Featuring…Martha Matsuoka

APEN is celebrating our 20 years of “Generating Power” at the Oakland Museum on October 5th. As a lead up to our event, this May, Asian-Pacific Island (API) Heritage month, we will highlight the vast wealth of API Heritage in APEN’s own history. We will feature a different former APEN staff, board or member each week.

Martha Masuoka (far right) at 2011 APACC event

2011 APACC event. From left to right: Mark Masaoka (AP3CON), Gisele Fong (EndOil), Dean Toji (CSULB), Mari Rose Taruc (APEN) & Martha Matsuoka

Full Name: Martha Matsuoka

Years you were involved with APEN: 1993 to 2005

Position at APEN: Board Member for 12 years

What is your proudest APEN memory? There are so many! One was the formation of AYA, APEN’s first organizing project focused on building the leadership of young women and girls. It is so inspiring to see how their leadership and work together have built a strong and powerful community in Richmond and how, now twenty years later, Sandy, Pham, Gloria, Nai, Nita and the AYA leaders continue to work with young women in the deep and long-term work of building women’s leadership and gender equity.

I also remember Election Day in November 2010 when APEN along with EJ allies in California defeated Prop 23, the Dirty Energy Proposition by 23 points!  No one thought grassroots groups could fight back against the powerful oil industry, but the amazing organizing and coalition building combined with voter education and organizing illustrated that API and low-income communities of color in California have the power to influence state elections. We saw this power again last fall when APEN and APEN Action educated and mobilized tens of thousands of Asian immigrant voters in their native languages on key ballot issues statewide and mobilized voters on Election Day. With its partners MIV Action and 18 Million Rising, APEN published the first ever statewide Asian voter guide in five different languages with over twenty two participating API organizations.

Our theme for the 20th anniversary is “generating power.” What do you believe are the most important ways of “generating power?”  For the past twenty years, APEN has been generating power by staying rooted in the idea and vision that ordinary people connected and accountable to each other can do extraordinary things to win environmental justice and social change. As an organization, APEN helps build power and community for the long term. These principles have been the core of APEN’s work for 20 years and each year its influence and power grows. Now that’s generating power!

How has 20 years of APEN impacted the API Movement? In 1991, 350 grassroots leaders from across the U.S. attended the First People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit in Washington DC. Although there were only about two dozen APIs, the Bay Area delegates came back to Oakland and convened a broad group of Asian American leaders to talk about how to create an organization that could inject an EJ perspective into the API community and put forward an API perspective into the growing environmental justice movement. Twenty years later, APEN has transformed the way the API movement thinks about the environment. Rather than an environmentalism that is defined solely as a movement about natural resources, the API movement now recognizes the environmental justice framework as important for thinking about the environment as where our communities live, work, play, pray and go to school. As a base building organization, APEN has built a broad base of members and leaders who provide important API perspectives into policy discussions at the local, state, national and international levels. APEN fights to have the lived experiences of API communities reflected in key policy debates at all levels so that low income APIs have a say in the policies that affect them.

What would your advice to a younger API activist be? When we started APEN, we knew that there was a need for organizing in the API community. We also knew that we needed to build a multiracial movement for justice that would address the conditions API communities face and create a future where all of our voices are heard. There was no formula for how to do this but we worked with other allies in the movement to figure it out. We learned from mistakes but kept going because of a deep and shared vision of environmental justice. For all of us, and not just younger API activists, I think we have to always remind ourselves to root in the past, think in the future and act in the present. Stay connected to older activists and younger activists no matter how old you are.

Why should people support APEN’s work? Since its founding in 1993, APEN has been developing powerful and successful strategies for elevating the voices of low-income API communities in the broader API and multiracial movements for justice. APEN recognizes the need to transform our economy and society to address climate change and inequality and develops bold, holistic and comprehensive strategies that begin reversing current trends while simultaneously developing a future that is environmentally sustainable and socially just. It’s a bold vision but APEN is on the frontlines of making it happen.

Through its community organizing, policy advocacy, research, coalition building, electoral organizing, and leadership development, APEN is influencing policy that improves where APIs live, work, play, pray and go to school. Whether it is developing leadership among young Southeast Asian women, winning community benefits from transit investments, engaging API voters, setting a higher standard for refineries and polluting industries, or mobilizing statewide to influence California climate and energy policy, APEN is tapping the growing number of APIs in California to become a progressive force for change in California and the country.

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