APA Spotlight: Daphne Kwok, Executive Director of Asian & Pacific Islanders with Disabilities of California

APA Spotlight is a weekly interview of Asian Pacific Islander Americans (APIA) community leaders. It is a spotlight on individuals who have dedicated their careers to issues surrounding the APIA community with the goal of bringing much deserved recognition to their work and cause(s).

Empowerment of all Asian Americans & Pacific Islanders (AAPIs) has long been one of Daphne Kwok’s core values.  In July 2010, President Barack Obama appointed Ms. Kwok, Chair of his Advisory Commission on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.

Ms. Kwok is the Executive Director of Asians & Pacific Islanders with Disabilities of California (APIDC). A non-profit based in Oakland, it seeks to give a voice and a face to AAPIs with disabilities, to break down the stigma in the AAPI community about disabilities and to provide technical assistance to organizations wanting to effectively work with AAPIs with disabilities.

She was the Executive Director of the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation (AIISF) in San Francisco from 2005-2007. AIISF’s mission is to preserve and restore the Angel Island Immigration Station and to promote the role that it played in shaping America’s past and present.

She was the Executive Director of the Asian Pacific American Institute for Congressional Studies (APAICS) in Washington, DC for four years, focused on increasing political participation of the Asian Pacific Islander American (APIA) community and working with the APIA elected officials from school board members to Members of Congress.

From November 1997 until April 2001, Ms. Kwok was the first elected Chair of the National Council of Asian Pacific Americans, a network of national APA organizations.

A 1984 graduate of Wesleyan University in East Asian Studies and Music, Ms. Kwok is the first Asian American to serve on its Board of Trustees.

Ms. Kwok’s board service has included: Chair of APIAVote, Executive Committee member of the National Japanese American Memorial Foundation, the Southeast Asian Resource Action Center, Coalition of Asian Pacific American Community Development, and a founding member of the Asian Pacific Islander American Scholarship Fund.

What is the mission statement of your life?

My personal mission statement is to empower AAPIs in the political process to make sure that we are “at the table.” In order to be fully accepted as Americans, we must be actively engaged in the political process not only by registering to vote and voting but also by running for office, through serving as political appointees or in public service, through political engagement in political parties and campaigns, through internships and fellowships in DC and with local elected officials. Ensuring the underrepresented and underserved sectors of our community including AAPI with disabilities and the NHPI community are “at the table” is a top priority.

How did you end up doing what you’re doing?

My parents were very civically involved. For immigrants, they were extremely progressive and tremendous role models for us as they were the epitome of volunteer leaders. My father was the president of our schools, of our youth orchestras. My mother coordinated the local Suzuki music festivals which turned into running the Greater Washington Suzuki Institute which she is still doing 30+ years later. We were trained at an early age to collate materials, to do bulk mailings and all the other tasks having to do with volunteer non-profit organizations!

Growing up in Northern Virginia literally “inside the Beltway” in the 1960s/1970s, we, my two brothers and I were always among the handful of students of color in our schools all the way up to our 2000 student high school! It wasn’t until going to Wesleyan University in Middletown, CT that I had Asian and Asian American classmates really for the first time. I got involved with the Asian student org. and then with the Asian American alumni association.

Returning to DC after college, I joined the Organization of Chinese Americans (OCA) Northern Virginia Chapter and got heavily involved in APA Democratic party politics in VA and nationally. Since the active APA community was so small back in the ’80s, I started working with then Congressman Norman Mineta, Congressman Bob Matsui, Congresswoman Patsy Mink. I never would have thought I was going to be involved in politics but being involved in the APA community led to political participation. I have been so honored to have worked with all of our political icons!

If Hollywood made a movie about your life, whom would you like to see play the lead role as you?

I would be so honored if Tamlyn Tomita would play me… because I so admire her….she’s an effective, passionate activist. She’s been active, involved and supportive of so many of the organizations and campaigns, especially APIAVote, that I have been involved with over the years! She’s so down to earth and is loved by everyone! We have the same fire lit up inside of us that drives us to continue advocating for the community!

How can people find out more about your organization or get involved?

For people who want to get involved in “Giving a voice and a face” to APIs with disabilities, I invite you to email me at dkwok[at]apidisabilities.org and follow us on Facebook as well as go to our website www.apidisabilities.org. We are embarking on a Visibility Campaign, and if you can help us with that campaign let me know! The campaign will have 5 prongs:

* Networking – Building a network of AAPIs with disabilities – if you or people you know who would like to join us, please tell them to contact us!

* Events/Programs – Help us with our conferences, programs, events by providing us your skills, suggestions!

* Research/Policy – Are you interested in helping us with research projects or following policy?

* Visibility Campaign – will have a mainstream media, ethnic media, social media campaign. Do you have media skills?
Do you know individuals who can share their personal stories for this campaign?

* Leadership Training – we will train a cadre of AAPIs with disabilities who will become our spokespeople. We will be building a speakers bureau. Are you a trainer who can help us in leadership training, advocacy training, media training?

With this campaign we are fundraising for the various projects! If you can help us financially, if you can help introduce potential sponsors, if you have fundraising ideas, we’d love to talk to you!

For people who want to get involved with the White House Initiative on AAPIs, I would encourage you to join our listserve at www.whitehouse.gov/aapi

For people who want to help with voter education/registration and the continued political empowerment of our community, go to the website of www.apiavote.org. We are gearing up for the 2012 cycle and are starting to train and mobilize our community which will be the margin of victory throughout the nation!

If you had a crystal ball, what do you see for the future of the Asian Pacific Islander American community?

I am always an optimistic person. I think that eventually, slowly but surely, we will be part of American society on an equal par and “at the table.” But we still need to educate our community about the importance of being involved, in being involved in the broader society. I hope that we will have dispelled the Model Minority Myth, that policymakers and leaders will truly understand who AAPIs truly are… that our diversity means that we will have different priority issues. I see in the crystal ball that America will some day accept AAPIs as Americans and not as foreigners. That when we are looked at, we will not automatically be assumed to be a foreigner. I see in the ball also that slowly but surely AAPIs with rise to top executive positions in the private sector as well as in the public sector.

Bonus Question: What advice do you have for young Asian Pacific Islander American professionals?

I hope that APIA young professionals will always be supportive of the APIA community. Whether one works “in” the community or works “outside” of the community, we need everyone’s continued financial support, skills, and access to policymakers to move our community forward.

My other advice is to always keep bringing up AAPIs behind you. Keep the doors open for all. Never have the attitude that you got to where you are simply because of yourself. Leaders fought for and continued to fight for parity for all.

Bonus Question: What are your comfort foods and what memories do you have associated with them?

My comfort food is abalone!!!! Eating it straight out of the pink can was such a special treat because when I was growing up it was already $20/can! Now it’s like $80/can!+ I haven’t had it in years… but that has always been my favorite food – because of the chewy texture! I remember one year we were visiting New York City and my Dad was so sweet, at the Chinese restaurant he ordered fresh abalone for me for my birthday meal! That was such a special treat!

Bonus Question: What’s your guilty pleasure?

My guilty pleasure is eating fine, fine food! Being treated to 2- 3 star Michelin restaurants in Paris 3 out of 5 nights during one of our vacations was truly THE most exquisite experience I’ve had!!!!

My other guilty pleasure is buying jewelry!!! My biggest weakness!!!!

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Author: Koji Steven Sakai

Writer/Producer Koji Steven Sakai is the founder of Little Nalu Pictures LLC and the CEO of CHOPSO (www.CHOPSO.com), the first Asian English streaming video service. He has written five feature films that have been produced, including the indie hit, The People I’ve Slept With. He also produced three feature films, a one hour comedy special currently on Netflix, and Comedy InvAsian, a live and filmed series featuring the nation’s top Asian American comedians. Koji’s debut novel, Romeo & Juliet Vs. Zombies, was released in paperback in 2015 and in audiobook in 2016 and his graphic novel, 442, was released in 2017. In addition, he is currently an adjunct professor in screenwriting at International Technological University in San Jose.