Celebrating #AAPIProgressive Champions During Asian Pacific American Heritage Month

This past month, we celebrated Asian Pacific American Heritage Month. In addition to recognizing AAPI trailblazers who have made a lasting impact on our community, we also wanted to celebrate local movers and shakers who are working towards a progressive future. We asked you to nominate unsung heroes in your local community, so here are our nine AAPI Progressive Champions of May 2019:

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Khanh Pham:

Khanh Pham has been at the center of organizing immigrants in the fight for affordable housing, community development and climate justice in Oregon. Her work has lifted recent immigrants from Asia and The Pacific into leadership roles in Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon (APANO) and campaigns that have won tenant rights like Just Cause eviction and Relocation Assistance, and informed the larger national landmark legislation for rent control passed in February 2019.

Her environmental justice work brought together an incredible alliance of communities of color that fought for and won a key plank of the Green New Deal - Portland's Clean Energy Fund. Khanh brings an acute sense of linking social change work to the lived experiences of our Asian and Pacific Islander leaders, with an eye towards building enduring coalitions with communities fighting for a better world.


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Ram Villivalam:

Ram Villivalam is Illinois' first Asian-American State Senator and the first Indian-American elected to the Illinois General Assembly. Before making history, he was a long-time labor activist for SEIU healthcare who championed progressive legislation for working families against an anti-labor Republican Governor. He currently also serves as board president of the Indo-American Democratic Organization (IADO), one of the oldest South Asian American PACs in the country.

He fights for AAPI rights and representation because he believes that we must organize and represent the interests of our community in public policy and politics. Together, we can join a growing coalition of allies to champion progressive solutions for all working families.


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Councilwoman Helen Gym:

Councilwoman Gym is the first AAPI woman on Philadelphia City Council. She is a longtime education and community activist, who has led the strongest progressive municipal agenda in the city - defending Sanctuary Cities, fighting for quality public schools and ending a 17-year state takeover of the school system. She is also the Vice-Chair of Local Progress, the national network of progressive elected officials from cities, counties, towns and other local governments across the countr

To Helen, AAPI Progress means that the grassroots energy sweeping through this nation is moving at the local level. It means that we talk about race and intersectionality, denouncing anti-Muslim hate and misogyny, and being allies in the fight for Black Lives Matter and for our LGBTQ communities. It means that we constantly push back against the Model Minority stereotypes deployed at will to divide communities of color. And that we keep fighting for visibility and voice.

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Dr. Rajan Natarajan:

As Deputy Secretary of state for policy and external affairs for the State of Maryland, Dr. Rajan Natarajan made commendable contributions to the Asian American and Pacific Islander community. As a member of the Governor’s International Advisory Council, he was the principal architect of the Governor’s trade mission to India.

Dr. Natarajan was the founder of a healthcare technology firm and served for more than 12 years as senior Vice President of three IT and biotech companies. He has had an interesting and inspiring career trajectory, from biochemist to entrepreneur to becoming the first Indian American to be elected to a sub-cabinet level position in Maryland.


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Kaohly Her:

Representative Her is bold and unafraid. She has been a strong progressive social justice leader in Minnesota, working on bills that increase funding for multi-language learners, data disaggregation and drivers licenses for all. She is also the co-founder of Maiv-PAC, the nation's first-ever Hmong American political action committee.

Representative Her focus on issues like healthcare, economic justice, environmental justice and education. “As early as I can remember, my parents would say to me that the way out of poverty is through education. My mother emphasized independence. My father said that there is no greater return in life than that which you receive from investing in your education.  My parents were right.”


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Dr. Kevin Nadal:

Dr. Nadal is a true leader and trailblazer in the AAPI community. As a researcher, author and leader, he has given voice to many AAPI subgroups, including Filipino Americans and LGBTQ Asian Americans. He is the first openly gay president of the Asian American Psychological Association, the first Asian American executive director of the Center for LGBTQ Studies, and the founder of LGBTQ Scholars of Color Network.

He has created spaces and organizations for marginalized groups and has challenged systems that fail to adhere to equity and civil rights. His writing and advocacy work have been instrumental in normalizing experiences of people who are often removed from mainstream narratives.


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Tina Maharath:

Tina Maharath currently serves as an Ohio State Senator from the 3rd District. She is the first Laotian-American woman in the Ohio Senate. A native of Whitehall, Tina chose to dedicate her life to public service at a young age, inspired by her upbringing as the daughter of refugee parents from the Southeast Asian nation of Laos. Her father served the U.S. Army under the Laos Army while her mother worked as a nurse in the Laos Army.

A warrior for underserved, troubled youth, Tina has had to live through a number of adverse events. She lost her mother and two brothers in a fatal car accident while she was still a young teen studying in France. Tina leaned on her community to overcome such a tragedy and decided to return that support by devoting herself to that very same community.

She thinks AAPI Representation is important because our community has shaped America’s past in so many ways. She encourages us all to acknowledge all of the roles that we’ve played in the past, in addition to presently taking active steps for a better future of being included in America’s shifting culture.


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Ash Kalra:

As California's first Indian-American state legislator and the Assembly member of a district with a large Asian American population, Ash Kalra has been involved in not just empowering Asian Americans statewide, but also fighting for the most vulnerable members of our communities, such as refugee and low-income families.

Ash is a passionate advocate for environmental protection and has been recognized as a leader on issues surrounding sustainability and conservation. As chairperson, he led the Bay Area Air Quality Management District organization to address issues of air quality, climate change and pollution.


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Susi Feltch-Malohifo'ou:

Susi is the co-founder of Pacific Island Knowledge 2 Action Resources and a grassroots organizer in Utah.

Wearing multiple hats, Susi aims to improve, preserve and perpetuate all Pacific Island cultures. The non-profit PIK2AR builds alliances, bridges communities to education, resources, mentoring and opportunities to eliminate violence. She also volunteers as Diversity Chair at Utah Cultural Alliance and as a consultant at Utah's Rape Recovery Center. Through her work, Susi aims to inspire AAPI communities to lead from within.



We thank all our Champions for their tireless work in improving the lives and future of the Asian American and Pacific Islander community.

APAHM 2019 ends today but we will continue to celebrate our heritage and all leaders working to move our community forward. Send us your nominations here to let us know of someone who deserves to be recognized as an #AAPIProgressive Champion.


Rebecca Lee