Since 1992, May is Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. Here's what you need to know about the annual celebration, from its history to how you can get involved at work.
Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month is a celebration of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders who live in the United States. More specifically, it is a time to recognize the contributions and influence of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders to the culture and history of the U.S.
"During Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, we remember the challenges and celebrate the achievements that define our history," President Barack Obama wrote in a 2009 proclamation about the commemorative month, that gave the celebration its current name. "Even in the darkness of the Exclusion Act and Japanese internment, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders have persevered, providing for their families and creating opportunities for their children... Amidst these struggles, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders have contributed in great and significant ways to all aspects of society."
Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month originated in the Congress of 1977, as a House Resolution introduced by New York representative Frank Horton and California representative Norman Mineta. The bill called for a "Pacific/Asian American Heritage Week" in the first 10 days of May 1978 and was first conceptualized by Jeanie Jew, a former congressional staffer.
The month of May was chosen to commemorate the first Japanese immigrants to the United States, who arrived on May 7, 1843, along with the completion of the transcontinental railroad, largely laid by Chinese immigrants, in May 1896.
While the original House resolution, and a similar Senate bill, failed to pass, the congressmen introduced another resolution in 1978 to declare a heritage week in 1979. That bill passed, and the federal commemoration of Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage began. Until 1989, Presidents signed annual proclamations for the heritage week each year. In 1990, the commemoration expanded to a month. Finally, in 1992, Congress passed Public Law 102-450, which designated each May as Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month.
In May 2009, President Barack Obama signed Proclamation 8369, renaming the commemorative month Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month.
Nationally, The Library of Congress, National Archives and Records Administration, National Endowment for the Humanities, National Gallery of Art, National Park Service, Smithsonian Institution and United States Holocaust Memorial Museum come together each year to observe Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. Each body hosts a series of events that "pay tribute to the generations of Asian and Pacific Islanders who have enriched America's history and are instrumental in its future success," according to the commemorative month’s official website.
On a local level, the month is often celebrated through community festivals and activities, or educational experiences in schools and organizations.
Asian Americans, Pacific Islanders and their influence are crucial to every sphere of the United States. Workplace inclusivity requires properly accrediting and celebrating this influence. It also requires taking into account the ways the unique Asian American and Pacific Islander experience impacts professional life, and how your organization may fall short of including those experiences. While this process should happen year-round, Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month is a formally recognized place to start.
Since 2020, the United States has seen a spike in violence against Asian Americans, often tied by journalists to xenophobic rhetoric regarding the origins of COVID-19. That violence was underscored by a deadly attack on six women of Asian descent in their workplaces. But violence against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders is not new. If your organization has failed to formally observe, amplify and learn from the experiences of your Asian American and Pacific Islander employees, it's time to get started. Take your first steps with the tactics below.
Here are four powerful ways to engage your team with Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month:
Whether a panel, a keynote or a round-table of ERG leaders, provide space for Asian American and Pacific Islander professionals to share their experiences, and for D&I professionals to discuss the importance of Asian and Pacific Islander inclusion in the workplace. Encourage group engagement with and discussion on the self-education resources in the Smithsonian's Standing Together Against Hate campaign. Or, consider hosting a larger event with an Asian American and Pacific Islander organization in your field.
On a smaller scale, encourage more general dialogue around the importance of workplace diversity and inclusion. Employees at every rank can benefit from an opportunity to engage in dialogues about how their unique identities shape their work experiences, and how other peoples' identities shape theirs. Discussions among employees from the same organization can breed increased empathy and inclusive actions.
As listed above, there are endless educational opportunities to learn more about Asian American and Pacific Islander heritage across the United States. Here are a few your business can try:
Take your educational activities beyond recognizing the history and delve a bit deeper into culture. These activities are a good place to start:
During May, do what you can to support local and national Asian American or Pacific Islander-owned business. You could cater events from AAPI-owned restaurants, host company lunches featuring different AAPI cuisines, or highlight AAPI-owned businesses in event gift bags. You can also encourage engagement with Asian American and Pacific Islander non-profits or charities by hosting a fundraiser, making that organization a part of your annual charitable activities, or simply signal-boosting the organization to your employees. If you match donations, be sure to highlight that fact in your messaging.
Before doing any of the above, engage your organization's employee resource groups to align your actions with what they need or want from the business. Beyond discussions of how to celebrate Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, encourage dialogue on how the business can improve for Asian American and Pacific Islander employees more generally.
While recognizing the contributions of Asian American and Pacific Islander may be especially important in May, it should be a priority all year. The best way to observe Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month is to have a plan for more than 31 days of recognition and inclusion.
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