May 25, 2023

In honor of AAPI Heritage Month, FUSE is highlighting two remarkable individuals who exemplify the spirit of leadership, resilience, and dedication to creating positive change in their communities. We interviewed FUSE Executive Fellow Andrew Ngui and Alum Helen Angeldones (2021-22) about what it means to be a part of the AAPI community, the people that inspire them, and what we can do as a society for a more racially equitable and just world.

Andrew is a visionary leader who has transformed cities and regions through his pioneering work with government, startups, academia, and industry. For his FUSE project, Andrew is currently working with Kansas City, MO to develop environmentally sustainable, equitable, and multi-modal transportation infrastructure plans to prepare for the World Cup and beyond for visitors and residents.

Helen is a seasoned analytics strategist with over 20 years of experience advising Fortune 500 companies, driving data-driven strategies, and leading teams for growth and innovation across multiple industries. As a FUSE Executive Fellow with the City of Oakland, Helen built and piloted a strategic performance management system across all city departments, enabling local leaders to drive equitable community outcomes and set public targets that ensure transparency and accountability.

What are you most proud of being a part of the AAPI community?

Andrew: As part of the AAPI community, the thing that fills me with an unbounded sense of pride is the opportunity to bring a fresh, unique perspective to the table. We live in a world that’s incredibly diverse and it’s this diversity that forms the lifeblood of innovation and progress. Being AAPI doesn’t just define me; it enriches me. It lends me a distinctive lens through which to view the world, one shaped by a rich tapestry of experiences, traditions, and values. This unique viewpoint allows me to challenge the status quo, to approach issues and opportunities from angles that others may overlook. More importantly, this perspective isn’t just for me; it’s a gift I get to share with the world. It’s a powerful tool that I can leverage to drive change, to impact my work, my community, and the world in profoundly positive ways. Being a part of the AAPI community means I get to be a part of a grand, shared journey toward greater understanding, acceptance, and unity. I get to be a part of something bigger than myself. And for that, I couldn’t be prouder.

Helen: It is an honor to be a part of the AAPI community, and having the opportunity to share and advocate AAPI cultures and values to the broader community makes me a proud AAPI. I was born in Taiwan and grew up there until I was 16 when my family immigrated to Toronto, where multiculturalism is fostered and embraced. It took moving away from my home country to experience other cultures, but most importantly, to appreciate my roots and my heritage and how they shape my interactions with others. I am proud to be bi-lingual and bi-cultural because it gives me the advantage to cross back and forth between two cultures with relative ease. I am also proud of the many achievements made by AAPIs, especially the trailblazers who opened doors for other AAPIs, such as Patsy Mink, the first minority woman elected to US Congress, and Helen Zia, an unrelenting activist for Asian American civil rights. 

What is a recent achievement within the AAPI community you’d like to recognize?

Helen: I have always admired the organic power of grassroots movements, but my one-year stint as a FUSE Executive Fellow made me realize changes have the best chance of sustaining long-term and making the biggest impacts through policies. More and more AAPIs are engaging in politics and civic services, recognizing that holding public office creates a viable channel to speak for the less heard. The elected mayors of two of the most progressive cities in the US, Sheng Thao of Oakland, who is the first Hmong American mayor of a major city in the United States, and Michelle Wu of Boston, the first Asian American in Boston city council before winning the mayorship, signify the growing strength of the AAPI voters and AAPI office holders in prominent positions of authority to effectively promote diversity and push for social justice through policies and laws.     

Andrew: There are some awe-inspiring recent achievements within the AAPI community that are more than worthy of recognition. Take, for example, the extraordinary accomplishments of two cultural luminaries who’ve reshaped the landscape of cinema with their talent. Firstly, we have the magnificent Michelle Yeoh, who, with her stellar performance and nuanced artistry, has shattered ceilings and blazed trails by becoming the first Asian woman to clinch the prestigious Academy Award for Best Actress. This isn’t just an individual triumph but a landmark moment for the entire AAPI community, challenging traditional narratives and pushing for greater diversity in Hollywood’s highest echelons. And then we have Ke Huy Quan, who after a three-decade hiatus from acting, returned to etch his name in the annals of film history. Ke bagged the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, a feat not accomplished by an Asian man since 1985. His extraordinary performance not only won him an Oscar but also reignited conversations about the need for more diverse and nuanced representations of the AAPI community in cinema. Both of these actors, through their immense talent and hard work, have challenged stereotypes, shifted perceptions, and opened doors for future generations of AAPI artists. Their victories are a powerful testament to the growing recognition of the depth and diversity of AAPI talent in the film industry. It’s achievements like these that inspire us, and make us proud of the progress the AAPI community is making on the grand stage of global cinema.

What is an ongoing AAPI-specific challenge that you believe is at the forefront of the community currently?

Andrew: Despite the community’s significant contributions across all sectors, there’s a striking underrepresentation of AAPI individuals in management and top-level leadership roles, a phenomenon often termed the “bamboo ceiling.” This issue isn’t merely about numbers; it’s a reflection of systemic biases and barriers that prevent talented AAPI individuals from reaching their full potential. The lack of representation in leadership positions further perpetuates stereotypes and hinders the development of a truly diverse and inclusive corporate culture. To overcome this, businesses and organizations need to take active steps to nurture and promote AAPI talent. This could involve implementing more inclusive hiring practices, offering mentorship programs, and creating opportunities for professional development that cater specifically to the AAPI community. Moreover, it’s also essential to raise awareness about the existence of the “bamboo ceiling” and to champion the success stories of AAPI leaders who have overcome these barriers. By doing so, we can inspire future generations of AAPI individuals to aspire to leadership roles and pave the way for greater equity in opportunities.

Helen: The most unique characteristics of the AAPI community, in my opinion, is that it is a cohort of heterogeneity. It is a blessing for the AAPIs to have rich and diverse cultures, languages, religions, and practices. At the same time, however, the misperception that all AAPIs share similar cultural background and socioeconomic status presents a barrier that keeps others from seeing the multitudes of different challenges within the AAPI community. As a result, many generalizations are made with regard to the AAPI community, some unfairly portraying smaller sub-groups of AAPI as if they face similar disadvantages as the larger groups. For example, a 2021 report from Urban Institute points out the disparity of home ownership between 2015-2019 within the AAPI community can be attributed to median household income, length of history in the US, and immigration status (in this article, Vietnamese Americans are found to have the highest home ownership at 67%, whereas Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islanders fare the worst at 44%). 

Meaningful policies to address the housing crisis, or other community issues such as healthcare, employment, education, and public safety for AAPIs would not be possible if lawmakers and the general public continue to fail to recognize the multidimensional dynamics within the AAPI population.

Helen Angeldones

Why is it important that the work that you do revolves around social impact and narrowing racial disparities?

Helen: My particular FUSE project gave me the opportunity to help the City of Oakland to pilot a framework of collecting, curating, and reporting equity data across many service areas impacting the well-being of the residents. Data serves two critical roles in equity building. First, it drives equity outcomes. Without data, the baseline (the current situation) cannot be identified. Without a baseline, outcomes cannot be established. Without outcomes, goals cannot be set. Without goals, improvements cannot be made. Data’s second role in equity building is it adds intersectionality.  It’s much more straightforward to report operational metrics, such as the number of potholes filled, the number of sewage unclogged, or the number of permits issued. But when you layer in an intersection variable such as racial grouping, you start seeing the # of potholes were disproportionately filled in certain neighborhoods, or more permits were issued to one race than others, when compared to the demographics breakdown in the general population. You start questioning, is this equitable when there is disparity at the sub-group level? To address this, my work focused on mapping governmental agencies’ performance metrics to equity indicators to ensure every service provided is tied to an equity outcome, ultimately making the city hall accountable for achieving equity goals. 

Andrew: Everyone should be recognized and rewarded for their abilities, hard work, and contributions, irrespective of their race, skin color, or any other visible difference. This principle is integral to fairness, justice, and equality. However, it’s crucial to acknowledge that systemic and structural barriers often impede certain groups from showcasing their full potential and receiving the recognition they deserve. Addressing these barriers is part of fostering a merit-based system. That’s why the work I do revolves around social impact and reducing racial disparities. It’s not about giving preferential treatment based on race or ethnicity, but about ensuring that everyone has an equal opportunity to demonstrate their abilities and be recognized for their merit.

Ultimately, my goal is to contribute to a world where your work speaks for you, where your performance and abilities matter more than your ethnicity or the color of your skin. A world where every individual, regardless of their background, has a fair chance to shine and thrive based on their merit and performance. This is the kind of equitable society we should strive for, and it’s this vision that fuels my work every single day.

What can others do to show solidarity with the AAPI community?

Andrew: The AAPI colleagues you interact with daily are not just coworkers but individuals with rich cultural backgrounds, personal experiences, and unique perspectives. Taking the time to learn about your AAPI colleagues is an essential step towards building a more inclusive and understanding environment. This could involve engaging them in genuine conversations about their heritage, experiences, and perspectives. Ask questions and show interest in their stories. It’s through these personal connections that we can start to break down stereotypes and foster a deeper understanding of the AAPI community. Also, be mindful of the nuances and diversity within the AAPI community. Remember that it encompasses a wide range of cultures and experiences, and one person’s experience doesn’t define the entire community.

It’s also essential to demonstrate allyship in tangible ways. Stand up against instances of bias or discrimination in the workplace, advocate for equitable opportunities, and promote the recognition of your AAPI colleagues’ merits and contributions. By making these efforts on a personal level, you’re not just showing solidarity with the AAPI community, but also cultivating a more inclusive, understanding, and respectful workplace. This approach to solidarity has a ripple effect, fostering broader understanding and empathy that extends beyond the confines of the office.

Is there a book or a person that is doing important work in this space you’d like to highlight and why?

Helen: Anne Fadiman’s groundbreaking book The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors, and the Collision of Two Cultures has had a profound impact on me. This book was first published in 1997 when stereotypes towards people of color were much more rampant than today. In this book, Ms. Fadiman chronicled a Hmong refugee family’s struggles seeking medical help in the US for their daughter diagnosed with epilepsy, and the eventual vegetation of the daughter due to torrents of miscommunication and misunderstanding because of cultural differences. To the Hmong parents, their culture dictated that their daughter was possessed by a spirit and should be alleviated by a shaman. The American doctors, on the other hand, were dismayed by their perceived unscientific ignorance of the parents and blamed the parents for not complying with the prescribed regimen that caused the daughter’s demise. This book articulately touched upon the challenges and complexities of cross-culture understanding, and I cannot help but wonder if the American doctors, with their oath to save and intention to treat, could have tried to see from the perspective of the Hmong parents and gained their trust, perhaps the outcome would have turned out better? This book has since been assigned in many medical schools as a required reading on building cultural sensitivity and has taught me why it is important to have empathy when it comes to seeing, understanding, and appreciating cultural differences.   

Andrew: Monica H. Kang is more than just a role model to me – she’s a beacon of inspiration, representing the power of diversity and unwavering determination. As the innovative mastermind behind InnovatorsBox and the author of Rethink Creativity, Monica consistently stands out in a crowd, regardless of whether she’s the only woman or Asian person in the room. Her background is as diverse as it is impressive. From the unlikely origins of nuclear weapon security and government work to becoming a respected authority in innovation and leadership – usually, a domain dominated by white males – Monica’s journey is a testament to her courage and resilience. Her strength lies in her unique approach to representation – she doesn’t need to shout about being an AAPI influencer. Instead, she just IS one, her authenticity radiating from her dedication and intentionality in all her undertakings.

What I love most about Monica is her genuine love for community building. I’ve been privileged to participate in numerous events she’s organized, and each time, I’ve been moved by the inclusivity she fosters, regardless of the attendees’ ethnic backgrounds. Her magical ability to make everyone feel seen and valued is truly transformational. Monica has the unique gift of encouraging people to open up about their leadership struggles and perceptions of AAPI representation – topics they might otherwise hesitate to discuss. Her approach to community building emphasizes the importance of every voice, including those usually hidden behind the scenes.

Monica’s influence extends beyond just the AAPI community; she represents a model of diverse leadership that all communities need. The traditional notion that impactful leaders must always be the loudest or most flamboyant is challenged by her quiet confidence and dedication. Through her authenticity, Monica shows that every interaction is an opportunity to inspire and empower, lighting a spark in others just by being herself. Her approach makes me ponder on how transformative our world could be if we all realized our potential to broaden our minds and horizons by simply being open and receptive to one another.

Anything else you would like to add?

Andrew: Yes, indeed. One of the critical points I’d like to emphasize is the importance of ongoing efforts. Solidarity with the AAPI community or any marginalized group is not a one-time action; it requires sustained, continuous effort. It is not a box to be checked off but a commitment to lifelong learning, listening, understanding, and acting. Remember that our efforts to dismantle biases and promote inclusivity should extend to all aspects of our lives. Whether we are at work, at home, in social settings, or online, every space we occupy is an opportunity to promote understanding and respect.

Lastly, it’s crucial to recognize that we’re all capable of making mistakes along this journey. The key is to treat those mistakes as learning opportunities, to apologize sincerely when we get things wrong, and to strive to do better.

Remember, the journey towards a more inclusive and equitable society is a marathon, not a sprint. It requires patience, determination, and a willingness to listen, learn, and grow. But every step taken, no matter how small, brings us closer to that goal.

Andrew Ngui