Why, of all places, do you have to hold the NaFFAA Empowerment Conference in Detroit?
More than a couple of people have inquired. Why not in Washington DC where public policy is being made? Or in Los Angeles, where the largest concentration of Filipinos are? Or even in Las Vegas where the Filipino population grew by 146 percent in ten years?
That made sense to me. But the national chairman is based in Michigan and that’s how the venue was chosen.
In retrospect, it may have been prescient.
Detroit, after all, is the city known for a car industry that went bankrupt but recovered soon enough after a government bailout. Now Ford and General Motors are booming again.
The parallels with NaFFAA may be a stretch, but the optimist in me yearns for such metaphors. Like Phoenix rising from the ashes. As the story goes, the phoenix is a mythical bird with fiery wings that lives up to a hundred years. Near the end of its life, it settles into a nest of twigs which then burns ferociously, reducing bird and nest to ashes. And from those ashes, a fledgling phoenix rises renewed and reborn.
Again, that analogy may also be stretch. NaFFAA hasn’t quite burned itself to ashes, yet. It’s struggling, yes. It’s certainly not like its former self when 2,000 Filipino American leaders formed NaFFAA in Washington DC in 1997, with great hopes and expectations. We hit the ground running, riding high with pride and purpose. For at least 7 years, we maintained a strong presence in the nation’s capital, with a very clear focus: political education and legislative advocacy. We rallied and lobbied for Filipino World War II Veterans Equity, for comprehensive immigration reform and other bills pertaining to social justice and civil rights. Our main focus was on issues directly affecting Filipinos in America and the policy makers in Washington DC who are making the rules. We were at the table, along with coalition partners from the Asian Pacific American community, holding briefings with US administration officials and federal agencies. When we spoke, they listened.
But we strayed away from that. Now we’re all over the place but nowhere to be seen and heard where it matters the most: the US Congress and the White House.
And that’s when the engine started to sputter.
By the way, NaFFAA’s re-elected national chairman, Ed Navarra, is an engineer by profession. When he took office two years ago, he stressed that “advocacy” will be NaFFAA’s main driving force. Advocacy for veterans equity, immigration reform, workers rights, social justice and civil rights. We have since added to that civic engagement. The FilAm Vote project, launched 8 years ago, would be the vehicle for building community power.
That made sense to me then. It makes even more sense to me now. The engineer in the national chairman knew something that, in my gut, needs to be looked into. Why is the engine that’s NaFFAA sputtering? Why isn’t it connecting to the real lives of real people in our community? Why is NaFFAA driving all over the map, but going nowhere?
It may well be time to tinker with the engine and analyze, with an engineer’s eye for detail, what needs to be done to get it moving again. And forward.
First, NaFFAA’s original vision of uniting the entire community under one “umbrella,” needs to be revised, scaled down and refocused. Building one national organization that encompasses all aspects of community life social services, commerce & business, charity and humanitarian concerns, medical missions, Philippine support, arts, culture and history, women and youth was, indeed, an impossible dream. Over time, that reality stared us in the face but we kept looking the other way.
Second, everybody wants to do something for the community, for the home country, and for the adopted country. But not everybody wants to operate under one umbrella. We know that now. And we’d better change our mind sets and refocus the organization’s true and vital mission of political empowerment. By narrowing it down to political education and advocacy, we will actually broaden the possibilities of civic engagement and provide clear direction to our organizational efforts and initiatives. It will make us think big. And achieve immediate results. Like registering 5,000 or 50,000 new Filipino American voters.
As to partnering with other national organizations, like FAHNS, the Filipino Womens Network, and the Philippine Medical Mission, we should endeavor to then use our political clout and advocate for common issues, like an official declaration of Filipino American History Month or health care reform. When the ‘Desperate Housewives’ controversy broke out years ago, it showed the potential of working with doctors and nurses and other heath professionals. With women’s rights under attack in some state legislators, NaFFAA can partner with FWN chapters all over the country to educate the community about bills being rammed in state capitols.
I call this consciousness the NaFFAA State of Mind. It means simply being political and making no apologies about it. It means being “armed and dangerous” in Washington DC’s policy-making circles so they recognize our voice and acknowledge our presence. It means giving money to political campaigns and not simply have “kodakan” with politicians.” It means having a seat at the table with national, state and local elected officials when they debate and discuss those issues affecting our interests.
Third, my hope is that we find the resources to re-establish the NaFFAA Washington DC office with a paid full time executive director to run this engine. Forget the “impossible dream.” Building power for the nearly 4 million Filipinos in this country is not really impossible. The tools are there. We just need to put mind, heart and soul to it and our money where our mouth is.
As Gloria Caoile puts it, when the organization’s focus is calibrated and we’re on the same page, the dream of political empowerment is not so impossible after all.
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