Volunteers phone bank for Asian American civic engagement

Among countless disconnected calls, busy lines and flat-out no’s, volunteers hope for the occasional yes and a promise to vote. (Jenny G. Zhang/MEDILL)

By Shanshan Wang
Audio by Jenny G. Zhang

Rebecca Ozaki has been trying to encourage Asian Americans to vote through phone banking, which she hopes will be effective in getting them to the polls.

“Why we call is because a lot of people may not be told what difference they can have by voting in their communities,” said Ozaki, executive assistant at the Asian American Advancing Justice, Chicago. “We need to empower the Asian American community to make sure that they know how much their votes matter, and how much power they have in electing officials that make decisions for us everyday.”

Although Ozaki said she has had several “defeated moments” when people hung up on her, she added she has had more positive responses. “A lot of people I spoke with today were really happy that I called. People do feel empowered that someone knows their vote matters,” she said.

From Feb. 22 to Mar. 15, the primary election day, volunteers at AAAJ-Chicago, partnered with the South Asian American Policy & Research Institute, will inform community members about the upcoming primary election as well as their voting rights through phone banking. Aiming to reach about 2000 South Asian Americans in the northwest suburbs, they will devote a total of 300 hours to help those who don’t know how to vote, where to vote, or the difference between the primary and general election.

Not endorsing any particular candidate, AAAJ-Chicago phone banks in a nonpartisan way. “We try to make it known they have the right to vote and what their rights are. We tell them what resources they can use and encourage them to make concerted efforts to figure out who they are voting for,” said Kristina Tendilla, community organizer at AAAJ-Chicago.

An online program automatically connects callers to potential voters in the northwest suburbs. (Shanshan Wang/MEDILL)

According to statistics from “A Community of Contrast” by the Asian American Center for Advancing Justice, Asian Americans were one of the Chicago metro area’s fastest growing racial groups from 2000 to 2010, with a growth rate second only to Native Americans and Alaskan Natives. Among that, the South Asian population increases the fastest.

Though Asian American voter registration in Illinois increased 53 percent between 2000 and 2008, the highest increase in registration among all race groups, many are still reluctant to go to the polls.

Inadequate language access is a major factor. “I do know that a lot of Asian Americans in the city feel like they can’t go to vote because the ballots are not in the languages they speak, and there are no signs,” Ozaki said. In addition, many people don’t know that they can bring others to the polls to help them translate, she added.

More efforts are underway to make voting more accessible. This year, a total of 23 polling sites in Chicago and the Cook County suburbs will provide Korean language sample ballots to help Korean Americans have a better voting experience, according to the Korean American Resource and Cultural Center (KRCC).

One of some other reasons Asian Americans don’t like going to the polls is a lack of knowledge of the candidates and issues that the candidates stand for. Also, a lack of representation makes some Asian communities feel as if they don’t need to be engaged in the voting process, said Ruth Martinez, Americorps Vista and Community Outreach Coordinator for Japanese American Service Committee. “Some people might be thinking their vote doesn’t make an impact. But it really does,” she said.

For the volunteers, phone banking can also be a transformative experience, said Tendilla. “Especially when you are talking to people who may be new voters and when you are able to speak to them in their native languages,” Tendilla said. “It feels good to help people navigate through the process.”

Photo at top: Among countless disconnected calls, busy lines and flat-out no’s, volunteers hope for the occasional yes and a promise to vote. (Jenny G. Zhang/MEDILL)