AAPI staffers aim to show their power on Capitol Hill

Waves of hate and lingering fear haven’t stopped these networking groups

Members of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Staff Association and other groups gather on the House steps on May 19 to mark Asian Pacific American Heritage Month.  (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Members of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Staff Association and other groups gather on the House steps on May 19 to mark Asian Pacific American Heritage Month. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Posted May 26, 2022 at 6:30am

Carianne Lee’s noodles with ginger and cilantro is one of her favorite recipes. It was among the first dishes she made for Lunar New Year after moving away for college.

“I was the only Chinese person of my friends, so it was exciting to use this dish to introduce people to Chinese food,” she said in an Instagram post shared by the Congressional Asian Pacific American Staff Association.

Lee was one of several Hill aides sharing recipes for the traditionally East and Southeast Asian holiday earlier this year. 

And while the recipes bring memories of home or family tradition, it’s more than just food — it’s a way to build community in a workplace that has not always felt welcoming for nonwhite staffers.

A nationwide wave of hate against people of Asian American and Pacific Islander heritage only added to the isolation of the COVID-19 pandemic. For congressional staffers, all of that was compounded by what happened last year on Jan. 6, when a mostly white mob attacked the Capitol, some carrying racist symbols.

Now groups like CAPASA are working to recalibrate, celebrate their respective cultures and traditions, and make their power felt on Capitol Hill.

For one thing, CAPASA has expanded its leadership board, growing from one or two presidents in the past to five different executive positions across the House and Senate. The group is also reinvesting in things like community service, resume banking and job transition coaching.

Mo Elinzano, who serves on the leadership board and works as deputy press secretary for Rep. Doris Matsui, says the broader goal is to “bridge the dichotomy of culture and career development.”

The group wants to be a presence in their members’ daily grind, while also reaching out to newcomers on the Hill, like interns and fellows.

“We’re trying to all meet and build community,” said Moh Sharma, who formerly served as president and now chairs the advisory board. With more members, the group can help build a pipeline for AAPI staffers to make their way to the legislative branch and stay there.

That has yielded some success in the first few months of 2022. The group added 35 new members, to bring the total number to 120.

Sharma, who is Indian American, said the broad coalition that is CAPASA can also feed efforts to build more specific groups. She helps lead a South Asian staffer association, for example, and a budding Filipino group is taking shape.

At least one lawmaker is taking notice. These efforts at the staffer level hit home for Democratic Rep. Andy Kim of New Jersey, who explained why in an interview last week.

Kim was once a Hill aide himself, working as a fellow for Richard G. Lugar on his Senate Foreign Relations team in 2006. While he wasn’t around long enough to join CAPASA, he sees its work as crucial.

When he first served in government, “I kind of held my Asian heritage at a distance,” Kim said. It can be risky for staffers on the rise to talk openly about their backgrounds, given the false and toxic stereotype that immigrants and their children are somehow less loyal to the U.S.

While things are gradually changing, the Hill is still run by staffers who are disproportionately white. One analysis in 2020 by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies showed that while people of color made up 40 percent of the U.S. population, they accounted for only 11 percent of top aides in the Senate, defined as chiefs of staff, communication directors and legislative directors.

Kim emphasizes that the Hill is an “ecosystem,” which makes strong professional networks all that more important.  

“I know some people that have built friendships that last a lifetime. That’s beautiful,” he says.