Politics: Committed to the CAUSE

July 11, 2012

In 1993,
the California legislature had zero Asian Americans among its 120 members. That
same year marked the launch of the Center for Asian Americans United for Self
Empowerment (CAUSE), a nonprofit founded to address this lack of
representation. Since then, more than 15 Asian Americans have made their way to

CAUSE doesn’t take credit for this
breakthrough, but Executive Director Carrie Gan would like to think the
organization played a small role.

Sitting in her Pasadena office,
Gan described CAUSE’s push to cultivate greater Asian American participation in
the democratic process, and to increase the community’s clout. From its
beginnings, the organization has arranged government internships for college
and high school students, and in recent years launched a pair of leadership
development programs that cater to women and law professionals.

Beyond these specialized
offerings, CAUSE also promotes one fundamental activity that almost everyone
can join in on: voting.

The organization conducts voter
outreach across the Los Angeles area in a variety of settings, from high schools
in the San Gabriel Valley to after-work mixers in downtown LA and senior
centers in Chinatown. Sometimes, this outreach simply entails registering
people to vote, but often it can involve informative presentations about ballot
issues. For example, CAUSE’s ongoing “Visions for LA” speaker series has hosted
candidates for the city’s 2013 mayoral race, and the organization plans to hold
a forum on health care reform in September.

While engaging the electorate is a
critical component of Gan’s job, “it’s not a sexy thing that corporations and
other foundations usually like to sponsor,” she said.

CAUSE has had greater success
acquiring funding for its internships and leadership development programs, but
Gan remains undeterred in her commitment to Asian American voters. She
emphasized the need to serve the elderly in particular because they frequently
require assistance in languages other than English. (The alternatives tend to
be Cantonese and Mandarin, since CAUSE has roots in the Chinese community, but
the organization has strong Korean and Vietnamese connections as well).

“These older adults, they’re so
grateful whenever we go there,” Gan said in reference to her visits to senior
centers. “I even had some call me on my cell phone two weeks later, saying
‘Hey, I lost my sample ballot, can you come by and give us something?’ And I
had to drive there and drop it off for them.”

She relies on “broken Cantonese”
to facilitate these encounters, but even that imperfect effort makes a big
difference, demonstrating how “language is such an important tool in voter

Despite the challenges of
providing bilingual assistance, Gan explained that the elderly make for an
excellent target audience, given that “they have time on their hands, and they
are interested, and they’re all in one central location.”

Younger people, in her experience,
show less enthusiasm. Those in their twenties often resist her voter registration attempts, citing the fear of jury duty as the main reason. She
responds with appeals to their sense of civic responsibility, but she also
understands that the call to vote will have more punch “if we can glamorize it
a little bit more.”

To that end, CAUSE collaborated
with actress Kelly Hu on a pair of flashy public service announcements leading
up to the last two presidential elections. In 2004, they roped in Hollywood
luminaries Maggie Q, John Cho, Tamlyn Tomita, Russell Wong and Ming-Na Wen for “The Least Likely,” a faux sci-fi movie
trailer that highlights low voter turnout among young Asian Americans. Then in
2008, Hu appeared alongside George Takei in a martial arts homage entitled “Embrace Your Power,” in which a wise
master exhorts his protégé to seize her destiny through a voting booth.

declared that “entertainment folks have a key role here in terms of reaching
out,” but she also repeatedly underscored the value of what non-celebrities can
bring to the table. CAUSE depends heavily on volunteers. That's how she got her start with the organization.

To that effect, Gan would like Hyphen
readers to join her in mobilizing Asian American voters.
“Just don’t be afraid to get involved,” she said. “Your voice does matter.”


For more information about the
Center for Asian Americans United for Self Empowerment (CAUSE), visit