Meeting with the Pacific Islander Community in Arkansas

This Friday, the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders’ tour of emerging Southeast AAPI communities will culminate with the Southeast Regional Action Summit in Atlanta, Georgia.  According to recent Census data, Southeastern states have experienced rapid AAPI population growth in the last decade and we’ve been working with communities to understand what these changes mean for public policy. I had the opportunity to engage in this dialogue with members of the growing Marshallese community in Arkansas.  In the 2010 Census count for Arkansas, 4,324 people identified themselves as Marshallese, placing the state as having the highest Marshallese population in the continental United States and the second highest overall (with Hawaii having 7,412).

Just like many of the newcomers we have met throughout the country, Marshallese face social, economic and linguistic challenges when integrating into completely new communities.  Despite these challenges, they remain hopeful and work hard to achieve their personal goals.  For example, I met Kevin, a student activist from the Northwest Arkansas Community College who left his home 6,000 miles away to pursue a degree in business.  He said that while he struggles to stay in school he moved to Arkansas because of the opportunity to study and because it has a welcoming community. 

Part of the reason Arkansas is welcoming is because of the active participation of its residents on a “Gaps in Services to Marshallese Task Force,” developed to share services provided to minority populations in Northwest Arkansas.  When I met with this group of state and local employees, private agencies and non-profit organizations, I was impressed by their dedication to address the needs of this large migrant community in a comprehensive and coordinated manner.  The Task Force utilizes government resources to achieve this welcoming environment by: (1) using a US Census grant to increase Marshallese participation in the 2010 US Census, (2) accessing funding through the Centers for Disease Control to conduct a health survey among Marshallese; and (3) creating an acculturation booklet printed in English and Marshallese for newcomers to Arkansas to help them understand US laws and policies.

To further their work, I pointed the Task Force to other government opportunities including: (1) federal education programs such as the Asian American Native American and Pacific Islander Serving Institutions grant that can enable institutions to improve and expand their capacity to serve Asian Americans and Native American Pacific Islanders and low-income individuals, (2) White House engagements to reach Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander communities to raise awareness about health issues; and (3) our Commissioners, including Sefa Aina and Debra Cabrera, who serve as resources and liaisons to Pacific Island communities.

President Obama often says that America must fully embrace our strongest resource—our people—to achieve a full economic recovery and maintain our competitive edge globally.  It’s encouraging to see how communities around the country, such as the members of the Arkansas Task Force, are taking this approach to integrating newly arrived immigrants, refugees, and other newcomers and creating more welcoming environments for all community members.  It’s a model we hope to replicate in every American community.

Christina Lagdameo is the Deputy Director for the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders and serves on the Domestic Policy Council’s New Americans Citizenship and Integration Initiative.

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