Following Georgia’s historic elections, we speak to political organizer Linh Nguyen on how to reach the AAPI community.
By Audra Heinrichs.
In the weeks leading up Georgia’s senate runoffs earlier this month, many wondered how much of the state’s 300,000 Asian American and Pacific Islander voters would return to the polls following a historical and decisive turnout in November’s presidential election. Their turnout in November helped Joe Biden to carry Georgia by only a 13,000-vote lead—an unnerving margin for an altogether uncertain cycle. Questions of turnout for the runoffs were rife but by the time Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff were declared Georgia’s two new senators, mainstream coverage of the special election seemed to have forgotten about the state’s AAPI population once again.
Linh Nguyen, longtime organizer and former staffer on both Sens. Cory Booker and Bernie Sanders’ respective bids for president, was just one of many charged with targeting the state’s AAPI households on behalf of the Georgia Democratic Party. Nguyen, who served as the party’s Coalitions Director, believes AAPI voters could very well decide elections across the country—if only campaigns strategized and effectively communicated messaging to those communities.
National coverage has highlighted the efforts of Stacey Abrams, a storied advocate of free and fair elections and former minority leader in the Georgia House of Representatives, in mobilizing countless Georgia voters, but there are many advocates across the state without whom the Democratic Party would likely not have seized such historic victories. Nguyen is just one of those organizers.
Mission recently caught up with Nguyen to talk about how she and other organizers were able to meet voters where they are, what Georgia’s wins mean for AAPI communities throughout the country, and how we can all prepare to lend a hand in 2022.
Audra Heinrichs: As an organizer, there’s a certain level of creativity a campaign has to maintain when it comes to voter engagement. In 2020, during a pandemic, what methods did you and your team use to meet this moment?
Linh Nguyen: For all of our direct voter contact work, we recruited AAPI volunteers to speak directly to members in their communities. This meant we prioritized language accessibility—the literature our canvassers walked with were translated in five AAPI languages, and our phone bankers also had access to in-language scripts. Our voter protection team was also available to speak to voters in six different languages. Volunteers canvassed 18,756 AAPI voters with translated literature from nine different staging locations in the last four days of the election alone.
In terms of phone-banking, we had lists to call 16 different AAPI communities: Chinese, Filipino, Gujarati, Hmong, Iranian, Ismaili, Japanese, Korean, Nepali, Punjabi, South Asian, Muslim, Telugu, Thai (first ever known phone bank list for the Thai community), and Vietnamese voters in addition to our general AAPI list. We also held a weekly AAPI Women’s phone bank to create a space for AAPI women and allies to call other AAPI women. In total, our volunteer phone bankers made 46,000 calls to AAPI voters in the last three weeks of the campaign, and used each other as resources.
We also launched a WhatsApp program that reached a lot of older generation Asian Americans. We were so concerned that texting is such an oversaturated space that we knew we had to use closed-messaging systems that older generations use to communicate with loved ones.
AH: Speaking of older generations, how does organizing on behalf of a younger demographic (18-34) compare to that of older AAPI voters?
LN: There’s so many elements to this, and it breaks my heart in so many different ways to think of the number of elders that we just were not able to connect with. There is an unspoken organizing being done by first-generation and second-generation Asian American kids who are trying to connect with their relatives and their parents and they’re doing it in unique ways. A good friend of mine produced a whole presentation that she gave her parents and it went viral. I think it’s not so much that our messaging has to change. I truly believe the values that we fight for as Democrats are the same values that a lot of our elders have wished for their children and future generations. But it’s a matter of us getting it to them. How we’re distributing this information is a part of our job as organizers.
AH: Do you think that any of the racist rhetoric surrounding COVID-19 and Asian Americans that was perpetuated by Trump and others this year played a role in motivating AAPI voters?
LN: It was a rough summer for everyone, but specifically within the Asian Pacific diaspora. The anti-Asian hate and the normalcy of our former president naming the coronavirus, “the kung flu” virus was such a unifier among the community. I’ve never had a chance to organize around one single issue where I could talk about it with everyone, whether they were 65+ and retired, living in rural parts of Georgia, or just out of high school and getting ready for college. We had to pivot to understanding that emotional reaction and how people felt, and then how that might translate into an electoral message of, we deserve better and we will get better. But this is why we need you to vote.
I get this question a lot in terms of the issues that drive Asians to the polls and what messaging needs to be run. We are not a single-issue community, but it did feel like an anchor in the summer and again in November and it brought a whole other layer to the organizing. The fact that the violence inflicted upon the community only lasted approximately a day in the news cycle also feeds into the model minority myth where Asian Americans are forced to just absorb this trauma and move on. That’s still very much ingrained—I feel—with older generation Asian Americans, like we just have to move on and survive because we’ve been used to having to do that for years.
AH: How can we all ensure we carry all of these efforts, energy, and shared enthusiasm into 2022?
LN: That’s a good question because [after elections] the campaign apparatus falls apart very quickly. I’ve encouraged a lot of our AAPI organizers, whether they’re from Georgia or not, to find who the local county party chair is and ask them how they’re doing off-cycle work—how the work that was done canvassing, phone-banking, text-banking etc.—will continue in their neighborhoods. County parties, state parties, county chairs, volunteers, and the like tend to skew older. They’re people who have the time and luxury to volunteer. It’s important to understand there’s a lot of opportunities for us as younger people to take up that space.