HKS Celebrates Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders Heritage Month

May is Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, which recognizes the histories and impact of immigrants from Asia and the Pacific islands of Melanesia, Micronesia and Polynesia. AAPI Heritage month is celebrated this month to commemorate the completion of the transcontinental railroad in the 1860s, a project executed predominantly by Chinese immigrants, and the arrival of the first Japanese immigrants to the U.S. around the same time – both of which occurred in the month of May.

This year’s theme, selected by the Federal Asian Pacific American Council, is “Advancing Leaders Through Collaboration,” which is especially appropriate in this post-COVID world as we work to make the most of a new type of global collaboration. The pandemic has rocked us and put a magnifying glass over some of our challenges as a team and as a firm, but it has also provided an opportunity to come out stronger.

All year, but especially during this month, we are thankful for our HKS team members who identify as AAPI – who are making their mark in our industry and paving the way for others to follow. We spoke to several of these leaders about what this month means to them, their heritage, and their experience in design.

From left to right: Dr. Susan Chung, Jessica Ma, Mitchell Sekiya

What is your heritage, and how would you describe your relationship with that heritage?

Dr. Susan Chung — Senior Research Program Manager; Washington, D.C.

I’m Korean with almost all of my relatives living in Korea, including my parents. I’m still hesitant in calling myself Korean American even though I’ve lived in the U.S. for the majority of my life; the 10 years that I spent in Korea were when I cultivated my identity and some of my impactful experiences in the U.S. have actually connected me more to Korean history and culture.

Jessica Ma — Design Professional; San Francisco

My heritage is Chinese, specifically Taishanese. While Taishan is a small village in the Guandong Province of China, I’m privileged to be surrounded by a community full of Taishanese people in San Francisco’s Chinatown. I’m so proud to have parents who immigrated here as young adults and worked hard to provide for my brother and me. My mother’s first language was Taishanese, but she learned Cantonese, Mandarin, and English throughout her life in order to survive and run a business in the U.S. My relationship with my heritage is learning about my parent’s journey and my family’s history.

Mitchell Sekiya — Project Coordinator; Los Angeles

My heritage is American, and my family has been in the U.S. for four generations. Growing up in Hawaii, a melting pot of American, Pacific Islander and Asian culture and ethnicities, I was never acutely aware of defining my ethnic background. I am ethnically half Japanese and half Chinese. It wasn’t until I moved to Los Angeles for college when I began to understand my ethnic heritage, Hawaii’s assimilation of many cultures, and the distinct differences between each Asian community.

How did your upbringing and your background shape your personal values?

Chung: I was born in Korea but grew up in the U.S. for nine years as an expat until my parents decided to move back to our home country in order for my sister and me to fully know and embrace our roots. I remember the culture shock, academic struggles, and social displacement from being a Korean who didn’t speak much Korean, yet was living in Korea and going through Korean education. But I persevered through the challenges with the support from many and am forever thankful to my parents in making that difficult decision so I could fully understand my roots, stand strong in my identity, and grow toward my aspirations.

Ma: My upbringing taught me the importance of family and how food brings the family together. Unlike most American children growing up, we did not celebrate the holidays by decorating our house or exchanging presents. While we did receive red envelopes during Lunar New Year, our traditions mostly included gathering extended family for dim sum during lunch or hotpot during dinner on the weekends.

Sekiya: My personal values are melded from my upbringing and environment, more than ethnic principles. My personal values of dependability and sustainability were built on the foundation of having lived in an environmentally aware Hawaii and a part of the legacy my grandparents instilled in me through the years. My Japanese grandfather was part of the 100th Battalion/442nd Infantry in WWII and his legacy does give me a sense of purpose as an Asian American.

This year’s theme for AAPI Heritage Month is “Advancing Leaders Through Collaboration.” Can you share how allyship and collaboration can foster growth and advancement of the AAPI community in the design profession?

Chung: The Korean culture that I know stems from a collective culture (as many other Asian cultures) that considers the details of people and process to create the holistic experience. The virtues of collective culture can become catalysts for creativity and innovation by making connections among different thoughts, perspectives, and ideas and moving forward together toward the desired goal. These characteristics are important for us to practice as the design profession thrives, when a culture of creativity exists and can help us grow and advance to lead in this area.

Ma: Allyship and collaboration can mean giving back to the AAPI community whether it is through mentorship, volunteering, or networking. We can support the next generation of AAPI designers in ways that could have helped us when we were searching for support. We can also continue to support one another in our current situations by being great listeners, celebrating one another’s culture and accomplishments, and supporting each other’s growth.

Sekiya: Allyship and collaboration are very much needed. Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders have been Americans for many generations yet are often still invisible, especially in leadership positions. My hope is that allyship can help leadership understand the ability and perspectives the AAPI community has to offer and invest in that potential.

My hope is that allyship can help leadership understand the ability and perspectives the AAPI community has to offer and invest in that potential.

As we commemorate AAPI Heritage Month, we can’t ignore stories of anti-Asian racism and violence across the U.S. How can we better advocate for and support our Asian American and Pacific Islander friends, colleagues and neighbors?

Chung: We can amplify our voice to be heard. We tend to be the more silent minority, persevering through given challenges and waiting passively for the opportune time. But the ‘we’ does not have to be just the AAPI community; yes, there is virtue in perseverance, but justice doesn’t happen in silence and isn’t established on its own. I hope for conversations that lead to genuinely getting to know one another, understanding and respecting differences, and for actions toward the common goal of creating a better world and cherishing life. White, black, brown, yellow, tan, peach, golden – whichever skin color or tone we are, we all bleed red.

Ma: It is important that we stay informed with what is happening in the news in regard to anti-Asian racism in order to continue discussions about how we can better combat that violence and create real change. I believe that there are many people supporting our AAPI community by working to change the law, raising awareness, sharing resources and or providing emotional support. There is no amount of support that is too little to impact positive change, so I encourage everyone to support our AAPI community in the best way that they can.

Sekiya: It really comes down to awareness and being open minded in my opinion. It feels like Asian Hate is pushed aside because society communicates that there are bigger social issues and more important current events. When these stories are ignored, the simplest way to better advocate and support AAPI is to begin the small step of actually taking some time to think, be open minded, and understand what anti-Asian racism actually is and how it affects your fellow AAPI colleagues and neighbors. It’s an opportunity for communities to grow together and to learn about the cause and effect from history to today, in order to change tomorrow for the better.