From Corporate Board Rooms to Mainstream Media: AAPIs Must Be Seen and Heard

Alice Rhee & Eric Kim

The shocking uptick in violence against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPIs) in 2021 has catalyzed new attention, support, and action from grassroots activists to national philanthropy and the most prominent AAPI leaders in the country.

Within this context, we are highlighting The Center for Effective Philanthropy’s latest report and these two important conclusions: “AAPI nonprofit leaders report having less positive experiences with their foundation funders than nonprofit leaders of other races/ethnicities” and the disheartening finding that “most foundations continue to overlook nonprofits that serve these communities.”

As the report and first-hand accounts of nonprofit leaders show us, AAPI leaders continue to struggle to be seen by their funders and within philanthropy: “They recounted interactions characterized by a lack of understanding of their communities and the challenges they face.” This is compounded by funders’ limited record and experience deploying philanthropic dollars to this sector: “…almost two thirds of foundation leaders say they provide little or no grant dollars to organizations serving AAPI communities.”

This is not a surprise to us because we know that AAPIs are not represented sufficiently within mainstream American culture either — from corporate America to media, including news and entertainment. Why would institutional and individual philanthropy have such a distinct experience with our communities?

According to a report this spring by Leading Asian Americans to Unite for Change (LAAUNCH), “nearly 80 percent of Asian Americans say they do not feel respected and are discriminated against…” Adding to this finding, “while Asian Americans are significantly under-represented in senior positions in companies, politics, and media, nearly 50 percent of non-Asian Americans believe Asian Americans are fairly or over-represented.”

With the Asian American population growing at an annual rate of more than 20 percent, Asian Americans will be near 10 percent of the overall U.S. population in the next decade. And yet, despite growing numbers, Asian Americans are underrepresented in key sectors.

In the absence of substantive representation in mainstream culture, we believe that unfair blame put on Asians for the COVID pandemic was left unfettered and has led not only to a 150 percent increase in hate crimes against Asian Americans, but now the widest gap in economic disparity and the greatest percentage of long-term unemployment of any ethnic group in the U.S. during the pandemic.

And yet, the attacks that have surged this past year, including the brutal murders in Atlanta, are primarily racially motivated attacks against people of Korean, Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, Vietnamese, and Pacific Islander descent.

We must challenge this lack of visibility and empower our AAPI communities.

Reflecting our respective professional training and sector expertise, we are calling for greater AAPI representation in business and media.

In the corporate sector, we know we need greater representation at the senior-most levels. A simple search of SEC filings, WSJ profiles, and Investor Relations web pages exposes a serious issue facing corporate America.

As of the first quarter of 2021, only 1 percent of the more than 200 C-level executives and board members at the ten largest U.S. public companies is of East or Southeast Asian descent. While we stand unified as an AAPI community, the distinction for the purposes of this analysis is important as East and Southeast Asian Americans make up more than 75 percent of the broader AAPI population of 22.4 million and have been the unfortunate target of the spike in harassment, violent incidents, and hate crimes seen across the country.

In the media, AAPI representation still lags behind in significant ways in mainstream entertainment and news.

According to a study by the Geena Davis Institute, “only 4.5 percent of leads or co-leads in the top 10 grossing domestic films from 2010-2019 are API characters.” For women, the stats are more concerning: “17 percent of female API characters are verbally objectified and 13.0 percent are visually objectified” within that analysis.

In the news media, U.S. newsrooms know they have a significant problem with diversity.

This 2020 Pew study indicates that “about three-quarters (76 percent) of newsroom employees are non-Hispanic white.“ This is far below the standard the industry set for itself when in 1979 the American Society of News Editors pledged to achieve the same the percentage of racial and ethnic minorities in newsrooms as that of the population at large by the year 2000.

According to one industry survey utilizing Bureau of Labor statistics in the local television workforce, only 2.8 percent are Asian-American. In fact, NPR acknowledges that of the voices heard on NPR weekday newsmagazines 83 percent were white and only 33 percent female.

This lack of representation within journalism hurts all people of color and limits the quality of news reporting that reflects the entirety of the country.

Philanthropy has always been a catalytic force to lift up voices and invest in under-served areas. In this year of deep pain and fear for the AAPI community, we are calling out for institutional and individual funders to engage with the determined and courageous nonprofit leaders who are closest to the needs: social welfare programs, education, job training, and food insecurity, among other key priorities.

We also believe philanthropy should support and encourage AAPI nonprofits that are working to correct false narratives and uphold accurate contextual portrayals of our communities. It’s imperative that philanthropists get past the stereotype of the model minority in order to see the very real needs of this demographic, our neighbors and contributors to this country. As such, we would call for new and increased funding to a broader range of nonprofits supporting AAPI voices in the arts and culture spaces, signaling the value of work to improve representation and combat discrimination and “othering” against our communities. This would help AAPI leaders weave their narratives into the larger mainstream narratives of popular American culture.

To that end, we wholeheartedly support the concrete steps Grace Nicolette, vice president, programming and external relations at the Center for Effective Philanthropy, calls for in this blog post outlining how funders can inform themselves and address the relative paucity of funding toward AAPI communities.

As the most effective and impactful nonprofits are resourced to get past survival, we are convinced that renewal will happen in the AAPI communities and for individuals and families.

We are also keenly aware that all people of color deserve and demand to be represented — and we stand in solidarity and allyship for that future where we honor and live up to the values of our pluralistic, diverse, and democratic country.

Alice Rhee is a veteran journalist and philanthropy executive. She is also an independent trustee of the Nathan Cummings Foundation and an advisor to Dan Lin, founder of Rideback, as he launches a new nonprofit content accelerator for BIPOC creators, artists, and entrepreneurs. Find Alice on LinkedIn.

Eric Kim is a co-founder and managing partner of Goodwater Capital, a global venture capital firm, a non-profit board member of the Asian Pacific Fund (APF), a co-organizer of Stand with Asian Americans (SwAA), and a corporate partner to The Asian American Foundation (TAAF). Follow him on Twitter at @erickimSF and on LinkedIn.

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