Tuesday, September 26, 2006

The Long Road to Empowerment

The year was 1996. A national debate was raging about proposals to dramatically revamp US immigration laws, like eliminating sibling petitions by US citizens and closing the door to many forms of legal immigration. These proposals would drastically affect the Filipino community which has more than 100,000 siblings with approved visa petitions waiting patiently to immigrate to the US (as long as 25 years).

African Americans, Latino Americans, Chinese Americans, Japanese Americans and various immigrant communities were participating in the national discussion. But noticeably absent from the table were representatives of the Filipino American community. Even though hundreds of thousands of Filipinos would be affected by the proposed legislation, there was no national Filipino American organization to lobby the policy makers in Washington DC on behalf of the community.

It was not supposed to be this way. Filipino Americans had met a decade before in San Francisco after the fall of Marcos to plan out how to make up for the 14 years that was lost because the community was bitterly torn over Marcos and martial law. That bury-the-hatchet meeting in April of 1996 at the San Francisco Airport Hilton set the stage for a year long campaign to call on community leaders throughout the US to meet in Anaheim, California in August of 1997 to form the National Filipino American Council (NFAC).

When 1500 delegates from all over the US answered the call and trooped to Anaheim in August of 1987, it was thought then that the political drought was over for the Filipino American community. We would now begin to finally focus on fighting discrimination against Filipinos, electing qualified Fil-Ams to public office, and asserting our right to a seat at the table.

But 9 years after the NFAC was formed, there were less than a handful of chapters, all concentrated in the San Francisco Bay Area. There was no national presence in Washington DC and the NFAC did not have a place at the table.

The time had come to form and build another organization. Discussions began within the San Francisco chapter of the NFAC in the fall of 1996 resulting in a general meeting in Salinas in January of 1997. I presented a proposal for the NFAC to take the lead in calling on all Filipino community organizations to come to Washington DC to attend a National Filipino American Empowerment Conference. NFAC accepted the challenge.

In February, I went to Washington DC and met with local leaders Jon Melegrito and Gloria Caoile to discuss our proposal with them. They immediately endorsed it and Jon even proposed the adoption of the federation concept similar to the Filipino American Heritage Federation which he headed in DC that was composed of more than 40 Fil-Am organizations.

While in DC, I was invited to attend the April 1997 regional conference of the Filipino Intercollegiate Network for Dialogue (FIND) in Long Island in New York. In April, after I learned that the FIND group had bought me a round-trip ticket, I invited Alex Esclamado to join me as I had obtained a RT ticket. Alex had just sold the Philippine News and was getting ready to write his memoirs. It was his dream to have a national Fil-Am organization that would effectively advocate for the Fil-Am community. But his dream would not materialize because his leadership was rejected in Anaheim in 1987.

While in New York, Alex and I (with Michael Dadap) met with Loida Nicolas Lewis and informed her of the plans for the National Empowerment Conference. Loida enthusiastically applauded the move and gave it her full support. That support would energize Alex and cause him to travel throughout the US to encourage and cajole Filipino community leaders to come to Washington DC.

Greg Macabenta explained the reason for the conference in a brochure we prepared for dissemination:

"Major events are occurring and laws are being passed that affect the interests of Filipino Americans, such as those on immigration, affirmative action and social services. But our community is simply being swept by the tides of change and circumstance. We are not playing a significant role in shaping these events and enacting these laws, despite the fact that we make up the largest Asian ethnic group in this country.

"We appear to be impotent in the face of the adverse circumstances, not because we lack the numbers nor the social status nor the intellectual capacity but because we, as a community, have not been able to harness our full potentials as a socioeconomic and political force.

"We have not struggled hard enough for empowerment. This is our challenge."

On August 22-24, 1997, over 1,000 delegates from throughout the US attended the 1st National Empowerment Conference in Washington DC to focus on four major issues affecting the Filipino American community: immigration, affirmative action, welfare reform, and equity for Filipino World War II Veterans.

To dramatize the urgency particularly of the last issue, delegates marched to the White House on the first day of the conference, led by hundreds of uniformed Filipino veterans, to demand "equity now." For the first time, the veterans issue became a national campaign for justice.

The following year, the delegates met again in Washington, D.C. on October 16-18, 1998 and unanimously ratified the Constitution & By Laws of the National Federation of Filipino American Associations (NaFFAA), formalizing NaFFAA's organizational structure. Elected to lead the federation for a 4-year term were Alex A. Esclamado as National Chair and Gloria T. Caoile as National Vice Chair.

The 3rd empowerment conference was held at the New York City Hilton & Towers on October 15-17, 1999 with then First Lady Hillary Clinton as the keynote speaker. The conference affirmed NaFFAA's vision of establishing a solid and powerful presence of Filipino Americans in the United States

The 4th empowerment conference was held in Las Vegas on September 28 - October 1, 2000 with the theme "Making Our Power Count".

The 5th national conference was held in San Jose, California on August 28-September 1, 2002 with the theme "Forging a National Consciousness as a Filipino Community in America." During that "Y2K2 Conference," Loida Nicolas Lewis was elected to lead the Federation as the National Chair, with Greg Macabenta as National Vice Chair.

The 6th national conference was held in Chicago, Illinois on September 10-12, 2004 with the theme of "Bridging the Fil-Am Community".

Aware that the Fil-Am community is only a part of the Filipino Diaspora, NaFFAA also convened the 1st Global Filipino Networking Convention at the massive Moscone Center in San Francisco immediately after the "Y2K2 Conference" in 2002. It was attended by close to 4,000 participants. The 2nd global convention was held in Manila in December 2003 while the 3rd global convention was held in Cebu in January 2005.

And now, coinciding with the centennial of Filipinos in America, the 7th NaFFAA National Empowerment Conference and the 4th Global Filipino Networking Convention are being held in the same venue at the same time on September 28-October 1, 2006 at the Hilton Hawaiian Village in Honolulu with the joint theme: "100 Years of the Filipino Diaspora: Hawaii and Beyond."

As its website (www.naffaa.org) states: "NaFFAA has grown into what it is today -- an organization that is recognized by Washington policy-makers, private industry and national advocacy groups as the Voice of Filipinos and Filipino-Americans throughout the United States. It is a non-partisan, non-profit national affiliation of more than five hundred Filipino-American institutions and umbrella organizations. Its twelve regions cover the continental United States, Hawaii, Guam and the Marianas. Its mission is to promote the welfare and well-being of all Filipinos and Filipino Americans throughout the United States by fostering unity and empowerment."

It has been a long road to get here and a longer road still to go. But weĆ¢€™re moving. Finally.

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