by Karthick Ramakrishnan and Akil Vohra

What Being “Seen” Really Means

May commemorates Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander (AANHPI) Heritage Month — a time where our country formally celebrates our communities’ contributions, achievements, and legacies. This year’s commemoration marks a time when Asian Americans and NHPIs remain the fastest-growing segments of the U.S. population and are playing an increasingly significant role in our democracy during a critical election year.

While we value the increased attention placed on our AANHPI communities during this month, it is vital that we are not only visible, but truly and wholly “seen.” Seen not only for the diversity and distinct cultures that make up the AA and NHPI umbrella, but also seen holistically in our strengths, assets, needs, aspirations, priorities, dreams, and challenges.

For our communities, “being seen” is fundamentally about gaining recognition. Gaining respect. And gaining prioritization, in the eyes of decision makers across all sectors and industries, including government, business, philanthropy, social services, and arts, culture and entertainment.

An essential part of gaining recognition is having detailed and accurate data about our communities. For too long, we have been told that we are statistically insignificant. That we don’t matter. Thanks to our collective organizing and mobilization, we have made hard-won gains, including by getting federal agencies to commit to improving their data collections so that we have the evidence we need to make our case, and to ensure that our communities are recognized, respected, and prioritized.

Mobilizing Data Disaggregation as a Key Pillar for Heritage Month

On Wednesday, May 1, we marked the beginning of AANHPI Heritage Month at the nation’s capital in Washington, D.C. in community with our key partners NCAPA, SEARAC, and EPIC, among several others, to highlight the critical importance of data equity for our communities. Here’s a recap of how we mobilized.

First, we worked in partnership with NCAPA, SEARAC, and EPIC to write a report on the “Data Disaggregation Pillar” of federal race and ethnicity standards. We published the report on April 16 and held a Capitol Hill briefing on the same day, less than three weeks after the federal government’s massive update to SPD 15. (You can read our report here, the Hill briefing here, and news coverage of our timely work in this feature story by the19th).

We then worked quickly and tirelessly with dozens of leaders and organizations, raising community awareness and urging the federal government to prioritize work on the data disaggregation pillar. We circulated a sign-on letter for “Data Disaggregation Now” that received over 100 organization sign-ons, and over 400 individual signatures—within two weeks!

Delivering signatures to Congress and honoring our 120+ partners

Bolstered by this overwhelming community response, we stood proudly on the steps of the Capitol on May 1 as part of a press conference held by the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus (CAPAC) to kick off AANHPI Heritage Month. Along with a number of our partners and other AANHPI organizations, we heard from CAPAC on key policy priorities for our communities, and we thank CAPAC for highlighting the critical importance of data disaggregation and data equity for AANHPIs.

Rep. Judy Chu, who also serves as the CAPAC Chair, spoke at the press conference and echoed the AANHPI community’s appreciation for the change in race and ethnicity collection standards that would allow communities such as Korean, Vietnamese, Samoan, and Hmong to be seen for the very first time by many federal agencies.

“[It] was such a major win for our Caucus and indeed all our AANHPI communities last month when the Office of Management and Budget published revisions to the federal minimum data standards for race and ethnicity data that increases AANHPI data disaggregation across all government agencies for their collecting and reporting,” said Rep. Chu. “This is a once-in-a-generation breakthrough for our communities, earned after years of tireless advocacy by community organizations, and we look forward to working with our partners in the Biden-Harris Administration to ensure timely compliance.”

CAPAC members speaking on data equity

Rep. Jill Tokuda also underscored the importance of data disaggregation. In her remarks, she noted that our communities are rendered invisible because of inadequate data.

“We are more than ‘Other,’” said Rep. Tokuda. “That’s why CAPAC … has worked so hard to make sure that the data that the government receives is disaggregated so our people and our communities can truly be seen. Without disaggregated data our people have been and will be left behind… It was a great accomplishment for us to finally get OMB to pass the data disaggregation requirement under SPD 15. And while it’s an amazing start, it is just that—a start. We have to do more so that, at the end of the day, we all can truly be seen.”

We also heard from several other representatives and elected officials who shared their commitments to data equity and other key priorities for our communities.

Meeting with Federal Leaders

Later on May 1, our coalition met with Nani Coloretti, Deputy Director of the Office of Management and Budget and Dr. Karin Orvis, Chief Statistician of the United States, to thank them on behalf of the community for their essential work on data disaggregation and the most recent updates to SPD 15. Also in attendance from the federal government were representatives from the White House Office of Public Engagement, White House Chief of Staff-AANHPI, and the White House Initiative on Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders.

Data equity discussion at OMB

In coalition with our key partners at NCAPA, SEARAC and EPIC, we expressed our appreciation for this major improvement to data collection standards and articulated our full support to OMB and all federal agencies in the comprehensive implementation of SPD 15. Our partner, Estella Owoimaha-Church, executive director of EPIC, emphasized the importance of data equity for Pasifika communities, noting that the collection of this data has life and death implications for NHPI communities, particularly during COVID but also with respect to chronic illnesses and various social determinants of health. Kham Moua, national deputy director, SEARAC, stressed the importance of federal agencies engaging more directly and intentionally with communities. In particular, he called on OMB to strengthen its work in organizing community listening sessions that make federal decisions more accessible and relatable to community members.

Gregg Orton, national director of NCAPA, and Akil Vohra, director of policy at AAPI Data, also reinforced the importance of timely progress on key recommendations drawn from our recent report, Strengthening the Federal Government’s Data Disaggregation Pillar, including 1) discussions on continued public engagement and input; 2) our proposal regarding a narrower interpretation of the exemption process for federal agencies; 3) the vital importance of the Interagency Working Group to ensure coordinated implementation; and 4) greater visibility of AANHPI identities beyond the six minimum categories.

We deeply appreciate Deputy Director Coloretti and Dr. Orvis for being open and receptive to our discussion and proposals.

The Road Ahead

These important milestones and the continued work of the data equity movement for AA and NHPI communities are the result of our collective work—including organizing, policy analysis, strategic communications, and timely action.

We are immensely grateful for the 120+ local, state, and national partners who are organizing and working together, and the over 400 individuals across a range of sectors who are engaging with us to push for timely and meaningful actions by the federal government. (Here is a list of signatories to the Data Disaggregation Now campaign as of May 1).

While we are proud of our accomplishments so far, our work is not yet done. Critical next steps for our coalition include the following:

  1. Engaging with federal agencies through the end of 2024—to raise the importance of the data disaggregation pillar, and to ensure that community feedback is incorporated into agency action plans due to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) in 2025,
  2. Meeting with members of Congress to support appropriate resourcing of OMB and federal agencies to undertake this critical work,
  3. Continuing to raise community awareness on data disaggregation, and the importance of this data for community recognition, respect, and prioritization.

We are excited to support our partners and to continue engaging in this civil rights issue. We will dive into this work at our next webinar in early June. Sign up for Power in Numbers to learn more!

It is clear that data disaggregation is a high priority for our communities, and we need your help as we continue this work and on the road ahead.

Stay tuned for more updates and ways to get involved.