Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander Heritage Month Spotlight: New Breath Foundation
By: Elizabeth Ul, Associate
After the Cambodian genocide and war ended in 1979, the country remained in shambles. My family survived in refugee camps until they were able to flee to the Philippines. Six months later, in 1981, Catholic Charities helped my family resettle in the Tenderloin district of San Francisco. My family was living in a one-bedroom flat in 1985 when I was born, sharing the cramped quarters with more than ten relatives. Community resources were our lifeline to survive poverty and enabled my parents to persevere and build a path to more opportunity for my older sisters and me.
From an early age, I was motivated to help fill the essential needs of my community. This led me to pursue a Master of Social Welfare at UCLA, where I was first introduced to philanthropy as a potential career path. Fred Ali, then President and CEO of the Weingart Foundation, was a guest speaker in my nonprofit management course. He presented what was a novel idea at the time—giving unrestricted, multi-year funding to community organizations as a way to advance racial, social, and economic justice—components of what we now call trust-based philanthropy.
This more equitable and relationship-based model of giving resonated deeply with me. I had both worked for and witnessed nonprofits that struggled to fund their critical community services. The intersection of this professional knowledge with my personal background—coming from a resilient immigrant family that had survived poverty—shaped my path to philanthropy. I realized that people with lived experiences like myself are vital to facilitate philanthropic resources to communities. At Hirsch, I partner with philanthropists to build equity and advance meaningful community-led issues. For me, this is transformational work.
During this year’s Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander (AANHPI) Heritage Month, I invited Claudia Leung, Director of Programs at New Breath Foundation, to share her wisdom with our team about her experience working in an AANHPI-serving organization. New Breath Foundation was founded in 2017 by Eddy Zheng, the first formerly incarcerated “juvenile lifer” to serve as a Founder and President of a philanthropic foundation. The foundation mobilizes resources and re-grants funds to grassroots organizations that are building hope, healing, and new beginnings for AANHPI people—particularly those affected by incarceration, deportation, and violence.
Here are a few highlights from our team’s powerful conversation with Claudia:
- What does it mean for you to be AANHPI person in this current moment?
Claudia: There is so much happening right now in our communities. Continued anti-Asian violence feels like it is escalating alongside continued deportations and threats of detention for those who are refugees. In fact, the term “Asian American” was created in response to anti-Asian sentiment. It is important that we do not just think of the issues that affect us as individuals, but of the many issues that are facing our community as a whole. We have such a diverse community, with so many issues under our umbrella. Being in solidarity and lifting each other up is critical.
- Numbers are stark about how little philanthropic funding goes to AANHPI communities. What is needed to get more resources flowing? Is there a narrative about the experience that we don’t understand?
Claudia: It is a complex but important challenge that we need to solve for the well-being of our communities. There are three points I would emphasize in response:
- Data: Thanks to Asian Americans/Pacific Islanders in Philanthropy (AAPIP)’s research, we now have data about the percentage of foundation funding that goes to AANHPI communities (0.2% of all U.S. grantmaking). This percentage has hardly changed in the past 30 years, despite the growth of the AANHPI population in the U.S. Thanks to this data, we can begin to understand and address the lack of philanthropic investment in our communities’ crucial needs. A problem is that the AANHPI community is often omitted from research that gathers race and ethnicity information because it is considered an “Other” group (e.g., only White, Black, Latino). Without this data, it becomes harder to make the case to philanthropy, government, and other entities for the support our communities need.
- Model Minority Myth: This issue has driven a wedge between Asian Americans (often portrayed as wealthy, upwardly mobile East and sometimes South Asians) and other communities of color, and glossed over important distinctions between different Asian American communities, including Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders. The wealth disparity between the richest and poorest Asian Americans is the largest of any racial group. We need more narratives that go beyond the model minority myth to better represent the complexities of our diverse community. For example, Crazy Rich Asians is one kind of narrative, but we need more stories about refugees who became business owners, Indigenous people doing cultural land reclamation projects in Hawai’i, and countless more.
- Long-term Funding: Funders need to do a better job of including AANHPI communities in funding and investment strategies, and helping donors understand why their support needs to be long-term. One-time support is helpful but will not result in the deep systems-change equity work that our communities need; those strategies require long-term thinking and funding. Truly systemic, lasting change does not happen in a grant cycle—it takes investment over years and often decades.
- Why do you think AANHPI communities are being overlooked in philanthropy? Do you think language and cultural differences are part of this? For example, 27% of San Francisco Bay Area people identify as AANHPI yet receive a small fraction of funding in the region.
Claudia: We know that giving to communities of color in general is not proportional to population size, let alone proportional to the issues that communities of color are facing. If you look at racial demographics, funding to AANHPI communities is comparable to funding for Indigenous communities in terms of how little grant money our communities receive. Philanthropy needs to make progress towards more equitable allocation of funding for all communities of color.
The model minority myth plays a big part in funders’ perception of need (i.e., assuming that there is not a need). Within the AANHPI community, I have also seen a tendency to not ask for help or not wanting to appear needy. For example, refugee communities that are already viewed as outsiders may try to demonstrate belonging by not asking for support. There is also a general invisibility of need for many AANHPI communities. Racial justice dynamics are often portrayed through the lens of Black and White, omitting Asian communities from the conversation.
It was compelling to learn from Claudia and reflect on the unique challenges facing AANHPI communities, especially those like mine in the Bay Area. The effects of multi-generational trauma, deportation, incarceration, racism, and rising anti-Asian violence since COVID-19 are profound. Yet so is our resilience and resolve for a better future.
As Claudia so beautifully articulated, philanthropy has an urgent opportunity to examine why it has underinvested both funding and effort to partner with AANHPI communities. The impact of these resources can be life-changing for generations—just as they were for my family.