This August, I had the privilege of attending the 14th National Empowerment Conference (NEC) hosted by the National Federation of Filipino American Associations (NaFFAA). Although I went as a NaFFAA national staff member, my travel and boarding was funded by my NaFFAA Region (Region V) and the Empowering Pilipino Youth through Collaboration (EPYC) travel scholarship, as they wanted to make sure the youth of NaFFAA and overarching Filipino community were able to come and participate in the conference.
Throughout the conference, the speakers and panelists repeated that, “If you’re not at the table, you are on the menu.” I believe sometimes we need to be reminded that if we want to influence a decision that will be made about our community, we need to be present at the negotiating table. This takes the original idea of “having a seat at the table” a step further by suggesting that regardless of the good intention of others, if you are not part of the decision-making process, you will be placed in a vulnerable position of getting left out or exploited – in this case, served on the menu. I also felt that the deeper meaning of the quote seemed to highlight the importance of getting involved; your community can only be represented if someone is willing to step up to secure a place at the table.
Throughout the conference, I was able to meet and network with many different Filipino professionals, including public officials, academics, entrepreneurs, social workers, attorneys, entertainers, and filmmakers. Filipino professionals are involved in many diverse industries and sectors; however, the underrepresentation in media and government makes it appear as if they are not engaged in those aspects of society.
For example, Filipino nurses have historically served on the front line of America’s medical system. According to the US Census, over 357,300 Filipino immigrants are working in the US healthcare system today and account for 4.5% of registered nurses. Filipinos are the largest group of internationally educated nurses in the country, yet this is not reflected in mainstream television shows about healthcare professionals, such as Grey’s Anatomy. We know that media, in all forms, has immense power to shape ideas and influence not only how we see ourselves, but how others see us.
Health care is not the only area where Filipinos have been unseen and unsung. During the Veterans Panel, we were able to view a small portion of the documentary film A Long March. The documentary details how Filipinos fought alongside American soldiers in World War II, and how they then had to fight for veterans’ benefits after Congress retroactively annulled President Roosevelt’s promise of full military benefits for Filipinos who fought in the war. The main thesis of the documentary questions if America will stand up for the values it claims and reward the remaining veterans the long-awaited recognition they deserve. My conclusion is the quote from above: if you are not at the table, deciding what values your country will stand up for, you are the menu, waiting for the answer. Representatives and policy-makers who have no connection to the Filipino community will never feel the same urgency to prioritize or champion issues that Filipino Americans face.
Being tisay (biracial) comes with its own unique struggles and challenges. I felt disconnected from both of my communities growing up; I felt that I was not white enough to be accepted by my classmates in rural America while simultaneously too white to be accepted by the Asian community. Many times I excused myself from conversations with fellow Asian Americans, since I felt that I could not serve as a spokesperson for the community as someone who was white passing. Ironically, I never truly felt white passing, as I was frequently asked the question, “What are you?” or “Where are you from?” Nevertheless, imposter syndrome is something I have struggled with for my entire life, and something I never seemed to be able to get away from – until the conference.
At the NEC, I did not hear those questions even once, nor did I have people eyeing me as if they were trying to figure out what I was. I also did not have people questioning my experience as a Filipino American because of the way I looked. I felt accepted, encouraged, and truly connected to my roots. It was the first time in my life I felt like I belonged and that I was understood.
To me, one of the biggest lessons I learned from the conference was that I am not a “watered down” Filipino — I am Filipino. The Filipino community and overall culture is inclusive and embracing; if you are part Filipino, you are Filipino and therefore a member of the community — whether you are an active one or not. However, we are not only members of the Filipino American community but, as youth, we are the present and future of the community, so we should work to serve and better it in any way we can. You are not only entitled to express, embrace, and participate in your culture — it’s your duty. Filipino representation starts with you, regardless of your appearance. – Rappler.com
Gladys Bayani Heitzman (she/her) is a recent graduate of Political Science and History at Wichita State University. Currently, she works as a Program Associate to the National Federation of Filipino American Associations and as a Campaign Organizer for the Kansas Democratic Party. She can be found on Twitter and Instagram as @gladsbh.