Bush to be the new Executive Director of the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI). The Initiative was established by President Clinton in June 1999 to improve the quality of life for AAPI by increasing participation in federal programs, supporting research regarding AAPI populations, and increasing ethnic community involvement in the political process. The Initiative is housed in the Health Resources and Services Administration of the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS). Mr. Duong gave this reporter an exclusive interview for Asian Fortune.

JBW: It is a great honor for a young Vietnamese-American to hold such an important position. What are your qualifications and how did you get the job?
JD: I am delighted to have been selected to head this office. I worked for Governor Pete Wilson in a similar capacity in 1997, but statewide rather than nationwide. My experience has always been in the area of community involvement in the political process.
JBW: What else?
JD: I am aware that there were a few candidates out there. Besides my work in the private and public sectors, I had always been active, even while in school. At 12, I delivered the West County Times paper, thanks to my father who taught me discipline, which was the key word in my drive to move forward. I was quarterback in football at Richmond High School in San Pablo, California, and was elected President of the student body in my senior year.
JBW: You graduated with honors in 1996 from UC Davis, where you were also the President of the Vietnamese Student Association. So you were in the political arena at a young age.
JD: Yes, I was a member of the College Republicans and the Northern California chapter of the Vietnamese Political Action Committee. As a junior in 1994, I was an intern in the State Assembly. I also served in a number of non-profit organizations in college and after graduation. During the administration of Gov. Pete Wilson, I became deputy director of the Governor’s Office of Community Relations in San Francisco, where I acted as liaison to the state’s ethnic communities and the AAPI press. Last year, I was finance chairman of the California Asian-American Coalition for George W. Bush. I often spoke on Vietnamese radio in California, and I urged Vietnamese to participate in local politics.
JBW: What about your work in the private sector?
JD: In 1999, I went to work as Vice President of Bridgecreek Development, a successful real estate developer that built 3,500 Asian-owned businesses in Little Saigon in Orange County, California. Asians have contributed a good deal to that community with their tax dollars, even in the early nineties. They have their own customer base. I am glad to have contributed to the economic development of that area.
JBW: Tell us about your new work with the Initiative.
JD: I’d like to explain first the structure of the Initiative. Executive Order 13125 established the President’s Advisory Commission and the Federal Interagency Working Group on AAPI. The Initiative has four staff, and coordinates the activities of those two entities. The Commission is composed of fifteen individuals with a history of leadership in AAPI in fields such as health, education, economic and community development, civil rights and business. The Commission conducts town hall meetings and community roundtables across the country, and provides recommendations to the President in its Interim Report. The Interagency Working Group (IWG), composed of Deputy Secretaries and senior officials from federal departments and designated independent agencies, advises the President on Initiative activities through the Secretary of Health and Human Services. Last year, the IWG developed an inventory of existing programs and funding levels targeted to AAPI. The work of the IWG is supported by a Coordinating Committee composed of senior-level designees from across executive departments and independent agencies.
JBW: What do you want to achieve? What is your plan of action?
JD: My plan of action sounds huge. This Administration fully supports the Initiative and has extended its program for the next two years. My own agenda includes working with the Commission to set up more town hall meetings. Last year, two were held, in Los Angeles and New York, hooking up 22 other cities on satellite so people could participate. Now we are trying to reach these communities personally. That’s my role. I will travel from Seattle to Atlanta to California and all the way to Massachusetts to inform AAPI communities that we exist, seek their recommendations, and convey their needs to the federal agencies.
JBW: How will you address the AAPI communities’ needs?
JD: Issues that concern us include the high rate of smoking among Asian men, the very high incidence of cervical cancer among Vietnamese women, and the alarming rate of teen-age suicides among Filipino youth. The AAPI has been seen as the model minority, and we are proud of what we have achieved; however, there are also less flattering components, especially for the newly-arrived immigrants who are underserved. There are many factors to the problem: cultural differences, language barriers, and economic difficulties, among others. There are programs available at the DHHS and other departments. How can we reach out and bridge the gap? My job is to inform the federal agencies of community needs, and make recommendations.
JBW: You came here as one of the “Boat People” in 1982 at the age of 9, and you and your family underwent a lot of difficulties. Against that background, what do you want to do for people in difficulty now, especially the 2 million AAPI who are uninsured?
JD: We may need to translate more materials into different languages, and to hire more bi-lingual service providers to educate the different communities on certain issues. We already have financial programs to serve low-income communities
JBW: The community-based organizations (CBOs) have had a lot of experience providing services for their own ethnic groups. Do you think that these CBOs should also educate federal, state, and local service providers on their cultural differences. Can they subcontract with federal agencies to provide services for their own ethnic groups?
JD: That is the kind of feedback I would like to hear — how public providers can deliver better services to people regardless of race and ethnicity.
JBW: Forty percent of immigrants have limited English proficiency that impedes access to health and social services. Are there ways federal agencies can set aside funds for interpreting and translation services under Title VI?
JD: I am collecting that kind of information to identify the best ways to tackle that problem.
JBW: There are over 900,000 AAPI companies employing 2.2 million people and generating $307 billion in revenue. How can the Small Business Administration (SBA) educate them on how to cope with red tape and the multitude of federal regulations?
JD: Most Asians are hard-working, dedicated and family-oriented people who run mom and pop businesses. They contribute a lot to the economic development of this nation. We have many Chinatowns, Korea towns, and Vietnam towns where people want to raise capital and expand their businesses. The SBA can organize seminars, help with loan guarantees, and work hand in hand with these people. Financial assistance programs exist, and federal contracts are also available. You have to be qualified, of course, and to meet certain standards.
JBW: You are right, these programs exist, but how can people access them?
JD: I understand that the process is complicated; my job is to facilitate it. I will explore every opportunity to serve the AAPI population. It’s not going to be perfect, but we will address those needs. Public- private partnerships are one of the best ways to sustain these programs in the community.
JBW: How do you get different AAPI groups to be more involved in civic affairs and have a stronger voice?
JD: I talk to different groups on those issues. There are over 11 million Asians in this country, speaking about 20 languages. They work in the media, entertainment, education, medicine, and many other areas. I am especially interested in Asian-Americans performing their civic duties. I urge them to become public servants, whether at the local, state, or federal levels. They should also volunteer for political campaigns, and consider running for public office themselves – for municipal and school boards, or county supervisors. Consider a street outside your house that needs to be repaired or paved. This is a matter that affects your everyday life. You should get it done by voting for it or being voted in to have it done. The younger generation should consider this.
JBW: What motivated you to enter public service?
JD: My parents, especially my father, a former police officer in Vietnam, encouraged me to go into public service as he had done. He did not object to my studying political science instead of choosing a more traditional career. I wanted to do the kind of work that would allow me to give something back to my community, and to serve people across the spectrum.
JBW: Can you work with other groups even if you and they have different political ideologies?
JD: This is called “community politics” or “home-based politics.” There are always differences between parties, between philosophies, and between groups and individuals. But, there are also issues in common, on which we can work together. We can achieve a lot with that approach. We should be inclusive, not exclusive. I encourage people to register and vote, no matter for which party. Our Asian community is young, but becoming mature. We should be represented in all places, especially in the most critical places in society. We should be comfortable seeking office at all levels.