The Future of Leadership

Changing the World in 2020 and Beyond

AAPI Youth Leadership in the Context of Affirmative Action

Jessica J. Ho 何鍾靈

Truthfully, I have been inspired by our youth who have recently spoken out in support of affirmative action and Black Lives Matter in various forums, open letters, and protests. Their courage and bravery – as well as their sophistication in utilizing technology and social media to organize and get their message across – has fueled my hope for the next generation’s impact on society. I say this because it took me a lot longer to speak up for affirmative action and Black Lives Matter, and I hope that my story will help others understand why I came to support these causes. 

In 2012, California Senator Edward Hernandez introduced Senate Constitutional Amendment No. 5 (SCA-5). This initiative would have overturned California Proposition 209. While many Chinese Americans openly opposed this initiative, I remember feeling torn that the issue divided our communities; I remember feeling alone in my support for SCA-5. I was on the Board of APAPA Sacramento at the time, but I did not speak up.

Fast forward to when Assemblymember Shirley Weber introduced California Assembly Constitutional Amendment No. 5 (ACA-5), which would also repeal Prop 209. After years of working through my own insecurities, failures, and wins around my own identity, education, career, and aspirations, I was ready to take a stand this time around. However, before I could say anything, the National Board of APAPA voted to unanimously support ACA-5.

As a Board member now of APAPA – San Francisco Chapter, I am so proud of the National APAPA Board for their strong support for affirmative action. However, the real fight has just begun. ACA-5 has now qualified for the November 2020 ballot as Prop 16. Supporters like myself will need to do the hard work of persuading voters in the coming months. Even now, there are still many Chinese Americans who oppose affirmative action. Learning from my past, I am now prepared to speak up and voice my opinions with an open mind and engage in a meaningful dialogue on what it means to support affirmative action as a Chinese American.

When I was growing up, my parents – like many other Chinese parents – emphasized education as a means of obtaining a stable job. Like a “model student,” I studied hard and participated in the required extracurricular activities to beef up my resume. While attending UC Berkeley, I created a 10-year plan in hopes of one day reaching my dream job of serving as the US Secretary of Health and Human Services Agency. I believed that my academic achievements and pedigree would move me towards my goal. At first, it seemed like everything was going according to plan. After graduating UC Berkeley, I trained at UCSF to become a Registered Dietitian, and I attended Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health to earn my Masters in Health Policy and Public Health. The “perfect” path that I had so meticulously tried to follow suddenly crumbled, however, when I received some “constructive criticism” through the Capital Fellows Program; then a few months later, Harvard rejected my PhD application. As that straight-A student who had never encountered failure before, I was lost.

Through the Executive Fellowship Program, fellows like myself were given the opportunity to interview with dozens of top key Government Executives like the California Secretary of Health and Human Services, California’s Insurance Commissioner, and the Governor’s Press Office. We would eventually be placed with the Executive so that we could shadow them and learn the inner workings of State government. During the interview process, each fellow would rate each placement, and the Executive would rate each fellow. Since I brought my A-game to these interviews, you can imagine how my heart and hopes dropped when I learned that many of the Executives rated me poorly compared to my peers. Although I was devastated, I chose to go through the painful process of receiving feedback from some of the Executives who had interviewed me.

I learned that my degrees and past work experiences are not the only things that make someone an attractive candidate. While it’s important to do your job well, it’s just as important to be pleasant to work with and be someone who can contribute to a team and bring everyone up with you. These experiences eventually helped shift my perspective from “if you want to get something done right, do it yourself” to “if you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” It helped me change the way I approached problem-solving so that I included others in the process, which itself is a process that I am still learning. I have seen how this collaborative attitude – in addition to social and leadership skills – will help us all go further. I still carry these lessons with me to this day.

Still, all my experiences are colored by my ethnicity and gender as a Chinese American woman. Despite the fact that I can speak English fluently and grew up with American customs, I still face discrimination because of the shape of my eyes and face or my last name. However, many elements of my story still perpetrate the model minority myth, and it frankly has afforded me a level of privilege compared to other minorities. I do not personally understand the challenges that face black, brown, or other minorities, and I can only imagine that my own journey would look very different if I had a different face or last name.

If Chinese Americans are against affirmative action because they believe that getting in a UC will guarantee a good job, then I posit that my own experiences illuminate how this concept is a myth. Let’s take a look at the bigger picture. Fortune 500 companies may hire us as engineers, accountants, or even doctors, but we are still woefully underrepresented in C-suite positions and Boardrooms across the country. Californians may have elected an unprecedented number of Asian and Pacific Islanders elected officials, but we are still underrepresented in all levels of government. My experiences have taught me that the system is rigged; none of us can succeed in this system unless we all work together to create a better one.

Affirmative action does not only affect education; it would also allow Chinese Americans to have parity when it comes to contracts and hiring. However, it would be naïve to not address the fear of how these changes would be implemented in practice. So I think that the next step we must take is to participate in conversations with black, brown, and other communities to figure out how we can all gain equal opportunity through affirmative action. For those of you who are with me, let’s take this next step together.

I want to take this moment to acknowledge that my “truth” may not be your “truth.” We are all learning and growing as we learn more and as contexts change. In order for us to push forward together as a society, however, I believe we must be able to tolerate open dialogue and differing views as we find our own path and allies. I invite you all to continue this dialogue with me and with others as we approach the November 2020 election.

Jessica J. Ho serves as the Government and Community Affairs Liaison for a local community health center. She brings over a decade of experience in health, government, nonprofits, community work, and campaigns.

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API Women's Leadership Conference

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