By Diane Dube and Tracy Babler
BROOKLYN CENTER (Dec. 5, 2012) — “It’s all about families and their economic well being.” That’s how the Asian and Pacific Islander Economic Summit opened in Brooklyn Center last week.
Va-Megn Thoj of Asian Economic Development Association said that the summit was a necessary dialogue to stake out a clear role for Asians and Pacific Islanders in a more mindful, equitable vision for the state and the Twin Cities region. The summit was organized by the Asian Economic Development Association, the CAPI and the Lao Assistance Center of Minnesota, and brought together more than 100 community leaders to discuss asset building, small business issues and job creation.
Minnesota’s Asian Pacific Islander (API) community is a critical contributor to the economy, said speaker Bruce Corrie, professor of economics at Concordia University and CEO of Ethnic Capital. Asians own almost 12,000 companies and employ nearly 17,000 workers in Minnesota. Combined, the API community contributes $3.5 billion in buying power, and has a $9 billion economic impact in Minnesota.
Yet many people of Asian or Pacific Islander descent in Minnesota are struggling. Since 2005, the number of Asians living in poverty in Minnesota has increased by 38 percent. The community lost 54 percent of its wealth over that same time period, largely because of decreased home values and the loss of homes to foreclosures. Since 2007, unemployment in Minnesota’s Asian community increased by 200 percent.
Corrie says that is partly because Asian and Pacific Islander Americans face a glass ceiling that prevents transformative economic change. “Where are the APIs in the governor’s cabinet? Where are the Asian American legislators? The leaders in political parties, senior leadership in state departments, chairs of important public commissions?” he asked.
Several public officials said that Minnesota’s governmental institutions can help the API community solve this problem. Robin Sternberg, deputy commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development, said that the state needs more targeted solutions to decrease the employment gap for people of color. The common themes she hears are the need for more access to capital, as well as more training opportunities that produce skilled workers.
Saint Paul Mayor Chris Coleman said that in his city, small business support is the most critical need. As the Central Corridor LRT project was built over the last three years, Asian-owned businesses have faced challenging economic times. “We have 20 to 30 years of investment by small business on University Avenue,” said Mayor Coleman.
A community panel featuring Tran Nhon of Upward Consulting Group, Bao Vang of the Hmong American Partnership, Emma Corrie of the Minnesota Department of Transportation and community member Narin Sihavong spoke to the opportunities facing the API community. Corrie said that government is a viable employer for people of color, offering an equal number of entry-level and professional jobs. Tran agreed, but said that government has a role to play in supporting Asian-owned businesses with access to capital and contracts.
The need to go beyond a one-size-fits-all approach to job creation for people of color was a theme that emerged. Sihavong said that these barriers can all be overcome with more attention to cultural competency. “Have someone who speaks the language and knows the culture,” he said. “You need to know your audience, how to reach out to them and how to identify community leaders.”
In addition, panelists raised the need to go beyond thinking about job-creation as though it is detached from other systems facing API communities. Vang said that the digital divide, a lack of financial literacy and the high cost of transportation to job centers are just some of the other barriers facing job seekers.
All of this is important not only for Asians and Pacific Islanders in Minnesota—it’s important for all Minnesotans. Minnesota Department of Human Rights Commissioner Kevin Lindsey reminded the crowd that our state’s demographics are changing. As the older, whiter generation begins to retire, those jobs will need to be filled by a generation of workers that is much more diverse. “Are we as prepared as we need to be?” asked Commissioner Lindsey. “Are people in senior leadership positions putting the hand of fellowship on those who don’t look like them?”
Summit planners say that this event was the beginning of an ongoing conversation about how to connect more Asians and Pacific Islanders to economic opportunity in Minnesota. They will create partnerships with government, community and business leaders to find ways to bridge the state’s diverse API communities to leverage more resources and develop strategic partnerships that will ensure they are not left behind, but instead are a mindfully integrated part of Minnesota’s economy.
For more information you can contact Joo-Hee Pomplun at 651-222-7798 or [email protected].