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Washington Area Women's Foundation

#AskHer Series: Hanh Le, Executive Director, Weissberg Foundation

Our new #AskHer series is an interview with our partners, community members and supporters who work tirelessly for women and girls. Our latest interview is with Hanh Le, Executive Director of the Weissberg Foundation. The interview was conducted by our Communications Manager, Mercy Chikowore.

As we navigate our way through the ongoing global pandemic, there are various social issues that have also emerged. Sparked by the origin of the virus in Wuhan, China, the media, along with racial justice organizations have seen an uptick in racist attacks and discrimination towards members of the Asian and Pacific Islander community.

As we close Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month, and to better understand the aforementioned injustices, we talked to Hanh Le, Executive Director of the Weissberg Foundation. Her answers to our questions shine the light on what some members of the AAPI community may be experiencing right now and how our community can be supportive during this crisis.

Mercy Chikowore: Can you tell me a little about yourself you/your organization?

Hanh Le: I’m the Executive Director of the Weissberg Foundation. We are a small family foundation based in Rosslyn in Arlington, VA, and we center our efforts on advancing racial equity, primarily in the DC region and also a few states where we have a strong trustee presence, so Wisconsin, New Mexico and New York. I’ve been working with the Weissberg family for four years, but the foundation has been around for 30 years. We are proud that we’re a small–small staff, relatively small board, and have a relatively small grantmaking budget. It allows us to be super connected to each other, to our partners, and to our work and also to be able to move fairly quickly and nimbly.

Personally, I’ve been in DC 17 years now, but I was born in Vietnam and grew up in Virginia where our family was resettled after the fall of Saigon. I consider all three of those places–DC, Virginia and Vietnam–home, they are all intrinsically part of me. I am of Vietnam and also of the DMV region. Given that the large part of my career has been working for national nonprofit organizations, it’s deeply meaningful to me to now focus my work in this place I call home.

MC: Glad you can call the DMV home! How have you/your organization had to shift to continue to support your grantee partners right now?

HL: In terms of our strategy, it’s been more of a leaning in to really dig deeper and center our work even more on our existing values, which are listening and learning; building power and community; and equity and justice.  We are also leaning into our core strategies, only one of which is funding. A lot of people think that foundations just give money, and that is certainly an important part of what we do. However, in addition to funding, we have what we call our ABC strategies, because they are so fundamental to our work.

The A is for Amplification, making sure we use our voice, our platform, our connections to uplift stories, narratives, work, efforts that need to be amplified. The B is for Building Capacity, certainly building the capacity of our grantee partners to be able to achieve their missions more effectively, but also building the capacity of the philanthropic sector to operate more equitably and effectively, and then building our own internal capacity as an organization and individuals to do the same. And the C is for Collaboration, and that means not only supporting collaboration among grantee partners but also working more collaboratively with funding and other partners to organize for collective action.

I’m so thankful that we’ve been on this journey of clarifying our values and strategies and really deepening our analysis of structural racism and racial equity over the last several years because it has allowed us to act pretty quickly and with clarity of purpose in this crisis.

MC: Transparency and clarity are both key. What should people know about you/your organization during this pandemic that they may not otherwise read or hear about?

HL: I’ve been asked to speak a lot on webinars for the philanthropic community and to talk to peers and grantee partners to share how we’ve responded to COVID-19, centering equity and with a trust-based approach. This is a part of our change strategy for sure, but I don’t want it to be perceived by others or by us as a foundation, that we have got it all figured out. We definitely do not. We’re trying to do the best we can and share that transparently in the hopes that others can learn what might work well, what might not work so well, and just get conversations about power, race and equity into mainstream dialogue. It’s not about lifting ourselves up or being lifted up as exemplars, it’s about just saying hey, we’ve been given this platform and we’re going to use it to advocate for equity.

Anyone who is engaged in racial equity work knows that it’s not an end state. It’s a constant effort to learn, understand, find meaning, and act in ways that are going to be effective. We as individuals at the Foundation, as well as an institution, still have a lot of work to do to deepen our understanding of racial equity and the impact of how we’re working with each other and our grantee partners. And it’s very personal, and that can be really hard especially when there’s anxiety and uncertainty in your environment, home, community, and the world.

MC: Have people reacted to or maybe come to you for something you never thought about because of the pandemic?

HL: I think a lot of people reach out to me because of my identity as an Asian American woman, an immigrant and the different hats I wear–running a foundation, being on board of Asian American LEAD (AALEAD), my deep involvement with the Cherry Blossom Giving Circle, and Asian Americans/Pacific Islanders in Philanthropy (AAPIP). I think a lot of people have reached out to me recently especially because of the heightened visibility of anti-Asian racism and discrimination caused by harmful rhetoric around COVID-19. That’s not been surprising but it’s also, like gosh, I’m not an expert in all things Asian. I get “rep sweats,” or representation sweats. Am I speaking for the entire Asian community? I don’t feel equipped to do that, but I can definitely share my experiences and perspectives. If I’m given the platform and asked, then I’ll take the opportunity to amplify things that I think will advance racial and intersectional equity, but those rep sweats are real.

MC: Rep sweats, yes, I think I can relate and also, we are now ‘one of those people’ who reached out to you. So as COVID-19 has unfortunately spread across the United States, so have reports of racist attacks against people of Asian descent. What have you seen or heard in the Washington region regarding these attacks towards this population?

HL: There are incidents of racism that Asian healthcare providers are facing, trying to support people through this crisis and at the same time people refusing treatment from them because they’re Asian or saying rude, racist things to them. Also, people out and about just living their lives with their children, buying groceries, walking their dogs being spit upon or told to “go home, go back to your country.” It’s a microaggression that hits really hard, because this is our country.

Through AALEAD, I know our staff are doing a lot around ensuring that youth are supported around identity, anti-bullying, and mental health. We all know that the crisis is taking a toll on everyone’s mental health, but I imagine particularly on youth and youth of color. Even if they have not experienced the direct hate and racism because of their identity, there’s the anxiety and knowledge that it’s happening. And they’re seeing it on the news coming right from our President.

MC: What do you think spurred this discrimination in regards to the pandemic?

HL: I’m pretty sure the President insisting on calling COVID-19 “the Wuhan virus” has done a lot to spur how people are connecting the pandemic to Asian Americans. This racist rhetoric simply aggravates the bigotry and racism that has been a part of our American history of anti-nativism, anti-Blackness, anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, and, yes, anti-Asian racism.

The Chinese Exclusion Act, the internment of Japanese Americans, the murder of and denial of justice for Vincent Chin. People have likely heard of Japanese internment, maybe some have heard of the Chinese Exclusion Act, probably fewer know about Vincent Chin, but this is all American history, and it’s history that’s important for certainly Asian Americans to know but all Americans to know. And it’s important to know the context of this Asian-American history within a broader context of our racialized US history and how the treatment of Asians is closely linked to the treatment of Black people in America, laborers in America, farmworkers in America,. Asians have both benefited from and been oppressed by the false hierarchy of Black and White in America. Asian Americans have been used intentionally as a wedge between Black and White, but the more we are knowledgeable about that, the more we as Asian Americans can claim our power, shape our own narratives, and stand in true solidarity with Black, Indigenous, and other people of color.

MC: Do you think the attacks and attitudes are towards all Asian populations?

HL: That’s part of the complexity with this concept of “Asian American.” Asia has so many different countries and ethnicities. Asian Americans have found power in solidarity, in being joined together under this broad banner of “Asian American,” it brings power in community and a platform. But there’s also this invisibilization of the distinctness of the different types of Asian identities that are represented by Asian Americans, and often people don’t see that. Most people wouldn’t know if someone is Chinese or Korean or Vietnamese, because of stereotypes, lack of knowledge, and this general grouping of Asian Americans.

With COVID-19 and because of the connection to China many people are going to simply assume or assert that if you’re Asian you’re a threat.

There are all these narratives and stories that people make up of others that they don’t now about. So how do we tell our own narrative, reclaim our story and how do we educate others? When you look at data disaggregated by race, those with the “best” outcomes are often White, and not far behind are often Asian Americans, and then you see the huge disparate gaps for Black and/or Latinx individuals.  When you start disaggregating Asians by country of origin or immigrant status, you see that some of the worst outcomes are in distinct segments of the population, like Southeast Asian communities. This isn’t about oppression Olympics, but it demonstrates how the lumping together of Asian Americans is powerful in some ways and also harmful in others.

MC: Do you think the anti-Asian sentiment is affecting women more than men?

HL: This is where it’s helpful to bring an intersectional analysis to the pandemic. When you start thinking of disproportionate impact, a lot of women work in the care industry and/or a lot of women are the primary caretakers of their household and balancing work and all the other commitments that women typically hold. So I do think in terms of impact, Asian women are bearing a heavier burden of the pandemic than Asian men might be.

MC: What is your advice to anyone dealing with these type of attacks?

HL: These anti-Asian attacks are everything from the violent to microaggressive. So, the first thing I’ll say is if you are experiencing or witnessing violence or potential violence, do whatever you need to do to ensure safety and necessary support, whether it’s legal, police, counseling–whatever you need to be safe.

In terms of how to deal with them non-violent attacks, I’ll share a “do” and a “don’t.”

DO: When CBS News reporter Weijia Jiang asked President Trump a question about the pandemic but not at all related to China, his response was, “Maybe it’s a question you should ask China.” Clearly a microaggression. Jiang’s response was, “Why are saying that to me specifically?” That’s a tactic I’ve learned to employ when someone has done or said something racist, asking them, “help me understand why you said/did that?” This puts the onus on the person to speak for—and hopefully reckon with—what they did and why they did it.

DON’T: There’s this horrible piece that Andrew Yang wrote in The Washington Post in April, about how Asians need to show that we are more American than ever, like we’re not the cause of the problem but we can be part of the solution. It was so problematic because it was essentially buying into and perpetuating anti-Asian stereotypes—the perpetual foreigners, model minorities, and/or quiet and timid.

There’s nothing more American than speaking up for what we believe, speaking up when we think that an injustice is being perpetuated. I encourage Asian Americans to be speaking up for ourselves, for our community members, for our friends, and to be bold and public about it. And we need to speak up when we witness racism against non-Asian people of color as well.

MC: Speaking up about injustice should be the case for everyone for sure. In your opinion, what steps can we take to combat these attitudes and behaviors?

HL: I’ve seen some powerful, more public displays of solidarity between AAPI and Black and Latinx leaders, in racial justice movements. So speaking up in allyship, in solidarity and understanding that even though our struggles are very different, there’s a lot that we share in common, that our liberation is deeply interconnected, and that there’s a lot we can do together to advance more equitable outcomes for all of our communities.

Just like the AAPI community is not a monolith in terms of our cultural identity, languages, religion, etc., we’re also not a monolith around our racial equity analysis. I’m seeing more mainstream Asian Americans wanting to learn more and speak honestly about our history, our own internalized racism, anti-Blackness in our community and how that plays out. I think the AAPI community being targeted in this pandemic, alongside the disparate impact on Black, Latinx, and Indigenous lives, is an opportunity for a lot of self-work in addition to the external education that needs to happen with it.

AAPIP has a Statement on Racial Equity in Philanthropy that speaks to how AAPIs are a significant and diverse part of America’s multicultural fabric; we fight for racial justice and equity; we stand in solidarity with fellow communities of color; and we are partners in philanthropy’s pursuit of racial equity. How do we constantly live into this?

In this very moment, there is an urgent need for Asian Americans to speak up and act up against the extreme violence against Black lives. Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and George Floyd are currently in the headlines, and there have been so many other brutal murders of Black people – we cannot be bystanders. In the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers, Asian American officer Tou Thao literally stood by and watched it happen. By not speaking and acting up against racism, by not being anti-racist, we continue to perpetuate it.

Activist Michelle Kim wrote a piece on Allyship Actions for Asians to Show Up for the Black Community Right Now that I recommend checking out.

MC: In terms of your team, is this something you discuss often? Is there something you’re working on internally around the anti-Asian sentiment? 

HL: The Weissberg Foundation is committed to advancing people of color-led organizations and efforts that are building power and making change for racial justice. We center that on fighting anti-Black racism. Something I struggle with is how I as an Asian American leading work to ensure that resources are being directed to organizations centering their work on fighting anti-Black racism and that are led by Black and brown people balance both not favoring and not be biased against Asian issues and organizations? In the past, not knowing how to navigate this tension has caused me to not advocate as strongly and publicly for AAPIs as I should have. I talk very openly with my staff and board about this internal struggle, and they’re incredibly supportive of understanding and supporting me to use my voice, and lift up all these communities we care about, including the AAPI community I identify with.

MC: What do your grantee partners need right now, and maybe looking six months out, what do you think this space will need when society enters the reconstruction phase of the pandemic?

HL: Obviously, nonprofits need continued sustained financial resources to support acute relief needs the pandemic has exacerbated, but also their core mission work, which for most of our grantee partners is advocacy, organizing and civic engagement for systems change and the infrastructure needed to do their mission work effectively. A big part of that will be working more virtually internally and as a way to engage community. In addition to providing financial resources, how do we help nonprofits think about financial models and revenues that are going to serve them well? Foundations also need to start thinking about what funding—from philanthropy and government—looks like for 2021 and beyond, and help our nonprofit partners both advocate for and prepare for that.

Ultimately, trust is what our nonprofit partners really need; they know their communities best and they know how best to do their work. As funders, we can trust that and find out how we can best leverage our resources to support them. The Weissberg Foundation is part of the Trust-Based Philanthropy Project, which is advocating for things that nonprofits have been telling us they’ve needed for a long time–multi-year support, unrestricted support, streamlined paperwork, centering community–all these things that make for stronger relationships between funders and grantee partners. I think we’re seeing more funders implementing trust-based practices because of the emergency nature of the crisis. Our hope is that we continue to practice a trust-based approach to philanthropy in the long-term.

MC: What are some of the most important lessons you’ve learned as a result of the pandemic thus far? 

HL: I’m not sure about new lessons learned, but I’ve certainly gotten affirmation and a kick in the rear about what’s important. One thing is that we need go harder on fighting for systemic change for racial equity. As funders, we need to go beyond funding, and be advocating, and building capacity and collaborating for transformative change.

Another thing and even more fundamental, is that it’s all about people. People can be deeply problematic and concerning and hateful and bad, but people can also be amazingly resilient, and innovative and supportive and caring and empathetic. That’s what brings me the most faith and inspiration–the people. Everyone from my family and friends, to our grantee partners, fellow funders, some government leaders, and mostly community members who are doing all they can to take care of those around them.

There are people that are fighting really, really hard and going above and beyond to ensure that we come out of this in a way that reduces the harm, ensures that everyone is taken care of–especially our most vulnerable populations, and creates a new, more just and equitable reality. When it’s all said and done, it boils down to our humanity.