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The Asian American Institute (AAI) is a pan-Asian non-profit organization in Chicago whose mission is to educate, advocate for, and empower the Asian American and Asian Pacific American community.

One of the AAI’s programs is the Impact Fellows Program (IFP), which aims to train high school and college-age Asian Americans to become the next generation of community leaders.

The IFP is jointly run by two AAI staffers—Director of Operations Mitch Schneider (who founded the IFP) and Project Coordinator Chirayu Patel.

Chirayu is a 2006 graduate of the University of Illinois at Chicago in Political Science, with concentrations in Economics and International Relations. After graduation, he spent a year working as a community organizer for both the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights and the Indo-American Center, a social services organization located in the Devon Avenue (sometimes known as “Little India”) neighborhood of Chicago.

Chirayu joined the AAI in 2008.

Can you briefly describe the Impact Fellows Program?

Each summer we take a group of approximately 15 Asian Americans between the ages of 17 and 22, from a diverse range of communities, who have demonstrated the potential to become community leaders. These Fellows complete a 7-week program of training and experience to help them develop into young leaders who will make an impact in the Asian American community by becoming aware of social policy issues and engaging in civic participation.

The first three weeks consist of training in areas such as Asian American cultural identity and history, communication, team-building, negotiating, change-making, public speaking, social justice issues, leadership ethics, and legislative issues such as education and immigration. Modes of teaching include mini lectures, group projects and exercises, participant presentations, guest speakers and facilitators, site visits, and panel discussions.

During the final four weeks, the Fellows are placed in civic organizations in Chicago, where they intern three days per week. During their placements, the Fellows also meet once per week as a group for more leadership development, including field trips to other non-profit organizations and meetings with legislative representatives. All in all, the Fellows complete almost 100 hours of training in addition to their internship placements.

Upon completion of the seven-week program, each Fellow receives a $750 stipend.

The IFP is made possible with support from the Illinois Department of Human Services, Southwest Airlines, and the Bridgeview Bank.

What are some of the organizations you currently partner with for the internship placements?

In 2009 we placed Fellows in four non-profit organizations and two governmental agencies. The private organizations were the Chinese Mutual Aid Association, the Indo-American Center, Korean American Community Services, and the Muslim Women Resource Center. The governmental agencies were the Chicago Commission on Human Relations (a division of the Mayor’s Office), and the Illinois Department of Human Services (IDHS). IDHS is Illinois’s largest administrative agency. It is responsible for providing Illinois residents a safety net—particularly residents facing disabilities and/or economic hardship.

Tell me more about the Fellows’ meetings with legislative representatives.

Our 2009 Fellows met with over a dozen state Representatives and Senators in Springfield, all of whom have sizeable Asian American contingents in their districts.

Earlier this month, the Illinois General Assembly was considering several proposals to fill the budget deficit.

Several of the proposals would adversely affect Asian Americans. These included significant cuts in funding for childcare expenses, income assistance for individuals in poverty, and ESL courses. Our Fellows discussed these issues with the state legislators in Springfield.

I believe your Fellows also met with staffs of members of the U.S. House of Representatives, right?

Yes, they met in Chicago with staffs of three Illinois members of the U.S. House of Representatives: Congressman Daniel Lipinski (D-IL), Congressman Mike Quigley (D-IL), and Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky (D-IL).

At these meetings, the Fellows primarily pushed the idea of immigration reform.

Before the meetings, the Fellows did research on these representatives, and learned that Representatives Quigley and Schakowsky are already strongly in support of comprehensive immigration reform. Quigley and Schakowsky also specifically advocated for the DREAM Act, a bill that, if passed into law, would allow undocumented students the opportunity to become U.S. residents if they attend college or join the military.

On the other hand, Representative Lipinski has so far been somewhat unresponsive to immigration issues. Lipinski’s position (or lack thereof) is especially notable because his district includes Chinatown.

Some of the Fellows met with Lipinski’s staff, and others met with Schakowsky’s and Quigley’s staffs. One of the things the latter group pushed was trying to persuade Schakowsky and Quigley to speak with Lipinski about these issues, particularly in light of his large Chinatown constituency.

So the Fellows utilized a 2-pronged approach, pushing Lipinski to take a position by 1) organizing politically in his district, and 2) putting pressure on our allies  Quigley and Schakowsky to persuade Lipinski to take a position on immigration reform that takes into consideration the needs of his constituents.

Why is the pan-Asian approach important to you?

In my previous work with the Indo-American Center and the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, we wanted to create a movement that included Hispanic Americans, Asian Americans (including Indian Americans), and Arab Americans, to speak in a unified voice. Immigration is typically thought of as a largely Hispanic issue, but it really affects people from many different communities and many different races in many similar ways.

I think that the Indian American community, if we can call it one monolithic community for the sake of argument, has a level of political activeness far below that of some other minority groups, and far below what its economic power might imply.

You are correct. The fact of the matter is that Indian-Americans’ participation rates at any level, starting with the simple acts of registering to vote and actually voting, are nowhere near those of other groups.

Just over 50% of eligible Indian-Americans vote, as compared with over 70% of African Americans.

Is this phenomenon starting to change a little, due to the work of organizations such as yours and due to the recent Presidential campaign of Barack Obama, which mobilized unprecedented numbers of minorities to vote?

I do think that Indian Americans are beginning to engage more in the civic process. During the 2008 Presidential election, not only African-Americans but also many other groups saw large increases in terms of engagement in the voting process.

It is also important to understand that voting is only the start of civic engagement. Our end goal is a broader and deeper civic engagement by the Asian American community. If we can get more Asian Americans to vote, that opens the door for them to get more civically engaged. Our goal at AAI is to engage Asian Americans to get active at every level—they can run for school boards, PTAs, public boards and commissions, and other elected offices where decisions are made that affect Asian Americans.

Can you give an example of an IFP alumnus and what he or she is doing now?

One of our 2007 Fellows was a young woman named Rebecca Shi. At the time, she was doing undergraduate studies in Political Science at the University of Chicago.

She did her IFP placement at the Asian American Institute.

Now as a college graduate, she is working as a community organizer for the Coalition for a Better Chinese American Community.

A few weeks ago, Rebecca was named one of the 10 recipients of the Asian American Coalition of Chicago’s 2009 Community Service Awards. The award recognized Rebecca’s work as a community organizer, specifically recognizing her work of empowering residents in Chinatown through house meetings, civic engagement, and youth engagement as it relates to issue of immigration. She is working in an area where many of the residents are immigrants unaware of their rights. Some of the individuals she works with are stateless. They are undocumented in the U.S., but can’t go back to China because they are on the government blacklist. Some of them are working for below minimum wage for long hours to pay back their debts to people who smuggled them into the United States.

What about your alumni who do not go into full-time community service work?

They leave the IFP with a broader and deeper appreciation of the issues that face Asian America and with an increased set of leadership skills.

Many Indian Americans are doctors or work in the corporate environment, but the number of doctors writing health policy and the number of Indian American executives are surprisingly low.

Of course there are exceptions such as the CEOs of PepsiCo and Citibank, but when you look at the overall numbers, the number of Asian Americans who are executives or managers is nowhere near where it should be, given our population numbers and educational attainment.

There’s a stereotype that Asian Americans aren’t leaders. The purpose of the IFP is to demolish that stereotype by training the next generation of leaders who can be ambassadors and role models for the Asian American community—whether that be in full-time community-building work, in education, in private professional practice, or in corporate America.

Ranjit Souri is a writer in Chicago, and has worked as a trainer for the Asian American Institute’s Impact Fellows Program.