In many ways, Asian-Americans have done remarkably well in achieving the American dream of going to college, working at a good job and earning a nice living.
Take Tuyet Le, who came to the United States as a Vietnamese refugee when she was 3 years old. She overcame polio and modest means to attend Northwestern University. She joined a struggling nonprofit organization and turned it into a leading voice for the Asian-American community in Chicago.
By all accounts, the 39-year-old Le would be the poster child for the “model minority,” a label that portrays Asian-Americans as well-educated, affluent and universally successful. But Le has spent most of her career educating people that the stereotype works against the community.
Although some fit the profile, she said, Asian-Americans remain significantly underrepresented in politics, experience discrimination and need public services, such as bilingual education.
“Success in America is not only defined in financial terms, but in self-determination and political power,” Le said. “In those respects, our community still has a long way to go. No one seems to assume that having some successful members of the Latino or African-American community means that everyone is doing well in that community and their benefits should be cut.”
As executive director of the Asian American Institute, Le is among a new generation of Asian-American leaders in Chicago advocating for a diverse population of 147,000 that includes Chinese, Koreans, Japanese, Southeast Asians and South Asians. The institute’s focus on a cohesive pan-Asian policy sets it apart from organizations providing community services. It tackles big, complex issues such as immigration reform, affirmative action and redistricting, to counter systemic discrimination.
No matter the issue, Le charges ahead as an outspoken voice, not afraid to take on the city’s sacred cows–or political leaders. When Rahm Emanuel was the only mayoral candidate absent in February from a North Side forum for Asian-American voters, Le called him out for ignoring the community.
Le will count on that support [from other Asian groups] as the Asian American Institute transitions to a new identity next year when it turns 20 years old. It will become the Asian American Center for Advancing Justice, the collective name for a coalition of four groups that became partners in 2005. They include the Asian American Justice Center in Washington, the Asian Pacific American Legal Center in Los Angeles and the Asian Law Caucus in San Francisco.
“The whole idea is to have a larger voice in civil rights and justice issues,” Le said. “We want it to be a well-recognized name around the country. We already work closely together and have the same values.”
One issue the group is working on is the redrawing of ward maps in Chicago. Le would like to make sure that wards with sizable concentrations of Asian-Americans, including the 50th Ward, in Rogers Park, remain that way.
Le became active in Northwestern’s Asian American Student Advisory Board, which organized classes on Asian-American history and began advocating for an Asian-American studies curriculum at the Evanston-based university. (After Le graduated, several Asian-American students went on a hunger strike in 1995 to protest the school’s lack of support. A year later, Northwestern agreed to add an Asian-American studies component to the undergraduate curriculum.)
Karen Narasaki, president of the Asian American Justice Center, said meeting the needs of a growing Asian-American community will require a strong voice like Le’s.
“In every community, you need to have people willing to shake things up a little bit,” Narasaki said. “I think it’s important, particularly because of the stereotype that Asian-Americans are too polite.”