Opening photo: Secretary of State Antony Blinken attends a virtual roundtable with the Asian American Foreign Affairs Association, moderated by its president Shirlene Yee (left) at the Department of State in Washington, July 22. Photo by Freddie Everett
By Shirlene Yee and Elizabeth Liu
2021 was a year of reckoning for the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community. It also marked a historic year of advocacy for the Asian American Foreign Affairs Association (AAFAA), an employee affinity group (EAG) with more than 800 members dedicated to strengthening representation of AAPIs at the Department of State.
A staggering 150 percent increase in anti-Asian harassment and hate crimes coincided with the start of the coronavirus pandemic and a global social justice movement. The violence peaked in March 2021 when eight people, including six women of Asian descent, were brutally murdered in Atlanta. These harrowing events rocked the AAPI community to its core, but they also proved to be an opportunity to address the important issue of anti-Asian discrimination and to lift diverse voices.
The AAFAA Executive Board recognized the opportunity to engage broader audiences on the important issues of anti-Asian discrimination. In response, AAFAA hosted an illustrious AAPI Heritage Month celebration in May that elevated pressing AAPI issues across the Department and the interagency; championed policy reform on assignment restrictions and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) nomenclature; and fostered allyship throughout the year.
“There are several moments in the country’s history that chart its course indelibly for the future,” said actor Daniel Dae Kim during his Congressional hearing testimony, March 18. “For Asian Americans, that moment is now. What happens right now and over the course of the coming months will send a message for generations to come as to whether we matter, whether the country we call home chooses to erase us, or include us, dismiss us, or respect us, ‘invisible-ize’ us, or see us. Because you may consider us statistically insignificant now, but one more fact that has no alternative is that we are the fastest-growing racial demographic in the country. We are 23 million strong. We are united, and we are waking up.”
Invisibility is a long-standing issue in the AAPI community. For too long, society has subscribed to the model minority myth, generalizing Asians as quiet, hard workers who keep their heads down and are seen as inconsequential in discussions on diversity. This year’s Heritage Month proved to be the opposite.
AAFAA led a historic month of programming that celebrated AAPI contributions to the U.S. and showcased the power of diversity. The star-studded month featured Kim; basketball star Jeremy Lin; veterans and public service leaders Senator Tammy Duckworth, Representative Ted Lieu, and Admiral Harry Harris; LGBTQ+ film director Alice Wu; DEI experts, and Department leaders including Senior Bureau Official Kin Moy, and Assistant Secretary-nominee Michele Sison. (Please note: All links in this paragraph are Intranet-only.)
More than big names, this incredible line-up highlighted personal experiences and inspired insightful discussions on policy, advocacy, sports and entertainment, allyship, and intersectionality. They showcased AAPI perspectives to record-breaking audiences, demonstrated the depth, breadth, and range of expertise, and highlighted the importance of diversity across all sectors of U.S. society and government. Outside of events, AAFAA also worked with the Bureau of Global Public Affairs to feature the stories of AAPI employees and how their diverse heritage has made them more effective diplomats.
U.S. domestic policy is U.S. foreign policy. A more diverse Department makes the United States a stronger nation and gives the U.S. a competitive advantage in diplomacy. That is why AAFAA has worked tirelessly to reform assignment restrictions (AR), a long-standing personnel policy concern that has impacted thousands of employees. With AR cases doubling from 2016 to 2017 and concerns of a disproportionate impact on Asian American and underrepresented officers, AAFAA advocated for reform at the highest levels.
AAFAA directly briefed and called for AR reform with Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Deputy Secretary for Management and Resources Brian McKeon, Under Secretary Victoria Nuland, Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer (CDIO) Gina Abercrombie-Winstanley, and the White House transition team. AAFAA’s efforts also drew the attention of news outlets such as Politico, CNN, and The Hill. Along with AAFAA’s May outreach, this coverage transformed a previously little-known issue to a topic discussed Department-wide.
“When I commanded [the United States Pacific Command], diversity enabled me to meet my mission,” said Adm. Harry Harris during AAFAA’s National Security Panel, May 28. “Diversity underpinned the innovation we needed to survive while leveraging the power of new and different ideas that spring naturally from the experiences people bring with them from their various backgrounds.”
In fall 2020, AAFAA’s advocacy helped result in the creation of the AR Task Force and the more recent Bureau of Diplomatic Security internal review, as cited in the secretary’s HFAC hearing, June 7. Congress also demonstrated bipartisan support for AR reform by calling for an independent appeals panel in the draft Department of State Authorization Act of 2021 (H.R. 1157). In August 2021, AAFAA endorsed Rep. Lieu’s newly introduced AR reform bill, which mandates data disaggregation, an independent appeals panel that includes the CDIO, and the 60-day resolution window—all key recommendations AAFAA has championed and regularly raised at AR briefings. At the end of August, AAFAA was still awaiting the Department’s readout of the Task Force and DS internal review findings.
In the wake of the Atlanta shootings in March, AAFAA issued a Department-wide statement (Intranet-only link) condemning and combating anti-AAPI hate crimes. AAFAA called for discouraging rhetoric on foreign policy that can foster anti-Asian harassment and violence to be condemned, highlighting how recent foreign media coverage shows hate crimes hinder U.S. diplomacy efforts by raising doubts about U.S. support of human rights and non-discrimination. AAFAA also led a heart-wrenching listening session that provided safe space and crucial support for those feeling isolated in far flung locales. Following this session, AAFAA called on Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) Councils worldwide to support their AAPI employees, and organized an Allyship Abroad (Intranet-only link) event in May.
“We also need to be aware of how national conversations about these policies—which can get pretty intense—can impact the lives of Chinese Americans and Chinese nationals living in the United States, or people who are mistakenly identified as East Asian, regardless of their actual background,” said Blinken during an AAFAA roundtable event, July 22.
In order to ensure that U.S. foreign policy is consistent with U.S. values, the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, in collaboration with AAFAA, developed “Guidance on PRC Messaging and Nomenclature in Department Products and Communications (21 STATE 83562).” Essentially, this serves as a guide on how to effectively talk about U.S. policy towards the PRC while recognizing the very real impact policy has on the AAPI community in the U.S. The guide provides content to ensure that when foreign policy is being explained, the language that is used is specific, accurate, and in line with American values, whether addressing domestic or international audiences.
It can’t be done alone. With that in mind, AAFAA focused on building community and fostering allyship across the Department with other EAGs and D&I Councils. In February, AAFAA hosted a Department-wide training (Intranet-only link) with Wharton-based D&I expert Harvey Floyd, bringing together more than 500 participants worldwide. To ensure that the Department’s newest employees were included, AAFAA partnered with the Foreign Service Institute to lead sessions with the new officer orientation classes that connected new cohorts with representatives from all 17 EAGs.
Intersectionality also represented a key priority, with AAFAA’s highly-anticipated live event featuring Senator Duckworth co-hosted by Executive Women@State, Veterans at State, and the Disability Action Group. AAFAA also partnered with the Thursday Luncheon Group and the EAP D&I Council for the Black in Asia series to highlight trailblazers, such as their Women’s History Month panel featuring Ambassador Aurelia Brazeal and Ambassador Sylvia Stanfield. All of the events mentioned in this article can be found on AAFAA’s SharePoint page. (Please note: All links in this paragraph are Intranet-only.)
In September, AAFAA proudly welcomed Marvel’s first Asian-led superhero film, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. As the new AAFAA Executive Board kicks off the new 2021-22 cycle, and inclusive representation increases globally, AAFAA looks forward to continuing to partner with fellow EAGs, D&I Councils, the Secretary’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion, and Department leadership on advancing diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility initiatives to create a more equitable and welcoming workplace for all.
Shirlene Yee is an economic officer at Embassy Beijing and the 2020-21 president of the Asian American Foreign Affairs Association (AAFAA). Elizabeth Liu is Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) senior desk officer and the 2020-21 vice president of AAFAA.