New Kid For a Bloc
Last weekend, Ben Yoon, a student at Bates College in Maine, had the opportunity to attend a youth campaign training session held at the convention by Democratic GAIN (Grassroots Action Institute and Network). GAIN recruits and trains professional staff members for campaigns on the local, state and national level.
In Boston, Ben and thousands of other young people learned about developing an effective campaign message, targeting methods, canvassing, getting out the vote, fundraising, and Election Day operations. The interesting thing about Ben, though, is that he attended GAIN�s events by way of another grassroots group. This group, called Asian Pacific Americans for Progress (APAP), works to give the Asian American community the political voice that it still lacks. WireTap contributor Suemedha Sood had the chance to talk to Ben about his involvement with GAIN, APAP and the democratic convention.
Suemeedha: First off, how did you get interested in politics?
Ben: Politics was always a dinner table conversation topic in my house. My father is really republican while I'm more of a conservative democrat, so we find ourselves caught up in many political discussions. Just like a lot of other people out there, I�m getting tired of politicians thinking that they only need to cater to certain special interests and voting blocs. As an Asian American, I can�t help but feel disenfranchised by the lack of Asian presence in politics.
How did you get involved with APAP and GAIN?
This opportunity really just fell into my lap. One day at work, I was talking about politics at lunch and a co-worker told me that he�s one of the coordinators for APAP and I should check it out. Turned out, that was my ticket to the Democratic National Convention and a whole new world of political activism
As it stands now, do Asian American voters constitute a voting bloc?
Not really. In terms of voting, the group is pretty much split between the two major parties. More importantly, I don�t think that Asian Americans have the political presence that a lot of other minority groups do. There are only a handful of prominent Asians in the House and Senate, and only six federal judges, five of which are part of the 9th Circuit.
What can Asian Americans do to find a unified voice in American politics? Or, do they even want a unified voice?
Since Asian Americans are split in polling, this matter becomes somewhat problematic. If they could see past a superficial tax cut that some politician dangles, Asian Americans could really unite to find a powerful voice that would fight for the things that they really need, like more money invested in our youth through the schools, law enforcement better equipped to keep our streets safe, a health care system that actually will protect patients and allow the doctors and nurses to do their jobs. Affirmative action, immigration, racial profiling are all hot issues that need to be addressed, but as the Asian community, we just haven�t found the issue that will galvanize the electorate and get us out to the polls.
What is the biggest barrier between the Asian American community and the political process?
I think there is a lack of political education in the community. And let�s be honest, the way for a minority group to have a voice in politics is through donations. Most candidates, especially on the national level, have very limited contact with the people. Monetary contributions can get donors time with the candidates, and if there are Asian Americans contributing to your campaign when you�re running for a senate seat, you will remember who was supporting you. I can�t speak for other countries, but Korean politics has a history of corruption and a lot of Asians are hesitant to donate money to politics for that reason. We need to educate them about the process and how they can have their voices heard.
Why should Asian American youth care about politics? Why should they care about the Democratic and Republican Conventions?
Everyone should care about politics, but the youth especially. The Democratic and Republican Conventions are important because the November 2 election is extremely important. Within the next four years, three or four Supreme Court Justices will be retiring, and the president will appoint their replacements. These are lifetime positions probably for the next 30 to 40 years, and these judges will have a huge influence on how laws that Congress works on are actually used. For the next 30-40 years, the judges that get nominated in the next four years will dictate how policy is formed on huge things like abortion, civil liberties, and stem cell research.
Obviously people involved with GAIN must already care a lot about politics. What is the organization doing for young people who don�t even plan on voting?
That�s exactly what the program is all about. GAIN trains us to effectively mobilize those 17 to 25 year olds who couldn�t care less about politics. The grassroots effort is essential in showing youth that their voice and their vote really can make all the difference.
Did you see any celebrities at the convention events?
I saw Natalie Portman at the Rock the Vote party. Biz Markie was the DJ and Jerry Springer was there too, he was great.
Do you think using musicians and movie stars to target youth is an effective tactic? Should more be done in the way of magnifying youth-related issues?
I think it�s great to see celebs and musicians trying to get youth active in politics. When you hear it from the Red Hot Chili Peppers, its way different than hearing it from Dick Gephardt. But education is still the best way to get young people to care about the issues that they need to be voting on.
What have you personally taken from this experience?
I�ve never really been heavily involved with political activism in the past. I�ve only ever talked about it and read about it. But after this convention, I�m really charged to get out there and work in the field. In the next months I�m going to be very involved with the DNC and/or the Kerry campaign.