There have been many reports about the tremendous growth of the Asian American population in Austin. But what about the people behind the numbers? How are they interacting with the City and what are some of their needs?
The City of Austin is engaged in several efforts to address those questions. With both the Asian American Quality of Life (AAQOL) Initiative, and also the Asian American Resource Center (AARC), which recently celebrated its one-year anniversary, efforts are underway to better understand and fully engage this growing population.
Texas has the third largest Asian population in the country. In Austin alone, there are more than 55,000 Asian Americans, according to 2010 census data, which accounts for roughly 6.5 percent of the population. Asian Americans are the fastest growing segment of the city’s population, growing twice as fast as the general population, doubling every 10 years, while the general population of Austin doubles every 20 to 25 years, according to the Austin city demographer.
Asian Americans are an incredibly diverse population, with that diversity expressed in ethnic origin, language, education, income levels and geographic distribution within Austin.
In the 1990s, Asian American community members, working through the Network of Asian American Organizations, organized and advocated for the construction of a city facility focused on the Asian American community and serving all of Austin. That vision became a reality when the AARC opened Oct. 1, 2013.
The AARC operates under the City of Austin’s Parks and Recreation Department, which also oversees the Emma S. Barrientos Mexican American Cultural Center and the George Washington Carver Museum and Cultural Center.
The same month that the AARC opened, the Asian American Quality of Life Initiative was approved by a City Council resolution on Oct. 24, 2013. An AAQOL Advisory Commission was also created to advise the City Council on issues relating to the AARC as well as provide on-going guidance and support for the city’s Asian American quality of life initiatives.
Commission members include Richard Jung, Vincent Cobalis, Miyong Kim, Sonia Kotecha, Thuy Nguyen, Shubhada Saxena and Richard Yuen. Members have been meeting monthly and are working to oversee a citywide survey on the needs and quality of life issues for Asian Americans to be completed later this year.
Language access is major issue. With documents readily available in both Spanish and English, there are many who struggle to find materials in Chinese, Vietnamese or Korean. Lacking the ability to read basic information, recent immigrants and refugees lack the resources to fully participate civically.
The AARC, through an interlocal agreement with Austin Community College, offers free English as a Second Language classes and works to bridge that gap. The AAQOL Advisory Commission, with the AARC and other City departments, is working to provide more translated documents in Chinese, Vietnamese and Korean.
“The whole range of social services safety net needs to look at how they serve the Asian American community,” said Vincent Cobalis, AAQOL Advisory Commission Vice-Chair. “One of the biggest fallacies is that Asian Americans are the model minority, that we don’t need help because we are so rich. But who are the people waiting the tables and serving in the service industry (such as restaurants, nail salons, and other)?”
Since opening, the AARC has welcomed more than 25,000 visitors through its doors for events produced in-house, collaborations and rentals, as well as through its own programs ranging from art exhibits, film screenings, culinary workshops, the annual May Asian Pacific American Heritage Month celebration and more.
“The overwhelmingly positive response from the community has exceeded our expectations this past year,” said AARC Manager Taja Beekley. “We’ve had the privilege of partnering with many well-known organizations from educational programming to cultural celebrations. With that said, there is more that can be done, especially in providing services related to healthcare assistance, tax preparation, legal aid, etc. We will also continue to reach out to a greater audience.”
One of the standout new programs of the AARC is the RICE (Recreation and Intergenerational Community Education) program. Through RICE, senior citizens come to the AARC for the Senior Lunch Social, plus recreational activities, wellness classes, computer classes and other activities three days each week. It’s a resource that is sorely needed for seniors who may speak limited English, lack transportation, and are seeking a place that is culturally familiar.
Austin senior Xinbao Zhang looks forward to socializing with other Chinese speaking seniors every week at the RICE Senior Lunch Social. Once a week, she is picked up by an AARC van, transported to the center and enjoys an Asian style meal. Sometimes, she will play a game of mah jong with friends, or sing karaoke.
“Because my mom has a disability, it is the only thing at this time she could go and enjoy. It has made quite a difference to her life. I see her happy. I am really grateful for the program,” said Zhang’s daughter Jean Shaw.
With the AAQOL working to better define needs of the Asian American community of Austin, along with the AARC providing services and a cultural space for all to utilize, the City of Austin welcomes all to engage in the process.
For more information about the AARC, visit www.austintexas.gov/aarc. For more information about the AAQOL Advisory Commission visit http://www.austintexas.gov/content/asian-american-quality-life-advisory-commission.
AARC by the numbers, FY 2013-2014
FY 2014: $760,000 budget, generated $55,000 revenue.
Six Full time staff, 12 active, part-time staff.
Six classrooms, two community rooms, one conference room, one ballroom, one computer lab and library.
Seventy-nine paid facility rentals, including galas, festivals and 60 meetings and trainings.
One hundred sixty-two free community room reservations, including meetings, presentations, performance rehearsals, volunteer projects, etc.
Thirteen collaborations and four co-sponsorships.
Six special events including RICE Festival for APA Heritage Month.
RICE senior program: 250 registrants, more than 1,200 meals served.
Volunteer program: 66 members registered, 124 hours committed.
Youth program: two youth and two teen summer camp sessions, school tours.
Languages spoken at the AARC
Bahasa Indonesia, Burmese, Ilonggo, Hindi, Japanese, Khmer, Korean, Mandarin Chinese, Nepalese, Spanish, Tagalog, Taiwanese, Telugu, Toisan Chinese, Urdu, Vietnamese, Visayas