Diverse representative leadership in the United States is taking on deeper meaning in 2022 – especially for the nation’s 22.9 million Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders who call the country home.
Anti-Asian hate and xenophobia have exploded in the last two years targeting the fastest-growing racial or ethnic group in the country. All of this is dredging up years of past discrimination against Asians on U.S. soil and calling greater attention to the need for greater dignity, progress, and belonging for all.
For Los Angeles-based nonprofit LEAP (Leadership Education for Asian Pacifics) – a member of Independent Sector – this moment is highlighting the gravity and urgency of making greater progress in its mission of equity and inclusion to “achieve full participation and equality for Asian and Pacific Islanders…through leadership, empowerment, and policy.”
“We want to change the narrative,” says Linda Akutagawa, president and CEO of LEAP, which is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year and calls the city’s Little Tokyo neighborhood home. “Through the years, we’ve focused on how we help our community not only understand how we can have impact and influence, but also how we can be authentic to who we are. Our leadership philosophy is: Keep your values, develop new skills.”
LEAP’s community building work is continuing in the face of a traditional style of leadership in business and at organizations and institutions – one in which being overly assertive, in command and control, and willing to engage in tense, face-to-face confrontations is seen, among many people, as the norm that needs to be emulated, respected, and rewarded.
Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, Akutagawa says, are from diverse backgrounds, but can encounter debilitating stereotypes in the workplace and greater society – that they’re not leadership material, that they’re too passive, that they’re only good at technical tasks, that they don’t have “people” skills, and that they’re only seen as “nice.”
What these stereotypes miss – in the 21st century – are human potential, intelligence, creative approaches to work, and diverse experiences that can benefit employers, communities, and society in new ways. In other words, everyone contributes. People can be introverts and value multi-generational groups and not just the individual – but still be phenomenal leaders. Having diverse teams, especially at the executive level, can help problem solving and productivity in a nation that is seeking solutions to its challenges.
“Being a leader doesn’t mean we have to remove our values,” Akutagawa says. “Instead, how can we expand our skills and styles to reflect and embrace these other values that may be traditional to us?”
To unlock and nurture leadership skills for Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, LEAP offers workshops, programs, and internships across employment sectors and stages of a person’s career. LEAP works with professionals from nonprofits, government, corporate boardrooms, small business, and education.
Topics include coaching, facilitating, learning how to confront when needed, and gaining a deeper understanding of Asian American and Pacific Islander cultures, issues, and communities.
“To create social change, we need to have leaders who are visible and speaking out in all places,” Akutagawa says. “We support organizations and individuals so each person can find their place as a leader.”
In these places, as LEAP has found, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders have room to reflect on who they are, grow professionally, and recognize their leadership contributions matter.
To date, LEAP has “uncapped” or worked with 150,000 people in workshops and programs, Akutagawa says. Surveys from the organization show participants are finding a true sense of community in workshops, programs, and honest conversations – that in the workplace, they can embrace who they are as Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, instead of feeling like they need to stay silent or run away from their identities.
Catt Phan, LEAP’s communications manager, says participants find comfort being with like-minded individuals who understand what it’s like being Asian American or Pacific Islander in the workplace or facing hate and stereotypes in public.
“People realize you can’t separate your cultural identity from who you are at work,” Phan says. “It’s a state of survival. You have to be yourself. I need to be who I need to be. For me, being Vietnamese is not a weakness.”
Akutagawa says she is seeing positive change in terms of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in the workplace, “but we’re a long way off.”
Adds Phan: “People are hungry for this.”