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  • Gina Baleria

This is Civity Radio: Vincent Pan, Giving Marginalized Groups a Seat at the Table

Updated: May 22, 2019



Conversations can be a first step to understanding another person, finding common ground, and beginning to work toward solutions to community problems. But conversations rarely take place in a vacuum.

Vincent Pan, executive director of Chinese for Affirmative Action (CAA) SF, told This is Civity Radio Show that conversations can be infused with history and often depend on who has control of the narrative and framing.

“Most people, to stay healthy, need to understand themselves in a positive way,” Pan said. “No one wants to think of themselves as hateful or bigoted. As a result, when we talk about racism, when we talk about xenophobia, when we talk about sexism, when we talk about a lot of the different forms of hate and oppression, individuals can get very defensive.”

This can be “frustrating for those who are part of disadvantaged communities, because from the get go, it oftentimes feels like the conversation is stacked against you.” Helping people understand the history and context of others, as well as the challenges they face can help level the playing field.

CAA works to ensure civil rights for Chinese Americans and other Asian and Pacific American communities. This includes working for fair access to services, leaders, and the civic life of their communities.

Pan’s work involves two main fronts: culture and policy.

Culture is about changing hearts and minds, so that people see marginalized groups as worthy of inclusion. “We also need smart public policy that reflects those values, but … it’s very, very easy for people to co-opt the language of inclusion or diversity without sufficient rigor to the different ways that we still have a lot of work to do.”

For example, in terms of racial, gender, and ethnic diversity in San Francisco, “our elected officials very much represent a lot of that diversity,” Pan said. “But that does not necessarily mean that the living conditions for those who have been historically disadvantaged have changed. Poverty is still pretty high. It still disproportionately affects communities of color.”

Beyond San Francisco, our nation is also grouping itself around messages that Pan finds disturbing, especially given what we as a nation think we stand for.“The rhetoric around being a country that stands for equality and liberty has always been there, even though we can see very, very clearly how in practice those principles were not lived out.”

If we are ever going to break through this disconnect between what our founding documents say and how we actually act, Pan believes we need to set aside our pride and approach each other in the spirit of finding common ground.

“Beginning conversations from a place of shared values, from a place of shared conscience” can help forge connections, rather than divides. This includes facing how we treat marginalized groups, including undocumented immigrants, the formerly incarcerated, and members of queer community.

Pan stresses it is important to look at ourselves and find a way to come from a place of understanding and compassion. “It’s oftentimes easier to critique how far others have not come than it is to press and think about how far we still need to go and what else we need to do.” This is the mission of both CAA and Civity.


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