Decades in existence haven’t diminished our region’s need for the Asian Counseling and Referral Service (ACRS). The non-profit that began as a small mental health service provider in 1973 now serves more than 27,000 clients and is preparing for its 40th annual gala this Saturday. Supporters will celebrate ACRS’ longevity, but all of Seattle ought to recognize the organization’s groundbreaking efforts to respond to the struggles of the state’s fastest-growing ethnic group.
The results of ACRS’ work can be seen in human stories like the two featured below, courtesy of the referral service’s Facebook page.
According to the 2010 Census, more than 600,000 people of Asian descent live in Washington state. That’s 9 percent of the population. When native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders are counted, that figure goes up to 10 percent.
Many perceive Asian Americans to be the “model minority” because of the community’s relative wealth and emphasis on education. Truth is they’re not all engineers and doctors. Washington’s Asian population includes both native and foreign-born individuals who speak 300 different languages and come from dozens of countries. Some arrived in the U.S. after experiencing trauma in their homeland; others have been here for several generations. Disparities in income, health outcomes and mental health services persist because of a lack of service providers who can break through language and cultural barriers.
“The model minority stereotype is damaging because it masks the true situation of our ethnic groups, many of whom continue to experience discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity and religion,” says ACRS Executive Director Diane Narasaki. “When you look at different parts of the Asian Pacific Islander community, you find that many of our ethnic groups, including Southeast Asian groups and Pacific Islanders experience really significant income disparities, education disparities, health care disparities. They do not live the lives of the model minority. If we can’t undo that stereotype, then we can’t shine a light on the true situations of those communities and find policy solutions and legislation to close those gaps.”
ACRS is at the vanguard of several hot-button public policy issues that affect Asian American Washington residents (and voters!). For example:
- AFFORDABLE CARE ACT: ACRS is working with Seattle and King County public health officials to bypass language barriers and get hundreds of Asian Americans enrolled in the new Washington Health Benefit Exchange, which opens Oct. 1. Nationwide, 2011 Census figures indicate Asian Americans are disproportionately uninsured at 18 percent compared to white Americans at 11 percent. Asian American elders make up the largest minority group among King County citizens aged 60 and up. Small business owners will likely need help understanding how the new law affects their employees.
- COMPREHENSIVE IMMIGRATION REFORM: Asian Americans are critical to the state’s high-tech workforce. Narasaki says almost half the people stuck in the U.S. immigration system’s visa backlog come from Asian and Pacific Islander countries. ACRS advocates for a comprehensive immigration reform package that includes a path to citizenship and supports family reunification. The current system is broken. For instance, the organization points out the average wait time for Filipinos who wish to petition for a family member to rejoin them in the U.S. is now 23 years — longer than any other ethnic group.
- FOOD STAMPS: Demand for food-assistance from ACRS’ food bank continues to grow. Between January and July this year, ACRS provided food to 2,895 households and 4,647 individuals. We should be alarmed by the U.S. House’s vote last week to cut food stamps by nearly $40 billion over the next two years. (Read The Seattle Times’ editorial on this unwise move.) Food pantries in western Washington are preparing for yet another blow. In November, stimulus funding will run out and an estimated 232,000 Washington families may lose up to $100 per month in benefits. This means ACRS and other nonprofits will have to stretch their dollars even more, find additional funds or simply cut assistance.
ACRS’ holistic, culturally competent approach to human services addresses 13 different areas, including: legal aid, aging and adult services, chemical dependency treatment, employment and job training, and problem gambling.
“We’ve been here for 40 years,” says Narasaki. “What we’ve learned from providing multilingual, multicultural services is what the country is catching up to.”
There’s always more to learn and new problems to fix. The work of the Asian Counseling and Referral Service is far from finished.
Here’s to another 40 years.