WASHINGTON -- Decades after being labeled the "model minority, Asian-Americans struggle with a stereotype that obscures significant socioeconomic, education and health disparities within a group made up of more than 30 ethnicities in the U.S.
For Kiran Ahuja, the executive director of the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI), communicating an accurate picture of Asian-American diversity to policymakers across the federal government represents a fundamental task of the office she has been leading since last November.
"It's our job to make sure our colleagues have a good understanding of the unique issues that impact our community and how diverse we are," said Ahuja, who is Indian American, during an interview at the U.S. Department of Education headquarters. "All Asian-Americans are not doing well."
A large share of the AAPI population lives below the poverty level, has difficulty learning English and drops out of high school at similar rates to poor Blacks and poor Hispanics. Several diseases challenge AAPI-descended people, including cancer, hepatitis and HIV/AIDS. "They lump us all together, and the truth is we are not one monolithic group," Ahuja said.
Misperceptions have hurt efforts by AAPI leaders wing for targeted resources and support from federal agencies, which continue to make broad generalizations about specific Asian sub-groups, Ahuja said.
In the last decade, Asian-Americans have fought and won recognition from higher education officials with a new federal designation for institutions serving large populations of AAPI students. The Asian American Native American, Pacific Islander Serving Institutions (ANNAPISI) designation was enacted under the College Cost Reduction Act of 2007 to identify colleges and universities where at least 10 percent of the student body is a member of the AAPI community. Six of those institutions have won grants to serve those student bodies and their specific higher learning challenges. Unlike the initiatives targeted at other minority groups, Ahuja's focus and influence extend beyond education to multiple issues affecting AAPIs. From translating health information and finding funds for small businesses to advocating for Vietnamese fishermen affected by the Gulf oil spill, Ahuja coordinates efforts across 23 federal agencies, leveraging priorities for one of the fastest growing demographic …