Two Years on, The Asian American Foundation Celebrates Wins and Embarks on a New Strategy

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While anti-Asian violence has long been a part of U.S. history, attacks against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) surged in 2020, fueled by pandemic-era misinformation and racist rhetoric from political leaders. For many, the Atlanta spa shooting that took place in March of 2021 — where eight people, including six Asian women were killed — was a tipping point, a devastating tragedy that demanded a strong response.

Part of that response came in the form of philanthropy, as a group of AAPI business people and community leaders came together to launch The Asian American Foundation (TAAF), which quickly attracted significant support. While the rise in anti-Asian hate was a major catalyst, the foundation also sought to counter the historic philanthropic underinvestment in AAPI communities. A 2021 report from Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in Philanthropy (AAPIP) found that only 0.2% of all U.S. grantmaking dollars goes to AAPI communities, the same rate it was in 1992, when AAPIP published a similar report.

TAAF launched with $125 million in pledges from its own board members and issued a challenge urging funders, individuals and corporations to pledge additional support. To date, more than 130 partners have committed $1.1 billion in donations and in-kind support, which is being distributed over a five-year period. In 2021, TAAF's partners awarded $590 million, about $140 million to more than 100 AAPI and AAPI-affiliated nonprofits, $21 million to AAPI leadership development and DEI programs, and $420 million to AAPI businesses and suppliers. 

"We're really pleased that in this case, people made commitments, and those commitments were honored and followed through," said TAAF's CEO, Norman Chen. Some of TAAF’s partners include the California Endowment, Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, Ford Foundation, Surdna Foundation, and MacArthur Foundation, among others

Earlier this year, TAAF celebrated its two-year anniversary and announced an additional five-year, $65 million pledge through the launch of its new portfolio strategy. The funding will be divided across the foundation’s four core areas of focus: anti-hate, education, narrative change, and resources and representation. TAAF will award both one-time grants for specific projects, as well as multi-year capacity-building support. The foundation is also inviting co-investments from new and existing partners. 

Combating hatred

One of TAAF's biggest goals for its Anti-Hate Initiative is to provide the necessary infrastructure, resources and support to address anti-Asian hate and violence throughout the U.S. This year, the foundation's Anti-Hate National Network will expand to nine cities that cover about 40% of the AAPI population in the U.S. By 2028, TAAF hopes to expand its network to include more than 25 cities, covering 90% of the nation's AAPI population. The goal, according to Chen, is for 95% of AAPIs across the country to have an organization in their community that is part of the Anti-Hate National Network and has access to resources and best practices.

The network is made up of national, regional and local organizations that can work together to support local organizations that address AAPI hate. Members include the National Asian Pacific American Bar Association, the Sikh Coalition, NYC Anti-Hate Collaborative, Adhikaar, Asian American Federation, and Chinese-American Planning Council. Areas of expertise include legal services, addressing bullying in K-12 school systems, and mental health resources, among others. 

For Chen, this convening is one of the foundation's strengths. “We bring them together. In the past, many Asian American organizations have been working very isolated,” he said. By encouraging these collaborations, network members can both learn from and support each other. 

Education and changing narratives

One of TAAF's goals when it comes to education is promoting the teaching of AAPI history in K-12 education, as well as AAPI studies in higher education. According to data from the Association for Asian American Studies, only 72 universities have Asian American Studies programs. That's less than 2% of all universities in the U.S. 

TAAF is advocating for the inclusion of AAPI history in K-12 schooling across all 50 states and working to increase the number of AAPI courses, programs and faculty in higher education. Grantees in this work include Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Chicago, Make Us Visible, the Asian American Education Project and UCLA's Asian American Studies Center (AASC).

"Our whole belief is that AAPI history is American history," Chen said. “It’s a critical part, like Black history and Latino history. But we need to make sure that more people are aware of it.… There's a need for people to better understand our history so they can see us more as true Americans and as part of the fabric of this country.”

Another focus in TAAF's portfolio is narrative change through authentic storytelling that doesn't rely on trite stereotypes. “We're largely invisible,” Chen said. “And so we want to make sure that we are more visible in TV and movies and news and media.”

"People still see us as martial artists, for men, or as gangsters. For women, they are sex workers or maids — not very flattering types of roles," Chen said. “We'd love to have more movies like ‘Everything Everywhere All at Once,’ or like ‘Beef,’ where you see more authenticity in AAPI characters." This also means having more AAPIs as studio executives and working both behind and in front of the camera.

According to findings from the Asian Americans Journalist Association (AAJA), one out of every four news stations did not have AAPI news anchors on air. A study from USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative that looked at 1,300 films from 2017 to 2019 found that 40% of these films did not have Asian American characters and 90% did not have Pacific Islander characters. The study also found that only 6.4% of studio executives are AAPI. 

The foundation is also looking to increase AAPI leaders and creatives in journalism, media and entertainment. For example, TAAF has partnered with the Sundance Institute to launch fellowship and scholarships to support AAPI artists with the creative and tactical support needed to grow their careers. Grantees include Asian American Journalists Association (AAJA), the Center for Asian American Media (CAAM), and the Coalition of Asian Pacifics in Entertainment (CAPE).

"We’re… trying to be strategic and sustainable and impactful with our funding so that we can really move the needle on representation, on racism, and on resources for our community," Chen said. That includes TAAF support for increased AAPI representation on corporate boards as well as additional resources for small AAPI businesses. 

Moving forward

As a relatively new foundation, TAAF has faced numerous challenges, including a small staff — the team launched with 10 people and has since expanded to 32 — and building relationships and trust, both of which take time. 

The way TAAF operates has also taken some getting used to. “Some people are used to a funder model or an operating model, but we’re a bit of a hybrid of both,” Chen said. “So people are getting comfortable with that and understanding that we’re not trying to compete with anyone. We're just trying to fill in the gaps and support the organizations and communities.”

TAAF has also pointed out the inherent diversity among AAPIs in the U.S., a population that spans more than 30 countries of origin and speaks more than 100 languages. "We also have a lot in common, a lot of values we share," Chen said. The challenge then is how to work together to build economic, cultural, and political power. 

Chen added, “We really want to build and strengthen our community, help people deal with the hate and violence, and then hopefully move up Maslow's hierarchy… to build belonging and prosperity.”