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‘A sense of community’: Asian Pacific American staff group celebrates 25 years

Support is necessary after a recent rise in hate crimes and lagging representation among staff

Maureen “Mo” Elinzano, co-president of CAPSA.
Maureen “Mo” Elinzano, co-president of CAPSA. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Bob Sakaniwa and David S. Kim bonded almost from the moment they arrived in Washington.

Both were from California and were working for freshman House California Democrats — Kim for Xavier Becerra, now secretary of Health and Human Services, and Sakaniwa for Walter R. Tucker III, the former Compton mayor. And, crucially, both were part of an exceedingly small group of Asian American and Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islanders working in Congress in the early 1990s.

“There weren’t too many of us back in those days,” recalled Kim, who has also had a long career in public service, most recently as secretary of the California State Transportation Agency. “We got to know each other because of our common circumstances. We became fast friends and we got to know others along the way.”

Kim, Sakaniwa and others formed an informal group and adopted a name, the Congressional Asian Pacific American Staff Association, or CAPASA. They met for brown bag lunches, invited speakers and established a network of resources for themselves and other AANHPI staffers, who could at times feel isolated in the halls of Congress.

“It was a sense of community. It was a support network. It was comparing notes. It was talking about our challenges and struggles as relatively new Hill staffers really supporting one another in our aspirations. And forming friendships,” Kim said.

That support is still necessary today, after a recent rise in hate crimes perpetrated against the AANHPI community and lagging representation in congressional offices, according to Maureen “Mo” Elinzano, the current co-president of CAPASA. The organization this year celebrates its 25th anniversary since its formal founding in 1998.

The group will have a celebration of the milestone in June. Elinzano is seizing on the anniversary to raise the voices of her fellow AANHPI staffers and to reassert the importance of the group.

“Often it’s like, what does the Black community care about and what does the Hispanic community care about? And we’re just kind of an afterthought,” Elinzano said. “I think part of the 25th anniversary is making sure people know that we’ve been around for a while and we’re as important now as we were since CAPASA’s inception.”

The group grew in “fits and starts” in its early days, recalled Sakaniwa, who is now director of policy and advocacy at Asian and Pacific Islander American Vote, a nonprofit that works to politically engage members of the community.

“We didn’t really have any efficient way of figuring out who Asian American staffers were,” he said. 

“We really did it the old fashioned way — walking the halls, putting fliers on the wall, running into people and spreading the word,” Kim added. “It was really word of mouth.”

They also had a relatively small pool of staffers to draw from.

“It goes hand in hand with the idea that many AAPI parents — many of them immigrants — did not view public service or politics or government as a viable profession,” Kim said. “A lot of AAPI parents wanted their kids to become doctors, lawyers, accountants, those kinds of professions. So politics was really not part of the lexicon. But that’s changing now.”

In addition to shifting attitudes, diversity on Capitol Hill has become more of a priority in recent years.

The House Office of Diversity and Inclusion was established in 2019 to help create and maintain a diverse workforce and has worked to expand recruitment efforts at colleges and universities and offers resources for candidates for congressional jobs, though there is no equivalent office in the Senate.

The House ODI also conducts demographic surveys, which show that AANHPI staffers made up roughly 6 percent of the House workforce in 2021, lagging only slightly behind national demographics, but down nearly 2 percentage points since 2019.

One of CAPASA’s goals — then and now — is to create a pipeline for such staffers, according to Elinzano. Attracting and retaining interns and early career staffers is paramount, as is providing social and mental health resources to current staffers.

Adeline Yoong, another founding member of CAPASA who worked in the office of California Democratic Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard, said these efforts are important not only because more diverse voices in congressional offices can result in better, more representative legislation, but also because she knows what it’s like to feel alone while working in Congress.

Yoong recalled telling a co-worker early in her time in Congress that a House member on the Banking and Financial Services Committee — on which Roybal-Allard served — had remembered her.

“She (the colleague) looked at me with this quizzical look and she said, ‘Well, Adeline, you know there aren’t that many of you around,’” Yoong said. “And I was just like, ‘I guess I am about the only Asian staffer.’ I totally stood out.”

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