Asian Community Alliance: Connections across cultures

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, people of Asian descent represent 2 to 3 percent of the population of Hamilton and surrounding counties, with growth projected. Jennifer Nagrath, President of Cincinnati's Asian Community Alliance, wants to "be sure that all Asians are counted." She spoke in reference to the 2010 Census. But ensuring accurate census counts is just one of many projects ACA has in the works. Their mission: meeting the unique needs of Asian communities in Cincinnati through awareness, collaboration, and advocacy.

Asian Americans comprise the United States' smallest major minority group, with 4.4 percent of the total population. But that small percent comprises a variety of cultures, religions, and needs that continue to live in the shadow of stereotype. "In this country, 'minority' still means 'black.' People still see diversity in terms of black and white," says BoKyung Kim Kirby, ACA's Outreach Coordinator.

When I met ACA's Kirby and Nagrath for lunch, they reflected the heterogeneous nature of Asian America. Kirby, a computer science and Korean language instructor at Northern Kentucky
University, grew up in South Korea. Indian-born Nagrath lived in Hong Kong, Japan, and China before settling in Cincinnati nine years ago. Nagrath's professional background is finance, but unpaid work for ACA is her passion. She spoke with enthusiasm of the "instant gratification that spurs you to do more" she got from working to address the needs of immigrants. "Despite the diverse groups within the Asian community, we want to present a unified voice to the rest of the community. We're taking baby steps toward that goal—making our voice heard."

Like many social movements, ACA was founded around a kitchen table by four women—Nagrath, Anu Mitra, Beth Reisler, and Dorothy O'Brien.

"In the Cincinnati area, there are 1,800 social services organizations. But often, none of them are utilized by Asians, for a variety of reasons. A, there's a linguistic barrier, and B, there's a cultural barrier. The Asian person in need is not sure he or she will be understood correctly. ACA exists to bridge this gap—take social services that exist, and allow the Asian population to utilize them."

To get programs off the ground, ACA developed a partnership with the YWCA. Their 2002 flagship event was a cultural competency workshop - an overview of Asian dynamics, with focused instruction on Japan, China, Vietnam, India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan. The workshop allowed professionals in legal aid, law enforcement, health care, and government to understand the needs of Asian clients. In 2004, ACA became a 501(c)3 nonprofit, gaining the autonomy to set its own course.

Kirby describes the early days: "Literally, if we saw an Asian face, we'd start talking to them, and we found a lot of connections this way."

2007 saw the launch of ACA's website, and the area's first Asian Summit in May on the NKU campus. Nagrath and Kirby noted the University's key role in donating food and facilities; the Northern Kentucky location highlighted multiculturalism as a regional issue, not just a Cincinnati one.

Before meeting Nagrath and Kirby, I'd attended ACA's second Asian Summit on October 18, 2008. Responding to feedback from the previous year, the second Summit focused on three topics: immigration, racism, and aging. At the racism breakout session, attendees were urged to describe why race continued to be an issue in the United States. Facilitator Deepa Iyer used photos with comic-style dialogue and thought bubbles to point out subtle forms of discrimination.

Elder care is a key focus of ACA. Nagrath pointed out that as our country ages, the needs of Asian seniors will only increase. Many of Cincinnati's older Asian immigrants do not drive, and lack fluency in English. The distance from their home culture magnifies the loneliness of aging. That very afternoon, Kirby and Nagrath had a meeting at the Council on Aging, collaborating on programs for seniors.

To help seniors connect, Nagrath ventures off the beaten path. "Soon, we hope to set up a drum circle for senior citizens." Recently, the Eldermount Adult Day Program in Delhi put on a HealthRhythms drum workshop, to rave reviews. Nagrath noted the excitement on the faces of the senior citizens—how the sounds of the drums, and making music "in the moment" improved their feelings of well-being. "I'd like to get the Indian community involved."

ACA has a long-range vision for an Asian-American senior center and, eventually, an apartment community for seniors. "Our biggest issue is transportation. How do we get the elderly to the events we plan?"

Chauffeur service represents just one opportunity for cross-generational volunteering. Recently, eight members of Procter and Gamble's Asian-Pacific Association joined forces with ACA. Some of the young professionals have since joined ACA's board.

In cooperation with the Ohio Asian American Health Coalition and the Ohio Commission on Minority Health, ACA held an Asian Health Conference on May 30. The conference took a holistic approach to the unique health care needs of Asian Americans, with topics ranging from diabetes to domestic violence. Procter and Gamble's APA members manned the tables. Vern Leong, from Cincinnati's chapter of NAAAP (National Association of Asian American Professionals) created the Symposium's logo pro bono. The Korean Doctor's Association provided free health screenings and hepatitis testing. Christ Hospital certified the conference for health professionals' continuing education credits.

ACA's staff is diligent about holding forum-style events and collaborating with other agencies to determine needs before setting priorities. Plans are in the works for an emergency preparedness workshop, partnering with Hamilton County Community Health. ACA responds ad hoc to social service needs, such as connecting recent immigrants with mental health services, and providing help for an influx of refugees from Bhutan and Cambodia. ACA is working with a staff member from Agenda 360 to be sure Asian needs are addressed in its plan. Kirby also spoke of a translation program, currently in development, that will accomplish multiple goals: offer a livable wage to translators, generate funds for ACA, and increase community visibility.

Currently, donations and the sale of a Resource Guide are ACA's only means of income. A part-time Executive Director is the only paid staff. Nagrath has been inundated with resumes of those wanting to work for ACA, but cannot hire without the funding in place. She welcomes the involvement of greater Cincinnati's business community.

As Cincinnati grows in its understanding of diversity, ACA continues to bring the needs of Asian populations to light. It's a mouthpiece through which Asian voices are heard in the larger context of our community. In the words of Nagrath, "ACA reaches into its contacts to connect."

Elena Stevenson is a freelance writer and elementary music teacher. She's currently working on the second draft of a film screenplay. She resides in Loveland with her husband and two young sons.

Photography by Scott Beseler
ACA event photos provided
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