Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander Heritage Month

May is dedicated to honoring AAPI cultures and heritage.

Our agency is delighted to take some time during May to highlight and honor the contributions of the Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander communities, which comprise numerous cultures, countries, and identities.

Asian and Pacific Islander cultures are tough to encapsulate in a brief message such as this one, firstly because those two terms include such a large and diverse pool of people. The term “Asian American” alone encompasses a broad array of cultural backgrounds, including East Asian (Chinese, Hong Kong, Japanese, Korean, Mongolian, Ryukyuan, Taiwanese and Tibetan), South Asian (Bangladeshi, Bhutanese, Indian, Indo-Caribbean, Indo-Fijian, Maldivian, Nepalese, Pakistani, and Sri Lankan) and Southeast Asian (Burmese, Cambodian, Filipino, Hmong, Indonesian, Iu Mien, Laotian, Malaysian, Singaporean, Thai, and Vietnamese).

When you add Pacific Islander Americans to the list, then we also add many more regions with rich histories and cultures, including Micronesian (Carolinians, Chamorros, Chuukese, I-Kiribati, Kosraeans, Marshallese, Palauans, Pohnpeians, and Yapese), Melanesian (Fijians, Kanaks, Ni-Vanuatu, Papua New Guineans, Solomon Islanders, and West Papuans), and Polynesian (Maori, Native Hawaiians, Rapa Nui, Samoans, Tahitians, Tokelauans, Niueans, Cook Islands Maori, and Tongans).

People who identify as Asian American and Pacific Islander, or AAPI, often are overlooked in conversations about diversity, equity, and inclusion. We want to acknowledge and recognize this fact, while letting our AAPI colleagues and youth know that our agency sees you and we are committed to supporting your rights and opportunities in an equitable way.

We hope that everyone will take some time this month to learn more about AAPI history and cultures, and to participate in events you hear about in your facility or community. Here are a few online resources you might start with:

We also asked a few of our AAPI teammates to weigh in on their work, and you’ll find their responses below. Our agency is thankful for the rich perspectives and contributions of our AAPI staff and the youth in our care.

Perspectives from OYA

Daniel Xiong, Foster Care Recruitment Coordinator

Daniel identifies as Hmong, an ethnic group of people who originally came from China more than 4,000 years ago. Some Hmong left China to Vietnam, Laos, Thailand and Burma beginning in the early 1800s due to land expansion by the Chinese government. After U.S. forces left South Vietnam in 1975, thousands of Hmong moved out of Laos and sought asylum in North America, Australia, and Western Europe. As of 2019, about 327,000 Hmong Americans live in the U.S.

Daniel joined OYA in 2008 as a group life coordinator at Oak Creek, MacLaren, and Hillcrest. He also served as a case coordinator. After seven years, he moved to the Youth Reformation System team as an implementation specialist. He’s been on the foster care team for 2 1/2 years.

How would you describe your approach to your work at OYA?

“Growing up in marginalized neighborhoods and working closely with OYA youth filled me with curiosity as to why youth continue entering the juvenile system. My journey of learning about the juvenile system led me to various positions at our agency.

“OYA is a big agency, but I strive to be the change for constructive systematic improvements in the environments that I am in. I no longer work with youth directly, but I believe my contributions will impact positive change for the youth in our care. Change takes consistency and perseverance.”

What’s something you’ve done at OYA that you’re proud of?

“I would have to say when I had the opportunity to train staff at all OYA facilities on Positive Human Development (PHD). It was meaningful and a pleasure to get to know staff from each facility as well as connect with the youth I knew from my intake unit.”

Who is a notable Asian American or Pacific Islander person you admire?

“Martial artist Bruce Lee is inspirational and his wisdom stays relevant. One of his quotes that I like is, ‘If you always put limit[s] on everything you do, physical or anything else, it will spread into your work and into your life. There are no limits. There are only plateaus, and you must not stay there, you must go beyond them.’”

Ritu Guzman, Human Resources Assistant

Ritu spent her early years growing up in India before coming to the United States at age 8. She identifies both as Asian American and as Indian American.

She has been working at OYA for the past nine years in Human Resources. Previously, she worked for 18 years in the discipline offices of a middle and a high school in the Salem-Keizer School District.

How would you describe your approach to your work at OYA?

“Working in Human Resources, I try to make my approach more of a relational one. I focus on making staff feel comfortable and ensure staff know they can contact me for anything. I really enjoy being able to meet employees’ needs and answer questions. I take pride in my work.”

What’s something you’ve done at OYA that you’re proud of?

“My work at MacLaren during its consolidation with Hillcrest, about six years ago. This entailed assisting with a mass hiring for about a year, and it afforded me the opportunity to implement hiring practices. It was a huge project and I was proud to be part of it.”

Who is a notable Asian American or Pacific Islander person you admire?

Gaura Devi. She is labeled a tree hugger in India. Along with other women, she staged a protest against the cutting down of trees. They have forests and small areas of rainforest-like places in India, but they’re cutting trees down because they’re making everything into cities. They’re building all these homes and buildings, and India is becoming more congested. Gauri Devi was stepping in and saying, ‘No, we need trees, and we need clean, fresh air.’ She was helping to create some change with the government and helping to preserve the forests.”

Funaki Letisi, Juvenile Parole/Probation Officer, Marion County

Funaki was born in American Samoa and grew up in Hawaii, but above all, he considers himself Tongan. The Kingdom of Tonga, a Polynesian country in the south Pacific Ocean, is where many of his siblings were born. He still has many family members living there.

Funaki began working at OYA in 2004 as a group life coordinator at MacLaren. He moved up to become a YCUC (today known as a case coordinator) and an acting treatment manager (the precursor to the living unit manager position). He later became the Asian American/Pacific Islander Coordinator for the Office of Minority Services, today known as the Office of Inclusion and Intercultural Relations (OIIR). He moved to the Marion County field office first as a transition specialist, then as a juvenile parole/probation assistant (JPPA), and finally as a juvenile parole/probation officer (JPPO).

How would you describe your approach to your work at OYA?

“I treat everybody as equals. I treat the kids on my caseload like my kids at home. Who I am at work is who I am at home. I’m open and honest with the youth, and we talk about everything. Even down to the way I talk to them, I talk to them like how I talk to my kids. I think the kids can see when you’re genuine. There’s a lot of red tape people have to walk through and I also try to minimize that.”

What’s something you’ve done at OYA that you’re proud of?

Funaki told a story about a recent youth on his caseload who shared his identity as half-Tongan, half-white. They were both from Hilo, Hawaii, and their families knew each other. The youth hadn’t seen or had contact with his Polynesian family since age 4, and Funaki thought that reuniting them could help with the youth’s rehabilitation.

“I started communication with his grandpa, his uncle and his auntie. I told Mike (Runyon), ‘I think we should move this kid back to Hawaii and then he’ll be fine.’ It was approved for me to fly him there over a weekend. He had a great reunification meeting with his family. Several months later, he’s still in Hawaii, and he got terminated from Polk County custody. I love that OYA and the judge were open to doing something different and paroling him home to a different state where he could be with his family.”

Who is a notable Asian American or Pacific Islander person you admire? “My parents. They fought hard and traveled thousands of miles from the Kingdom of Tonga to Hawaii to give their kids a good life. The grind and determination for them to give their kids a better life is like a model for what I do with these kids. We’ve gotta grind and give them a better life. I owe it all to my parents.”

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