| Since it was founded in the mid-1980s, the Wisconsin Organization for Asian Americans (WOAA) has been somewhat of a nebulous organization, almost forming and reforming according to the needs of the membership at the time. One factor that has probably contributed to this ill-defined existence is the wide range of diversity under WOAA's umbrella. No matter which way you cut it, the Asian American community is diverse in its political beliefs, socio-economic status and cultural traditions.
While WOAA has been a social networking forum through its semi-annual potlucks, in recent years, events and concerns have pushed some members of WOAA to strive for a more political and social activism on the part of WOAA. And so the need arose to proactively determine if the umbrella of WOAA was large enough to meet all of the needs that its membership had.
On May 6, over a dozen members of WOAA met at the Maharaja Restaurant to begin a strategic planning process.
"Members think there are age and class differences as well as political differences and goals for what WOAA stands for them," said Sharyl Kato who co-facilitated the group with Renee Moe and Jo Oyama-Miller. "Some want to do the social part of it and networking and others do more of the active, social justice part of it and advocacy. I think it's a matter of letting everyone know that we can do all of the above and there is something for everyone. But we also want to make sure we do it in an inclusive way so that we address some of the issues and differences. We kind of have to get to know each other, just not within the Asian community, but also as individuals because there are those socio-economic, age, gender, and political differences."
"WOAA is looking to find a clear strategic direction so that we can be more focused and more effective," Moe said. "We have had some great successes over the last few years in terms of education, community partnerships with the public sector and some private sector organizations. We really wanted to have more engagement. We want to be clearer about our focus so that we can get more done."
After considering several organizational models, a consensus emerged to create a structure that isn't as formal as a 501(c)(3), but more structured than ad hoc planning groups WOAA has used over the years. "It seemed like people wanted to do more rather than just have a strategic steering committee that got together to organize the dinners twice a year," Moe said. "We wanted to have more of a formalized structure with officers, a secretary to help with documentation and create a couple of community links so that we can do more in terms of marketing, public relations, outreach into the community, and education, those types of things. We'll come back with a proposed structure and move forward that way." And with that new structure, Moe expects WOAA to become more community engaged. "People are very proud of being Asian and their Asian heritage," Moe emphasized. "They also realize that various groups tend to be fragmented for lots of different reasons, such as different languages, and different arrival times in the U.S. and people really want to be seen and heard as a solidified group of people with a very intentional focus. And they want others in the community to recognize that Asians are here; we have a voice; and we are looking to make our presence known. Many people refer to Asians as the "invisible minority" and so, people want to step out and really be a part of the fabric of the community. They care a lot about the community and they want to make a difference."
During the past year, WOAA has made some strides under the old structure and Kato expects that political activism to grow. "I think we've been much more active and these are things people can feel passionate about and they are feasible and realistic goals," Kato said. "I think that is satisfying to people. I think that is adding the energy and the new interest in the organization and keeping it going. That's what is very exciting to me. We've met with the mayor 2-3 times and now, he's meeting with us quarterly. And he's talking much more inclusively about the Asian community and he was genuinely open in hearing our concerns. I think that is something that we just have to proactively do on all levels. We can't do it all. We really do need the help of everyone to do that."
If the new structure allows WOAA to keep its diverse elements under one umbrella while also branching out in new directions, expect to see WOAA put the old stereotype of "the invisible minority" to rest.
|Wisconsin Organization for Asian Americans
By Jonathan Gramling