Filipino Advocates for Justice's Geraldine Alcid (with baby) and Mobilize the Immigrant Vote's Rebecca Apostol discuss strategy at a seminar on voting in the Filipino community.
How much time would you need to
make 20,000 phone calls? Would your fingers get tired from all that dialing?
Would your ear start to hurt?
Better to divide up the workload
like Geraldine Alcid, the programs director of Filipino Advocates for Justice
(FAJ), did. Late last year, her small team — maybe half a dozen strong — put
their fingers and ears to the test by making approximately 20,000 calls. It
took nine weeks to complete the job, carried out in regular evening shifts at
FAJ’s Oakland office. The nonprofit undertook the effort to gauge how Filipino
voters in the East Bay felt about raising taxes on the rich.
Of those surveyed, an overwhelming
85 percent favored taxing the rich out of a sample size of about 880 responses.
After their poll confirmed this, FAJ
began gathering signatures to put the Millionaire’s Tax Initiative on
California’s November ballot. With a hybridized version of the measure expected
to qualify, FAJ plans to pick up the phones again this fall to deliver the community’s
As a general rule, phone bank volunteers reach a household’s voicemail much more frequently than they do an
actual person. With such a lopsided ratio, the activity can turn into a major
grind. And even when someone answers, conversations do not always go smoothly.
“Once they hear that it’s a
Filipino person on the other line, that normally provides a lot of
familiarity,” Alcid said. "But we still get lots of people who hang up on us
and do all of that.”
Through whatever heights of
rudeness “do all of that” might imply, those who volunteered to make calls said they remained upbeat and focused during the task.
“We had a good rapport with each
other, and we kind of pushed each other,” team member Sammy Gutierrez said. “It
was good energy. Even if you had a bad call, it was like, ‘Oh well.’ You could
joke about it.”
On occasion, a few of the callers
were rewarded with a particularly heart-warming experience.
“Some of our senior citizen
volunteer phone bankers have...run across the name of someone they went to high
school with in the Philippines,” Alcid said. “It almost sometimes gets that
small town feel to it, you know, like ‘I recognize this last name, are you
related to so-and-so'?”
This latest undertaking is part of
FAJ’s long history of political advocacy. The organization has taken a stand
against Proposition 13, a 1978 ballot measure that created funding gaps in
California’s public schools, as well as later initiatives that FAJ believed were
threats to Filipino Americans.
"We’ve always worked on ...
ballot initiatives that really attacked immigrant rights, rights of the Filipino
community in that sense,” Alcid said.
More recently, in 2008, the
organization threw its weight behind successful local measures to fund youth
programs in Union City and Oakland. In 2010, it advocated against a proposition
to repeal the Global Warming Solutions Act and supported another proposition to
balance the state budget.
This year, FAJ has not decided
whether to target any other issue besides the Millionaire’s Tax Initiative.
However, the organization has larger challenges to grapple with.
For the very first time, Alameda
County will integrate Tagalog into the process during the primary vote on June
5. Not only will there be translated registration forms, information
guides, ballots, and polling place signage, there will also be bilingual poll
Federal law requires counties to
provide bilingual voting assistance if there are 10,000 voting-age citizens
with the same language preference that concurrently have limited English
proficiency. Alameda County just cleared the 10,000 mark for Tagalog speakers
in the last census.
The move also represents a broader
shift that could potentially elevate the entire Filipino community’s political
influence. Already, three other counties in California support Tagalog-speaking
voters. With Filipinos having one of the highest naturalization rates in the
US, more counties could follow suit.
But FAJ faces an uphill battle to
increase voter turnout. Possible reasons include a low number of Filipino candidates,
a belief that policymaking has no personal impact, or even a fear of getting
called for jury duty, according to Alcid. Moreover, the community’s
first-generation members often prefer to follow political developments in the
Philippines, or reject politics altogether because rampant corruption in the
Philippines has turned them off to it. All these factors
cause low electoral turnout, a problem that will hopefully be mitigated if FAJ
and other groups can leverage the language angle effectively.
It won’t be easy. Alcid worries
about the accuracy and accessibility of the translated materials.
“Election language in and of
itself is already kind of difficult to navigate, and now you’re going to add
deep Tagalog on top of that. We’ll see how that works,” she said.
FAJ must also take care not to
offend the majority of Filipino Americans in Alameda County who speak English, and might be insulted by the notion that they need help reading ballots. This
means that in the push to publicize bilingual assistance, FAJ must carefully
frame its message.
How to spread that message is also
an overarching challenge leading up to the election. No one devises neatly
packaged marketing plans for watershed moments like these. “This is new
territory for us,” Alcid said.
In preparation, Alcid and other
organizers of various affiliations gathered on the evening of May 3 to set
strategy. In one especially relevant segment, Rebecca Apostol from the
non-profit Mobilize the Immigrant Vote (MIV), who has collaborated with
countless coalition partners in coordinating grassroots campaigns, recommended
“picking up the phone and talk to them (Filipino voters) in a language
that they understand.”
MIV supported FAJ’s phone banking
efforts by providing ballot measure analysis, voter education training, and
lists of phone numbers to dial. But Apostol believes additional activity needs
to happen to improve turnout.
“Our folks aren’t voting because
people aren’t talking to them,” she said. “Those of us who have knowledge, the
little bit that we have, we have to be more open about talking about it.”
The organizers discussed
everything from educating voters about the primary to increasing voter
registration. Turnout could be better this year because three Pinoys are
running for State Assembly, including two from Alameda County — Rob Bonta and
Jennifer Ong. All three will be taking a shot at history, since no Filipino has
ever won a seat in the California legislature.
To build more political buzz, FAJ
will host its 39th anniversary celebration, pun-ily titled “Rock the Balut”
this Friday, May 18. The event aims to raise awareness about the importance of
this election year for the Filipino community. Although there is no word on
whether chef Dominic Ainza intends to serve fertilized duck embryos for dinner,
Nato Green, Allan Manalo, and Nice Hat will perform political comedy, and collaborators
like MIV will be honored at the event.
FAJ will also use this opportunity to
raise some funds. With all those calls, the organization’s phone bill must be a
monster, and it has to get paid somehow.
“Rock the Balut” will be held on May 18 from 6 to 10
p.m. at the Oakland Asian Cultural Center at 388 9th Street in Oakland,
California. For more information, call (510) 465-9876.
This post is part of Hyphen Politics, an
ongoing series that looks at where Asian America and politics intersect in the
run-up to the 2012 general election.