“The Impact of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders Upon America’s Greatness” Program Celebrates Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month

The White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders proudly hosted an Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month program, titled “The Impact of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders Upon America’s Greatness,” at the U.S. Department of Education (the Department) on May 10, 2019. Participants included AAPI faith leaders, government and corporate leaders, educators, entrepreneurs, and senior federal leadership. The program mixed community recognition with Administration priorities to showcase the impact that AAPIs have upon America’s greatness historically and into the future.

The program began with the presentation of colors by the U.S. Coast Guard Ceremonial Honor Guard and the singing of the National Anthem by Donna F. Carter from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The Initiative’s executive director, Holly Ham, provided program opening remarks that highlighted the 150-year anniversary of the completion of the first transcontinental railroad in Promontory Summit, Utah, on May 10, 1869. This greatest of engineering feats in American history to date helped expand the American West into the 20th century and beyond. The railroad workers and their descendants were recognized and celebrated for this important work.

Secretary Betsy DeVos next provided welcome remarks that linked the building of the transcontinental railway 150 years ago with the tremendous contributions that Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders have made to America. The secretary highlighted the Trump administration’s priorities of education freedom, workforce preparedness, and engaging the AAPI community to assist in counting everyone in the upcoming 2020 Census.

Secretary DeVos then invited Grace Lee, co-founder and CFO of Logic Solutions, Inc., to the stage to sign the company’s “Our Pledge to America’s Workers.” Logic Solutions, Inc. pledged 120 opportunities to develop training and internship programs for young professionals and students in the information technology field over the next five years.

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos at the signing of “Our Pledge to America’s Workers” by Grace Lee of Logic Solutions, Inc.

The program turned back to the sesquicentennial of the completion of the transcontinental railroad with music highlighting Chinese railroad workers, a fifth-generation descendant of a railroad worker sharing her family’s story, and an entrepreneur advocating learning through play with a history lesson about the railroad.

Thomas Alan Ng, a singer-songwriter and student at Berklee College of Music in Massachusetts, debuted his original song “14,000”, identifying approximately 14,000 Chinese laborers that helped build the transcontinental railroad. The lyrics depicted the hard lives of the laborers, united by their strength and resolve to help build the railroad. The instrumentation was inspired by traditional Chinese instruments, such as the erhu and guzheng, alongside modern day instruments.

Berklee College of Music student Thomas Alan Ng debuts his original song “14,000” against the backdrop of a drawing by his family of work on the transcontinental railroad in the 1860s.

Christina Lily Lee Mavity then spoke of how her great, great grandfather, Yue Mun Lee, escaped famine in the Pearl River Delta in China and emigrated to America to help build the transcontinental rail infrastructure. He was one of the aforementioned 14,000 Chinese laborers who were paid $1.00 per day, lived in poor, crowded conditions, and performed the most treacherous and dangerous work through mountainous terrain. After the railroad was completed, Lee moved east and started a thriving laundry business. Six generations of Chinese Americans, including Mavity’s children, are woven into the fabric of communities across the country as doctors, teachers, engineers, restauranteurs, Armed Forces members, and in many other occupations.

Christina Lily Lee Mavity, fifth-generation descendant of a Chinese railroad worker, tells her great, great grandfather’s story of how one decision, more than 150 years, ago has impacted and changed the lives of many generations of her family.

Tianyi Joe Zhu, entrepreneur and managing partner of Playground Capital, spoke next. His company will be building several education-centered play structures focused on significant cultural historical moments. The first play structure will be an elevated railway train depicting Pacific railroad milestones, including the Nevada Mountain, Cape Horn, and the Golden Spike. Learning of our country’s history through play will help young children bridge the past with the present and on to the future.

Entrepreneur Tianyi Joe Zhu shares the vision and design of the first educational play structure with railroad milestones, leading up to the completion of America’s first transcontinental railroad.

The program’s focus then turned to policy dialogues about issues at the forefront of the AAPI community: the 2020 Census, workforce development, and rebuilding distressed communities. Steven Dillingham, director of the U.S. Census Bureau, shared the tremendous work underway across the U.S. and its territories to get everyone counted and in the right place. Contractors have been selected to specifically work with the Asian-American community and, separately, with the Pacific-Islander community. Their understanding of the unique cultural differences in these communities will help with outreach efforts. The Initiative, through its Census Task Force interagency working group, is a key strategic partner with the U.S. Census Bureau and will continue to work directly with it and with local communities to prepare for Census Day on April 1, 2020.

U.S. Census Bureau director Steven Dilingham shares the elaborate work already underway to prepare for the 2020 Census.

The Department’s Deputy Assistant Secretary for Community Colleges Casey Sacks and Special Assistant to the President and Director of Domestic Initiatives at the Executive Office of the President Rosemary Lahasky next had an armchair dialogue about skills training and workforce preparedness. In the U.S.’s current booming economy, there are more job openings than people seeking employment. With historic unemployment lows across all demographics, the talent pool has shrunk, leaving employers vying for skills and talent across all industries. The Trump administration’s focus on higher education reauthorization, skills training for America’s workers, and properly equipping students with pertinent data to help with their education choices were key topics discussed. The goal is for students and employees to build lucrative careers while incurring little to no student debt.

Deputy Assistant Secretary for Community Colleges Casey Sacks and Special Assistant to the President and Director of Domestic Initiatives at the White House Rosemary Lahasky dialogue on higher education priorities and training for in-demand skills.

Through tax cuts, deregulation, and enhancing opportunities for small businesses and employees, the Trump administration is focused on helping communities that need revitalization. Legislation in the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 created Opportunity Zones that prioritize the rebuilding of distressed neighborhoods across the country. Special Assistant to the President for Domestic Policy in the Executive Office of the President Benjamin Hobbs discussed community revitalization efforts in designated qualified opportunity zones. He shared the many benefits that exist when America invests in itself by helping neighborhoods and communities rebuild, stabilize, and thrive.

Special Assistant to the President for Domestic Policy at the White House Benjamin Hobbs provides an example of how both investors and communities benefit when they invest in opportunity zones.

To conclude the program, the Department’s director of outreach, Daniela Garcia, shared the White House’s Presidential Message on the 150th Anniversary of the Completion of the Transcontinental Railroad. She highlighted how, as the fastest growing ethnic group in the country, AAPIs continue to contribute and make significant headway in commerce, the arts, science, technology, and public service.

This signature heritage month event was truly a way to acknowledge the many sacrifices and contributions that AAPIs have made to our great nation. Furthermore, the current administration will continue to dialogue on the issues that most impact our communities throughout the country and territories.

We hope you all had a wonderful heritage month!

Executive director Holly Ham with senior advisor Debra Suarez and Regional Network co-chairs Ben Raju and Paul Chang


Photos from the program are available at https://www.flickr.com/photos/whitehouseaapi/sets/72157707062831731.