ENGAGING IN A BETTER WORLD
When Coua Xiong is at work, her job is to improve the community for immigrants and their families.
And when ’he’s not at work, it’s pretty much the same thing.
Xiong, 27, is the advocacy and civic engagement director for the Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon, better known as APANO. It’s part of her job to help foster coalitions with individuals and other organizations — and with elected leaders — to support issues and causes that are priorities for APANO. She also helps oversee youth programming, including connecting youths to nature and the environment.
“It’s great. I love it,” she says.
So much so that she is engaged in many of the same activities during her off hours. She sits on the boards of directors of nonprofits and has been a co-director of an Asian New Year annual celebration.
“In my free time, I do a lot of those kinds of events,” she says.
Xiong is Hmong American, and her parents were both born in Laos. They lived in refugee camps before coming to the United States.
Xiong was born in Wisconsin but moved to Oregon nearly a dozen years ago. First to Portland, then to the East Multnomah County area. She graduated from Reynolds High School and the University of Oregon, where she netted a business degree.
“Then I decided I wanted to do community work,” she says. She’d done a lot of student-organizing events at college, so when she returned to the Portland area, she kept it up. “Then I found my political home at APANO.”
She crochets and travels with her partner when she’s not actively making her corner of the world a better place.
There couldn’t possibly be a more challenging time to serve as a civic engagement director than during a pandemic. In many ways, social distancing is the polar opposite of civic engagement.
“We weren’t able to meet in person, which is important in every way that we work,” Xiong says. People have been “mentally, physically, financially, emotionally impacted. People are hugely distressed. That really makes it hard.”
But, conversely, the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020 helped in her work. “People are getting a whole bunch more engaged,” she says.
The other major factor roiling her work is a spate of anti-Asian commentary and violence that has flared around the county in the last few years. She says she sees a significantly increased sense of fear in Asian Americans — especially in the elderly.
“Folks don’t come out of their homes for really unhealthy amounts of times. Not even to get groceries,” Xiong says.
APANO was among the influential organizations that advocated for the Department of Justice to create a bias crimes hotline.
Xiong has not experienced violence herself, but that doesn’t make the fear any less real.
“If I go to a conference with Asian leaders, it is scary,” she says. “If someone wanted you harmed, based just on how you look and your background and race, well, that would be where it would happen, right?”
APANO now factors in issues of safety in all programming. “And even online,” she adds.
Xiong says she is “guardedly optimistic” about the world around her. She sees so much good, along with so much that needs to be fixed.
“It’s all of us, together,” she says. “Doing this work? This is not an individual thing. Not at all.”