May is Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month. To celebrate, LEE wants to highlight and acknowledge our members who identify within this broad and rich group and their vital contributions to our shared work.
Read on to learn more from two LEE members, Binh Doan and Anna Le, who’ve elevated their leadership and are working to end educational inequity.
Director, Memphis Education Fund
Memphis Education Fund is a student-centered nonprofit committed to supporting school, community, and policy improvement to increase the number of Memphis students attending great public schools.
How has your AAPI identity shaped you as a leader?
Growing up in New Hampshire as a Vietnamese immigrant, I more or less always felt set apart from my peers. It wasn’t until I was in college and joined the Vietnamese Student Association that I first felt this sense of community and belonging that I had not experienced outside of my family. My college experiences made me realize how important it was to have your cultural identity recognized and affirmed. It was so freeing not to have to qualify certain behaviors or aspects of my Vietnamese identity. Our shared identity and experiences meant that I didn’t have to explain why my mom insisted that we hand wash the dishes despite owning a dishwasher or why shoes were off-limits inside the house.
When I became a teacher, I knew I didn’t want my students to wait as long as I did to recognize that their cultural identities matter and can be a source of strength. I worked hard to ensure my students had the time and space to share their identities and explore those of others. Now working in the education nonprofit space, I prioritize diversity and inclusion in my practice as much as possible, having firsthand experience of how isolating it can be when these things are ignored.
How has LEE influenced your leadership?
As a teacher, it was easy to see the impact I was making on my students day-to-day, but it wasn’t until my involvement with LEE that I was able to expand my impact on education beyond my school community. LEE opened up a world of education organizing and advocacy to me that I didn’t have access to. Through national and regional training and support from regional staff, I learned how to wield the power I held as a teacher to engage with education and community leaders on the topic of education equity.
This past year, I started working at Memphis Education Fund, a student-centered nonprofit committed to supporting school, community, and policy improvement with innovative, research-based investments. This opportunity was largely due to the connections I made while participating in LEE’s Policy and Advocacy Summer Fellowship. My involvement with LEE not only empowered me as an educator but opened up doors for me to continue fighting for educational equity beyond the classroom.
What’s a recent win you’d like to share?
My experience in the classroom and school operations have taught me that we need to invest more in education, especially in schools serving students with the highest need. Recently, the Governor of Tennessee passed a new student funding formula that will revolutionize the way education is funded in our state — the old formula was created 30 years ago and is failing to meet the needs of today’s students.
Memphis Education Fund, in collaboration with our advocacy partners, worked hard to advocate for a student-based funding formula, and we’re excited that Tennessee is taking a step in the right direction. We’re looking forward to educating our community about the new formula and following it through the rule-making process to ensure equitable and student-centered funding.
Operations Director, Washington State Democratic Party
How has your AAPI identity shaped you as a leader?
My AAPI identity was not a significant contributing factor in shaping who I am as a leader. More influential are my identities of being Vietnamese American; a first-generation high school, college, and graduate school graduate; a child of refugees; and a cisgender woman from a low-income, low-wealth background.
Being Vietnamese American has always been an uphill battle of dispelling assumptions about my narrative and fighting for visibility as a member of a minority group within a larger, historically-marginalized community. This experience has instilled in me an enduring practice of seeking out nuances and silenced voices whenever I encounter a story or issue.
The odds that my siblings and I would graduate from high school and college, and that I would go on to earn a graduate degree were incredibly unlikely. This feat was only possible because countless mentors, educators, leaders, and organizations advocated for us and supported us when we needed it. A door was opened for me, and now that I've stepped through it, I'm not going to close it behind me. Out of appreciation for those who helped my family, I am committed to breaking down that door, so the odds for future leaders who seek to walk through it won't be so daunting.
What personal values, experiences, or beliefs drive you?
When I want to give up — when my responsibilities overwhelm me, and I am absolutely exhausted — I think of my mom.
For much of my childhood, my mom raised my two siblings and me while also taking care of our physically and mentally disabled dad — on top of whichever extended family member needed a caregiver. She did this while working multiple minimum-wage jobs at the same time. Both of my parents are refugees, and my mom, specifically, was not allowed to attend school when she was growing up. I knew, from even my earliest days, that she didn't work these physically demanding and low-paying jobs because she wanted to; I knew she had to work these jobs because of her lack of formal education.
I push myself and work hard because, unlike many families, my parents don't have a retirement plan. *I* am their retirement plan. I am motivated to persist because it took nothing short of a series of miracles for my family to get where we are today when that shouldn't be the case.
What advice do you have for others who want to make a difference but don’t know where to start?
Linear, cookie-cutter, predictable career steps and career planning get more elusive and more rare the further you progress in your career. That's OK. If you have a vague idea of where you want to end up or what you want to do, orbit it as best you can, and eventually, you'll land where you want to be (even if you don't know exactly what that is right this minute).
Job opportunities and work experiences that help you clarify what you don't want to do long-term are just as valuable as career moves that are directly aligned with what you want to do long-term.
Finally, women, people of color, and women of color are implicitly and explicitly told that they aren't worthy of investment and should not take up space. This is false. Ask that super-accomplished role model you admire for an informational interview. Apply for that job even though you don't (in your head) meet all the requirements in the job description. They can't say no unless you ask, and you're probably minimizing how incredible you are because that's what we're socialized to do.
We are honored to hear and share these stories – just a couple of the thousands within LEE’s AAPI membership. What is your story of identity, leadership, and impact? Let us know by sharing with us on Twitter and Instagram @LEE_National!