How (RUN) is getting out the vote and empowering the next generation of Asian Americans

(RUN) Co-founder Brad Jenkins knows what it feels like to be on the outside looking in. You might think being a part of the Obama White House would have shielded you from that, but he’s not alone. It’s an isolating and diminishing experience the rest of the (RUN) leadership team, Marvel actress Chloe Bennet and senior producer Elle Kurata, also shared in our conversation—an all too familiar narrative that will come as no surprise to any Asian American. A narrative they want to take back.

“Even the most powerful Asian Americans feel like they are on the outside looking in,” Jenkins said. “Now imagine what the average young Asian American feels.” Imagine how that kind of disempowerment of a community might impact their political engagement.

It is a problem that comes with a big question: What does it take to empower a generation? Certainly not something to tackle for the faint of heart, but don’t underestimate this multi-talented team for a second. They are not afraid of a fight.

(RUN), which stands for Represent Us Now, is a civic platform that seeks to build and organize the political and cultural power of the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community. We got a chance to chat with some members of the (RUN) leadership team about their plans for 2020 and they are dreaming big.

Photo submitted. (RUN)’s campaign posters for #TheNew

This election, (RUN) wants to specifically address a persistent challenge and key opportunity within the AAPI community. Despite being the fastest-growing racial group in the United States electorate, they historically have some of the lowest voter turnouts.

Make no mistake, AAPI can make a real difference in this election. (RUN)’s poll found that AAPI youth strongly align with a progressive agenda and support a Green New Deal, Medicare for All, and Black Lives Matter. In key battleground states like Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Texas and Georgia, a growing and activated Asian American voting population can mean the difference between victory or defeat.

See more: Why the Asian American vote matters

A Wake-up Call

Nowhere was the importance and the lack of AAPI votes more apparent than shortly after the 2016 American election. Jenkins and Bennet were asked to speak on a panel on the AAPI vote right after U.S. President Donald Trump was elected, but President Obama was still in office before the transition. It was a sobering experience.

“[The event] was planned before the election. It was meant to be a celebration of the AAPI vote and experience but it ended up feeling like a funeral,” Jenkins recalls. “One, because we, the Asian American vote, did not show up at the rates of other communities. Two, there was real fear about how many vulnerable communities were at risk because we didn’t show up.”

Photo submitted. Featuring Brad Jenkins and Chloe Bennet.

The panel brought Jenkins and Bennet together over their shared desire for “a space for AAPI to convene socially and to lift each other up.” The event would serve as a wake-up call for the lack of political engagement in the AAPI community and as a catalyst for their proposed solution. (RUN) was born. 

Understanding Your Power as an AAPI

Why is Asian American voter turnout so low? Don’t let the simplicity of the question fool you—it’s a complex issue that seeps down to the fault lines of a country that has historically silenced AAPI and other BIPOC voices.

Let’s start with the numbers. In a first-of-its-kind political poll on AAPI youth, (RUN) found that one in three unregistered AAPI youth voters between the ages of 18 to 34 do not plan to register to vote. The reasons are many, but the biggest barriers were classified as “motivational,” meaning they didn’t see any candidates they wanted to vote for, didn’t care about politics, or thought their votes wouldn’t make a difference.

See more: The myth of Asian American political apathy

Compounding the problem is that only two out of five AAPI youth voters have been contacted about voting in this election. Asian Americans historically have been underserved by voter outreach programs and are often ignored by political campaigns that are only worried about getting the best “return-on-investment,” explains Jenkins. “The problem is if they only reach the same people year after year you are not giving a reason for nonvoters to participate in the election.”

But the polls are just outcomes, symptoms of a more fundamental problem of disempowerment.

“Our poll found that AAPI youth are very progressive, but when it comes to understanding their own power and showing up to the ballot box, there was a huge gap,” said Jenkins. “We didn’t see ourselves as powerful.”

When it comes to voting, if you don’t believe your voice will make a difference, why would you care about whom you vote for? This is the lasting harm of systemic racism on the Asian American psyche. “An invisible imprisonment so deep that people aren’t aware that they are in it in my opinion,” Bennet says.

The problem (RUN) is confronting is beyond just the election, it’s about empowering the next generation of Asian Americans to understand and harness their collective power.

“(RUN) is about a cultural shift, it’s not about changing things overnight. The work we are doing can fundamentally shift the country,” said Jenkins. “If young Asian Americans start to feel more powerful, that’s a tectonic shift not just in one state but countrywide for our community.”

Getting Out The Vote

Enter The New, (RUN)’s get-out-the-vote campaign targeting AAPI youth launched with a big splash last month, quickly going viral. Featuring some of the biggest Asian American names in media, the star-studded launch video was a rallying cry for AAPI youth to be proud of who they are and to make their collective voice be heard in the 2020 election.

“The immediate reaction was tears, goosebumps. That’s when we knew we were on to something,” said Jenkins, when they were first previewing the video with friends. It was that thrill of feeling seen, of being proud, of being a part of a burgeoning movement, that would resonate with wider audiences.

The video’s political message and celebrity backing hints at (RUN)’s theory for change. They believe meaningful change is created by leveraging a combination of both cultural and political power.

“Culture affects politics and politics affects culture,” Bennet said. Telling the AAPI story to the country through popular media helps move the needle on political advocacy.

“Our community includes amazing influencers, actors, artists, and activists. We want to be the bridge between DC and Hollywood and help uplift the work of all these amazing grassroots Asian American groups,” Kurata added.

Photo submitted. Can you spot some familiar faces?

Not everyone understood that pitch. When they first started reaching out to the industry, Jenkins shares that a white Hollywood executive told them directly, “I don’t think it’s really worth focusing on Asians this cycle.”

The executive did not understand why a get-out-the-vote campaign was also trying to make a community feel proud, missing the fact that empowerment fuels real action. “Frankly, we had a white executive who is one of the biggest branding tastemakers of our generation, in charge of what millions of people think and decide, tell us, a group of Asians that hope is not a strategy,” Bennet said. “That we are not worth it.”

As for the AAPI community the campaign actually intended to serve, they just got it immediately. “When someone sees it who is part of the community you can see the relief and that sparkle in their eye. We wanted to show pride in our community. Something white cis straight males already get all the time,” Bennet added, naming how Asian Americans are so rarely the target audience for any kind of media.

Photo Credit: (RUN)’s Instagram. Featuring members of #TheNew

Since the video launch, (RUN) has kept themselves busy. Between organizing virtual text banking in battleground states, Instagram Live chats with Stacey Abrams, creating voter education content, partnering with other AAPI organizations and events, and raising awareness of anti-Asian racism, they are hitting the home stretch running.

“This is one of the most important elections of our lifetime, especially for the Asian American community given how we are vilified by this president,” Jenkins says. “When you show up to vote, you are saying that you matter.”

This Is Personal

As much as (RUN) is about lifting up the AAPI community, it has also become an emotional journey of healing and self-discovery for the team. All of them shared their struggle with understanding their identity as Asian Americans when they were growing up.

Photo submitted. Featuring Amanda Nguyen, (RUN) Ambassador, and Elle Kurata, Senior Producer for (RUN)

“I think about what this campaign would’ve meant to me if I had seen it in high school, and how much money I could’ve saved in therapy,” Kurata jokes. They are trying to give the next generation of AAPI the representation they felt was missing from their own childhood. 

It took some time to get here. The whole team recalled times when they were made to feel embarrassed or ashamed for being Asian. Times when they were bullied for it and when they wanted to suppress that part of their identity.

“My identity is something I’ve always struggled with because personally and professionally people have always put me in a box that made sense to them,” Bennet said. “It’s something that caused me a severe amount of anxiety and depression trying to fit in with a narrative that others have given me as an Asian American woman.”

When Bennet first started auditioning the number one issue that came up was her official last name, “Wang.” “I was so frustrated with being put into a box. I knew I was talented and would love to just be me, and not have my race constantly get in the way,” she said, about making the painful decision to change her last name to “Bennet” to avoid being stereotyped at auditions. She would end up landing the first audition after her name change, disappointingly proving her point.

It’s why Bennet and the team is so passionate about freeing people from being trapped in stereotypical narratives of what they can accomplish and who they can be. “I don’t want anyone to have to pull a ‘Chloe Bennet’, I want people to be the ‘Chloe Wang’s,” she said. “I want to make sure the younger generation does not have to go through that cycle.”

The (RUN) team is becoming and creating the representation they always wanted to see in the world. After all, “we can’t keep complaining about the status quo without trying to change it,” Bennett notes. “It’s not going to get done until we do it.”

Their mission doesn’t end on election day. “These elections are nice tent poles for us to rally around but our work to uplift our community is not going to stop on November 3,” said Kurata. The culture-shifting vision (RUN) is offering is for the long-term and if our conversation is a glimpse of the future, it feels bright, hopeful, healing, and powerful.

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