Christine Chen, the founding executive director from 2006-2008 returned to APIAVote in January 2011 to serve as its current Executive Director. During her tenure she had strengthened and expanded APIAVote’s partners into 28 states. APIAVote’s research and polling of Asian American voters and their regional trainings and field programs have strengthened the local grassroots programs in reaching and mobilizing Asian American and Pacific Islander voters. Through all these efforts, APIAVote has played a key role in elevating the Asian American and Pacific Islander electorate to an unprecedented national level in recent years.
In addition Chen serves as President of Strategic Alliances USA, a consulting firm specializing in coalition building, institutional development, and partnerships among the corporate sector, government agencies, and the nonprofit and public sector.
Profiled by Newsweek magazine in 2001 as one of 15 women who will shape America’s new century, Chen served from 2001 to 2005 as national executive director of the Organization of Chinese Americans (OCA), one of the leading APIA civil rights organizations in the country. Leading an organization with more than 80 chapters and affiliates across the nation, she worked with OCA’s national board, executive council, chapter representatives, members and funders while managing a staff of 13.
Chen is well-known by activists across the county. Her track record in building coalitions and working at the grassroots and national levels established her as one of the strongest voices in the APIA community. She has more than two decades of experience in organizing and advocating on issues such as immigration, hate crimes, affirmative action, census, racial profiling, voting rights, election reform, and various derogatory and racist media incidents. Her role as a trusted coalition builder has her effectively building relationships with key Congressional offices including the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, federal agencies, and the administration.
Throughout the years with Chen’s multitasking abilities, Chen also was a member of the executive committee of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights. She also served on numerous boards such as the National Council of Asian Pacific Americans, Demos Board of Trustees, Conference on Asian Pacific American Leadership (CAPAL), Youth Vote, Gates Millennium Scholarship Advisory Council, advisory board for the Progressive Majority Racial Justice Campaign, and the Board of Advisors for the Midwest Asian American Students Union, East Coast Asian American Students Union and the Asian Pacific American Medical Students Association. In 2003, she was a founding member of the Asian and Pacific Islander American Scholarship Fund and also in 2006, a founding member of Asian and Pacific Islander American Vote.
Chen currently serves on the Kennedy Center Community Advisory Board, Center for Asian American Media, OCA Northern Virginia Chapter, and the advisory boards for the Asian Pacific American Medical Students Association (APAMSA), and CAPAL.
1. Tell us about your role at APIAVote?
I was one of the founders for APIAVote when it was a project housed out of OCA in 1996. I served as the founding executive director from 2006-2008 and then returned in 2011. Although we now have a small but mighty team working for APIAVote and I have my official duties as an executive director, I continue to fulfill the role of constantly recruiting and inspiring new organizations and potential volunteers to take an interest in becoming more civically engaged. It is so embedded in my everyday life. All my friends know they cannot leave a conversation with me without it somehow being tied to voting, the Census or issues that we care about.
2. Who has been your main inspiration for the work you do?
It is the basic idea of a fair and just world and the belief that as long as we remain active and activate others, we can get closer to that vision. There are many setbacks we may face as a society, but we can only reach this vision if we empower more individuals to understand the role they each play. It also helps that I am typically a very optimistic person.
3. How did you get involved in the non-profit space?
Growing up in the midwest, I had always thought I would be a business major and move to the “big” city of Chicago and develop a career in that space. During my years in high school and college, I found myself drawn to organizing and super involved in a wide variety of extracurricular activities. I served as an officer in high school for student council, key club, drama, etc and in college for Circle K, Asian American Association, Student Alumni Council. I also served as the first woman and first minority to serve as the president for the Undergraduate Student Government. From all these experiences, I unexpectedly transitioned as a volunteer to a career in nonprofits. I have been fortunate to follow my passion all my life and make it into a lifelong career. I didn’t realize it could be a career until I interned for the Organization of Chinese Americans (OCA). I discovered how you can work for an institution while following your passion and using my skills as an organizer. It was also by accident that it also intersected in policy and politics.
4. How have you (and your team) adapted your work surrounding the pandemic?
Fortunately APIAVote has always been set-up to work from wherever you are since we travel quite a bit. In addition, we always had at least one staff member not residing in the same state. A presidential election year combined with a Census count is similar to the Super Bowl. We knew heading into the 2020 cycle, we would be super busy, so luckily our team was mentally prepared. In some ways by being so busy and focused, the months have flown by for me. Since I do not need to spend time flying around everywhere, I am also healthier and more rested than ever before.
5. Message to young folks who are interested in getting involved in a non-profit space?
Working for a nonprofit means you are able to work for a cause or issue you are passionate about. Depending on the size of the organization, it also means you have the opportunity to take on more responsibilities if you prove that you are capable. With a nonprofit it is focused on a specific mission or set of values but at the same time, it is a small business. With this reality, get to understand all aspects of the organization and not just your programmatic area. The development department impacts the ability to pay the salaries of the staff and its programs. The way the programs are implemented can impact the communications or grassroots and vice versa.
6. How has your identity played a role in work that you do?
My belief in the importance of coalition building and coming together as an AAPI community and as communities of color stems from my experience growing up in Ohio. During the 80s and 90s, the AAPI population was very small. Identifying not only as a Chinese American, but as part of the larger AAPI and communities of color was the only way we were able to advocate for representation and resources for communities that were ignored.
7. What is your favorite boba flavor?
Traditional milk tea but with nata jelly
8. What were some of the barriers you faced in running a non-profit organization?
Diversifying the organization’s funding sources is a challenge so there is a balance between individual donors, corporate sponsors and foundations. There is a need to motivate and educate our own family and friends the importance of supporting nonprofits in the community and to train and identify new leaders who understand how to be effective board members who can be active in fundraising.
9. As more AAPIs become civically involved, where would you say is the best place to start?
It is best to understand yourself by identifying what you are passionate about and what are your strengths. Identify a group you can volunteer and even if you do not have much time, you can agree to even take on one task or a small project. You can also get started by organizing your own family and friends to register and vote. Only 56% of the AAPI community registered in 2016 so you can assume that essentially half of those you know are not prepared to cast their ballot. Looking to get involved immediately at the comforts of your home, join APIAVote’s campaign where you can take a specific action every week to get your networks of friends and family #VoteReady. Sign up at here.
10. What’s your morning routine to get yourself ready for the day?
While I am still in bed, I grab my phone and check my text messages to conduct an initial scan and to delete junk emails. This allows my brain to wake up. I then start the rest of the day with a glass of milk before continuing on with the rest of my routine.
11. Most memorable moment working at APIAVote?
As tiring as it was, it would have to be my work in 2019 conducting regional trainings in 50 cities in preparation for the 2020 election cycle and the 2020 Census. It was so inspiring to see so many friends and new faces join together to develop plans to ensure our community claims our voice in 2020. I will always treasure the friendships made and strengthened through my travels.
12. How do you keep yourself grounded?
My friends and family who are not entrenched in this work. It provides a reality check in terms of what everyone is facing on a daily basis. It also helps travelling to local communities all around the country and getting to know their families. In addition, working with a new generation of student leaders and interns every year re-energizes me. It is exciting to see that excitement of a new generation looking to find their voice and learn what drives them and how to organize effectively. As much as things change, much remains the same.
13. How has your previous experience working at the grassroots level influenced your work at APIAVote?
I worked at OCA for a decade and it being a grassroots organization with 50 chapters left an imprint on how I work. By visiting the chapters, I got to know the membership, their families and the issues facing these communities. It was also a time when the AAPI community wasn’t that large so my visit to a city/state allowed me to also develop relationships in the broader community. I have built upon the friendships and trust I developed early on and throughout the last 25 years for my work at APIAVote.