By TOM LAVENTURE
AAP staff writer
MINNEAPOLIS (Dec. 8, 2011) – David Zander is not only familiar to Minnesota’s Asian and Pacific Islander community – he has proved to be a friend and valuable ally to all refugee and immigrant groups through his work with government and grassroots organizing. For more than three decades he has worked alongside fellow immigrant Americans as a community activist.
Zander retired last year from the State Council on Asian Pacific Minnesotans and at 71 said he enjoys yoga and spends more time practicing in recent years to keep his body healthy and limber. He keeps his mind and spirit sharp and active by volunteering for various community projects such as Lao Assistance Center.
Sunny Chanthanouvong, executive director, Lao Assistance Center of Minnesota, has known Zander for 15 years, and calls him a tireless advocate with innovative strategies that draw on the strengths of community assets.
“David has always been a man of immense character, integrity and vision who brought out the very best in all of us, and all of us are stronger for his voice and his support,” Chanthanouvong said. “He’s been there for both established communities and new emerging voices in the American tapestry.”
“David has been a long time champion of Asians and Pacific Islanders in Minnesota, and exemplifies the qualities of a leader who has helped the social, economic, cultural and educational progress of APIs throughout the region,” said Ange Hwang, executive director, Asian Media Access.
Life in England
Zander was born in 1939. His earliest memories are of the Second World War. He saw the fighter planes in the sky and the bombs dropping on London. He and the other young children were carried from their homes into the night to the air raid shelters.
“A huge explosion happened on my 4th birthday, when a V2 rocket went down near London Airport,” said Zander.
His first up close view of the German soldiers came at the end of the war as prisoners of war being marched around London wearing POW armbands. He described them as “young, handsome and well-dressed.”
“These experiences left me with mixed feelings,” said Zander. “One, with feelings that war was stupid; to pit young men against each other. Yet, I was also wondering what life would have been like if England had been invaded by the German Armies. Growing up under a Nazi Germany, I perhaps would not have been such a pacifist.”
After the war Zander recalls an idyllic boyhood in the town of Richmond that is now considered an outer ring suburb of London along on the banks of the Thames. He passed an entrance exam at age 11 to attend the prestigious St Clement Danes Grammar School, an all boys public school of about 750 students.
It was a time before larger comprehensive schools and he said it had very strict discipline. The school later moved out to the country and is now co-ed.
“At that time it was located in London near the White City Stadium, North of the BBC TV studios at Shepherds Bush,” he added.
Teacher and Traveler
Zander was exposed to the outside world from a young age. A friend, Roger, brought him to the art galleries of London and to hear classical music at the Royal Albert Hall. His interest in traveling began at age 13, as he recalls a physical education teacher took his students on cycling tours around Wales.
He went on to join the Youth Hostel Association and traveled to Norway at age 17. Then he went on to work-study in Scotland and France.
“I seemed to travel further and further afield,” said Zander. “I joined the International Voluntary Service and went on projects building roads up near the Albania border in Greece. One summer I even had to hitchhike back to England across Yugoslavia.
“I think of all the people I met, friendly villagers, who later had their country torn up in ethnic conflict and strife,” he added.
Zander attended a teachers training college of the University of London, and majored in English. He graduated with honors in creative writing. His interest in cultural anthropology grew after meeting the earliest waves of students from Africa, and other immigrants from the Caribbean. He was teaching in London and had many students from other cultures in his class.
“Looking back on that now, I see that my writing style was really ethnographic,” he said. “After Kenya, I spent three years teaching in out-Island schools in the Bahamas. I became interested in Bahamian folklore and a curriculum based on Caribbean literature.”
After college Zander enlisted in the International Voluntary Service and worked with SCI of France, in Greece and central Europe.
“But my interest deepened when I spent two years teaching outside of Nairobi, Kenya, close to where the Masai were living on the plains of the Rift Valley – my experiences in Kikuyu country and the Arabic coastal area of Mombasa,” Zander said.
Finding a home in Minnesota
Zander’s life experiences and worldly education instilled a stronger desire to study anthropology. He had an idea of completing an anthropology degree and then working in Canada. He came to the Twin Cities in 1972 and was admitted into the University of Minnesota Graduate program in the Department of Anthropology in 1974.
He recalled that one of his professors, Dr. Glenn Hendricks, was among the first to research issues with the new Hmong arrivals. Within a relatively short time, he said the rapid changes in demographics and the challenges to education and health care reminded him of London during the 1950s.
“When I came here Minnesota prided itself as a progressive, welcoming environment,” said Zander. “I was pleased to put roots down here.”
After completing graduate school, Zander said finding work in the field of anthropology was difficult. He worked on research projects with the Native American community and evaluated the Limited English Program for Minneapolis Public Schools.
“This involved participant observation in classes with teachers from Southeast Asia teaching new refugee arrivals,” said Zander.
A short time later Zander landed a teaching job in anthropology at Inver Hills Community College. He also sought opportunities to use his skills in the community to help medical professionals adapt to refugees with different cultural beliefs.
Council on Asian Pacific Minnesotans
Zander was invited to chair a community advisory group formed to help establish the new nonprofit Center for Cross Cultural Health. He recruited Lee Pao Xiong to join the committee, who in turn invited Zander apply for the field researcher position with the Council on Asian Pacific Minnesotans – which was then a nonprofit organization and not yet a state agency.
Xiong was looking for someone to construct field reports and strengthen the Council’s efforts to testify on issues during hearings at the State legislature. Zander said his skills fit the unique position very well and started work as a research analyst on April 15, 1996. CAPM would become a state agency later that year.
“I always thought it was extremely progressive of Lee Pao Xiong to see the value of qualitative research approaches and not just quantitative.”
Zander said his first project was a report on casino problem gambling based on cultural perceptions of gambling in Asian communities. It recommended culturally appropriate addiction treatment that would be more effective than the mainstream methods. His work grew from there to a myriad of refugee issues that were more apparent to the Council than to the mainstream organizations at the time.
“I was out in the community, listening to families, and trying to assess how changes in welfare reform were going to impact refugees,” he said.
Working closely with the refugee communities has made Zander a valuable asset as someone with a strong background in cultures. His work continued with refugee integration and the effort to help instill self-empowerment.
“I think the majority of legislators and mainstream Minnesotans aren’t aware of the huge cultural differences clustered under that umbrella term API,” said Zander. “The parallel would be if I was clustered under a term ‘European’, that ignores the range of differences from Italian to Finnish, Irish, German, or French.”
Lee Pao Xiong, now the Director of the Center for Hmong Studies at Concordia University, St. Paul, said Zander created an environment of care and trust that would both bring agencies in as partners and empowered the community he served as participants in their own process.
Xiong said the mid to late 1990s was a more constructive time when the nation and the state were talking more seriously about immigration, welfare and education reform. His studies produced the data for policymakers to drive their policy changes but emphasized the need for a personal connection.
The challenge, said Xiong, was to ensure the faces and the stories accompanied the data to ensure legislators were making informed decisions. He said Zander was the ideal person with the knowledge, skills and ability to assist in putting faces to the numbers and telling the refugee story in order to counter the anti-immigration sentiment that was consuming America.
“David assisted in bringing people from the community to hearings at the capitol, and convinced the Health and Human Services Committee to hold their meetings and hearings in the community,” said Xiong. “The Council also produced several reports that were used by the various state agencies and legislative committees to assist them in their policy making role.”
Xiong would soon go on to Concordia University and said in the short time he worked with David at the Council, the two made a significant contribution in the area of education reforms, welfare reform, problem gambling prevention and treatment, alternative licensing, crime and justice, special education and many other areas.
“We accomplished all of these things because we were not only data driven but managed to also tell the story and put the faces of those most affected behind those data,” he added. “More importantly, we didn’t want to just react to policy directives or proposals; we were proactive and anticipatory.
“I have David Zander to thank for many of these successes,” Xiong added.
Much of Zander’s work at the Council was initially focused on the more vulnerable Southeast populations; the refugees with language and cultural barriers in addition to needing to support a family in a new home. He said they have limited work experience to transfer to this society and that these special needs were not always considered in the support mechanisms that were designed for the mainstream community.
He said there are also differences between API groups depending on length of time they have been in America. With some measuring their presence in centuries and others generations, most have a presence of three decades or less. The Karen and Bhutanese are the new arrivals with some here just months.
Other CAPM projects focused on elders immigrant issues in the communities. He worked with his friends in the Sikh community about the challenge they faced with a misguided state driver’s license policy that would have required them to remove their turbans for drivers license photos.
The council continues to advocate on issues such as glass ceilings and access to contracts by minority contractors.
“I think there is a crucial difference between immigrants who chose to come here and refugees, many of whom are fleeing conditions in their native homelands,” he said. “Some rapidly adjust; others stay rooted in their traditional beliefs. I am amazed at how fast the Hmong, Vietnamese, Cambodian, Lao have adapted – with professionals in every career, law, medicine.
“I am awed by the leadership that quickly emerged in every community,” he added. “I am frustrated by the quietness of the Asian voice in contrast to other minorities. But even that is changing with advocacy training from emerging leaders such as Pakou Hang, and Bo Thao.”
Over the years Zander said the highlights of the Council have been with learning how to draft bills that benefit the Asian communities and get them authored and passed into law. When the bills passed it sometimes meant a fair allocation of resources to help nonprofits complete their mission and address disparities.
He said the low-point was the changing political climate and the gradual whittling away of these same resources. He said it started with Governor Jesse Ventura, when he abolished funding for the Asian Juvenile Crime Prevention Programs that Lee Pao Xiong had fought so hard to establish. Then both Governors Ventura and Tim Pawlenty vetoed Legislative approval to fund the construction of the Asian Pacific Cultural Center.
“It was a continual fight to hold on to resources, let alone bring about progress,” said Zander. “The failure of APCC to survive in bonding bills has also been a low point. For the last four years the situation worsened. Suburban Legislators play the race card. Pawlenty stirred up fears against all immigrants by blurring the differences between legal and illegal immigrants. The efforts to balance the budget make the less vocal minority populations vulnerable.”
Citizenship and Marriage
Zander became a citizen in 2005. This is an important step for an immigrant and he called it “the graduation ceremony into American life.”
“It perhaps is a way to symbolize to yourself that you have made that shift,” he said. “The ceremony at Bethel College was with the hundreds of new citizens from all over the world and was a moving experience.”
Zander was raised in a socially aware and politically active family in London, and described being able to vote for the first time as an American as “a great rite of passage.” He was also aware from working with refugee youth born in the camps that it was important to be more than a legal resident and to be free from fear of deportation to feel safe – and also to be able to follow through on concerns and criticisms with the vote.
He said that one advantage of being an immigrant is the awareness of America from the perception of another culture and rest of the world. He recalled his college years in London when he resented an American driven global market strategy that he said was unethical and justified with its fear of communism.
“Americans tend to be very defensive,” he said. “They have not grasped that it is not a question of the values of a democracy. The root cause is capitalism – the aggressive American business methods have made enemies. It is not the American people; it is ruthless unethical companies.”
Zander would marry about the same time he became a citizen. His wife, Kathy is descended from Irish immigrants generations back. “She is a nurse instructor, with students from many cultures, and she is great expert in transcultural nursing,” he said.
A lifelong storyteller, Zander heard the oral storytellers in Kenya and the Caribbean. He heard stories of the Bahamian children that were collected a generation earlier by folklorists.
“Storytelling is perhaps where my earlier interest in English Literature and later training in Anthropology come together,” said Zander. “I remember writing a paper at college about why we teach myths and legends.”
After learning about the Northlands Storytelling Network, a subculture of storytellers in Minnesota that works to preserve oral folktales, Zander attended workshops in Wisconsin and Iowa and met storytellers such as Maren Hinderlie, who he learned grew up in a Japanese POW camp in the Philippines. He also met Michael Cotter, a third generation Irish farmer storyteller in Austin, Minnesota and many others.
“I felt that America was alive under the veneer of malls and materialism,” said Zander. “Maren and I, and Phuoc Thi-Minh Tran have been creating a network of Asian storytellers and performing locally at events such as Tellebration, the Minneapolis Mosaic and World Refugee Day. Locally we are part of the North Star Storytelling League.”
His new hobby is blogging and is developing a web site up for Asian Storytellers in Minnesota.
Debra Stone, Founder and Co-Facilitator of the Northside Writers Group, said Zander is an integral member and leader who shares his own stories and introduces new members from the immigrant and refugee communities who want this outlet to preserve and share their culture with others.
“This organization is more representative of what the North Minneapolis community really looks like because of David’s strong connection to the Asian-Pacific community,” Stone said. “The stories both oral and written shared by the Asian-Pacific writers David has presented to this organization has made our annual community readings educational and entertaining to non-Asian-Pacific members of the Northside community.”
Looking back, Zander has been a Minnesotan for more than half of his life – longer than he has lived in his native England.
“Yet, like all immigrants, I daily encounter questions that show that we have not blended fully,” he said. “I say two words, and someone asks where am I from; why did you come here? It’s meant well, but it pushes you out.”
For the first time Zander said he understood the process of putting down roots, the importance of making friends in one place. Even today most of his best friends have lived overseas and have worked in organizations such as the Peace Corps.
He said the English system is close to the American counterpart, and that he feels the major differences are in education. He was raised on essay exams and hadn’t seen a multiple choice test until he came to America.
“I am horrified by the lack of challenges faced by kids in the schools here – especially in math and science,” he said. “Yet I do not regret moving out of a rigid class system in England. Here you can strive to be a lawyer or a doctor. In London I somehow felt that there were more subtle class barriers to entering those professions.” οsubtle class barriers to entering those professions.”