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Kansas City’s Asian communities felt the love last year. Now many feel forgotten

A Vietnamese man wearing a blue suit and tie leans on an aluminum ladder. Asian art sits on a table behind him and a colorful painting hangs on the wall.
Carlos Moreno
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KCUR 89.3
Ron Nguyen, an immigration attorney and former president of the Vietnamese American Community of Greater Kansas City, says support for Asian and Asian American communities has waned following a wave of anti-Asian sentiment.

After a wave of anti-Asian violence across the country last spring, Kansas City came together to show solidarity for local Asians, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. Is the support holding up?

Ron Nguyen wonders where the solidarity went.

Nguyen, the former president of the Vietnamese American Community of Greater Kansas City, remembers how a surge of anti-Asian violence around the country last year was followed by an unprecedented level of support.

Kansas City, Missouri, officially recognized Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month (sometimes called APA or AAPI Heritage Month) for the first time last year, two months after more than 500 people attended a vigil in support of the city's Asian communities.

This year, Nguyen said, he’s not feeling the same level of support.

"It kind of feels a little disheartening," he said. "We had momentum, and then I don't know where the momentum went.”

Nguyen said his work as an immigration attorney has taught him politics inevitably plays a role in what people are paying attention to. That means overlooked or disadvantaged groups often only have a limited window of time when the larger community recognizes their struggle.

"There's a lot of issues on these causes that still are unresolved when the next thing comes to play," Nguyen said.

But anti-Asian violence has not let up, even if the media coverage has: The latest hate-crime data showed a 339% increase in anti-Asian crimes in 2021, on top of a 124% increase in 2020.

Anthony Sze-Fai Shiu, an English professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, said tracking support and solidarity for such a diverse group is a complex task.

Many of Kansas City's ethnic affinity organizations focus on group-specific activities, and spend less time cultivating a pan-Asian calendar, he noted. Asian and Asian American populations are also spread out across the metro rather than concentrated in one area, which can diminish their capacity to organize.

Still, Shiu said, he was optimistic when people started to take seriously "the notion of structural reform" after George Floyd’s killing.

"I don't necessarily see that energy at the moment,” Shiu said. "Those kinds of conversations are really difficult to sustain, because what it means is that you have to ask a lot of questions that are uncomfortable.”

Delays, but signs of progress

Other forces, too, have played a role in stifling visible displays of support.

For Native Hawaiian theater artist Andi Meyer, it was the COVID-19 pandemic that delayed a project originally slated to open this fall at the Coterie theater.

The production, “Justice at War: Endo vs. the United States,” depicts the case of U.S.-born Mitsuye Endo, which resulted in the Supreme Court ruling the government could not continue to detain American citizens of Japanese descent who had properly answered questions in a 1943 loyalty questionnaire.

“That project now is slated for 2023,” said Meyer, who founded Tradewind Arts to empower Asian and Pacific Americans, particularly in theatrical arts.

Despite the difficulties, some Asian American leaders were quick to point out signs of progress.

“I do hear that there are still pockets of discrimination that continues to happen, and I think there is certainly need for more education,” said Dr. Vishal Adma, president of the Asian American Chamber of Commerce of Kansas City.

Still, Adma said he’s been approached by Overland Park Mayor Curt Skoog in an effort to proclaim May as Asian American Heritage Month there, and he praised the Kansas Chamber for proactively reaching out to minority community members for their Leadership Kansas program, which identifies and engages up-and-coming leaders in the state.

“So that is certainly moving in the right direction,” Adma said.

But more than one leader told KCUR that people and organizations in and around Kansas City have a tendency to overlook Asians and Asian Americans when considering minority issues, in favor of African American and Latino communities.

According to 2021 estimates from the U.S. Census, 3.3% of the Kansas population and 2.4% of Missouri’s is Asian or Pacific Islander. Numbers in the metro region range from 8.7% in Overland Park to 2% in Liberty.

Yet Asian Americans recorded the fastest population growth rate among all racial and ethnic groups in the U.S. between 2000 and 2019, according to Pew Research Center analysis.

Junann Lopez, president of the National Association of Asian American Professionals - Kansas City, applauded her group’s sponsors for being “very community-oriented” — they include some of Kansas City’s most prestigious companies. She also said the Kansas City Police Department has made a proactive effort reaching out to her group.

“We have had a great conversation actually,” Lopez said, “just saying, ‘We are here for your community, we want to be a resource for you.'”

Another partnership is bearing fruit in the form of a five-month art and professional development residency at the ArtsKC Gallery at the corner of Southwest Boulevard and Baltimore Avenue.

“Events in the news were the catalyst for this happening,” said Zetta Hamersley, particularly the West Bottoms vigil and Kansas City's Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month recognition.

AAPI vigil 1.jpeg
Travis Young
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Courtesy of Café Ca Phe
Local officials and organizers at a March 2021 rally in the West Bottoms. From left: Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, Chi Nguyen, Missouri state Rep. Emily Weber, Jackie Nguyen, Haddie Watson, Bety Le Shackelford, Cecilia Evelyn Belser-Patton, and Kansas state Rep. Rui Xu.

Hamersley, who is of Taiwanese and American descent, is the gallery residency manager at ArtsKC and a program director at NAAAP-KC.

“I wanted to be a part of that, and I really wanted to feel that I could participate in a way that was impactful,” Hamersley said.

The “I Am…” residency, which opened Friday, is billed as a reclamation of identity and strength for Asian American and Pacific Islander artists and thought leaders.

‘The allyship is very performative’

Jackie Nguyen, the owner of Vietnamese coffee shop Café Ca Phê, had a big hand in organizing that 2021 vigil, and she’s planning a similar event this year, on May 21.

“We want it to be more of a celebration this year,” she said. “It's still hard though because, I don't know — I'm just a coffee shop.”

In organizing the coming event, Nguyen said she’s gotten plenty of support from other Asian Americans, but a dearth from others.

“We’re having to right now rally online to see if we can get any corporate sponsors to help pay for it,” she said.

“Right now it’s coming out of the coffee shop budget — which I’m happy to do,” Nguyen said, “it’s hard because right now we’re trying to build our brick-and-mortar (location).”

She’s also noticed an ebb and flow of solidarity throughout the calendar year, which always seems to peak in May.

“The allyship is very performative, and it’s really unfortunate,” Nguyen said. “Like, once AAPI month is over, they’re like, ‘OK, let’s move on.’”

Like so many others, Nguyen said greater recognition and less discrimination against Kansas City’s Asian and Pacific American people will only come through sustained effort and attention.

She has her doubts about whether that hurdle will be overcome anytime soon.

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