Celebrating AA and NHPI Heritage Month: Interview with Erika Moritsugu

by | May 31, 2023 | Other

Erika Moritsugu, Deputy Assistant to the President and AA and NHPI Senior Liaison

National Partnership for Women & Families is closing the Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islanders (AA and NHPI) Heritage Month with a blog post Q&A featuring Erika Moritsugu, who was appointed in April 2021 to serve as Deputy Assistant to the President and AA and NHPI Senior Liaison.

Erika has spent her personal and professional life in politics and non-profit advocacy, fighting for social justice and the empowerment of communities and individuals. Her distinguished career in federal government includes serving as a senior congressional aide to three Senators, and as the Assistant Secretary for Congressional and Intergovernmental Relations at the Department of Housing and Urban Development under the leadership of Secretary Julián Castro in the Obama Administration and was the first-ever Senate Deputy Legislative Director at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. In the non-profit sector, Erika managed two teams at the NPWF that focused on economic justice and congressional relations, advocating for gender and race equity in workforce and health policies. Erika has also led the Government Relations, Advocacy and Community Engagement teams at the Anti-Defamation League, championing its interreligious and interfaith work.

Erika attended Brandeis University, the College of William and Mary, and George Washington University Law School. Born in California and raised in Hawaiʻi, Moritsugu lives on Capitol Hill with her spouse, Brian, their two children, Vianne Leilani and Chester Likeke, their two cats, and one dog.

1. How important is it for the AA and NHPI Community to have a liaison in the White House?

First of all, I’m honored to serve as the Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islanders (AA and NHPI) Senior Liaison at the White House, which is a position that the President created shortly after he entered office to advance equity, justice, and opportunity for our beautiful, diverse, vibrant communities.

Over the past two years, I have traveled to meet with many AA and NHPI communities on behalf of the President – from my hometown Honolulu to Monterey Park, Mesa, Arizona; Cody, Wyoming; Albuquerque; Oak Creek and everywhere in between. I prioritize being in community, really listening and learning from community members outside the “beltway” in a way that informs the policies I advocate for from the inside.

Representation matters especially when you can cover policy and engagement, mainstream and specific. When AA and NHPI voices are heard, policies are better and more resilient because they are informed by our lived-experiences from communities across the country.

Day in and day out, I work hard with my colleagues across the Administration to deliver on the President’s promise to advance equity, justice and opportunity for our community. (We recently released the first-ever National Strategy to do so.)

And thanks to the President, we’re no longer invisible. We’ve become more visible than ever before!

2. How has the Administration increased AA and NHPI representation?

A stakeholder recently told me that a decade ago, he barely saw a single AA and NHPI on his way in and out of meetings in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building (EEOB), but now he can’t walk the hallway of the EEOB without running into one. We are everywhere!

I love sharing this story because it’s not only so true, but also something we are extremely proud about.

The President has built the most diverse government in U.S. history, with an unprecedented AA and NHPI representation in the Administration — with 14 percent of our appointees and nominees identifying as AA and NHPI. This is double the population and definitely something to celebrate!

Not to mention, we have Vice President Kamala Harris, the first woman, first Black AND South Asian American to serve in the second highest office in the Nation.

I will never get tired of saying that. The Vice President of the United States sees us, knows us, and IS us!

And we have more AA and NHPI women making history in the Administration, breaking BOTH the bamboo AND glass ceilings, such as: Ambassador Katherine Tai, the first Asian American United States Trade Representative; if confirmed, Julie Su, nominated by President Biden, will serve as the next Secretary of Labor; and Neera Tanden, the newly-appointed Director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, and the first AA or NHPI to lead any of the three major White House policy councils in history.

It’s really empowering that we have a President and Vice President who value diversity and have placed experienced women in leadership roles. It’s a really exciting time to be an AA and NHPI woman in this country!

We also have a Senior Advisor for the AAand NHPI community in our Office of Public Engagement, Philip Kim, who works every day to communicate with our community and highlight the President’s agenda. And there’s many more leaders across the White House and the Administration spearheading efforts around policy, personal, speechwriting and more.

This Administration has made once-in-a-generation investments to support our AA and NHPI communities, provide direct relief, strengthen mental health, and expand economic opportunity — through the American Rescue Plan, Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, Inflation Reduction Act, and many other initiatives. The President’s budget details a roadmap to build on the historic progress over the last two years and lower costs for AA and NHPI families including for health insurance, child care, prescription drugs, housing, college, energy and more.

But we don’t do this alone, but through coalitions and allyship, inside and outside the AA and NHPI community, within and outside the federal government.

3. What’s been the hardest since taking the job?

All of my professional and volunteer life, I have poured my heart and soul into advocating for the most marginalized as a member of the coalition community, but now it is on behalf of my community, family and friends.

But when the personal and professional collide — you know you’re in a special place. It’s the whiplash that’s been hardest — the roller coaster ride of knowing that we are honoring the diverse celebrations and triumphs in our community and then dealing with tragedy in the blink of an eye.

For example, this past January, I was representing the White House at the opening of the first AAPI House at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, celebrating with community leaders, celebrities, and journalists. And that’s when the tragic shooting happened in Monterey Park.

Even before I had time to process it internally, I traveled to California, to read a message of sympathy from President Biden at the vigil, and just to be on the ground with the community grieving and coping in the aftermath of the murders. These are the hardest moments, when I know the people are scared, angry and devastated — and nothing can bring back their loved ones or undo the trauma that’s been caused.

But even in the midst of such darkness I have hope. Both the President and Vice President have traveled to and met with the families of the victims of the Monterey Park shooting and demonstrated with their words, and their actions, and their presence, how much they sincerely care for our community.

President Biden has taken more executive action to combat gun violence than any president. In addition to signing the most significant gun safety legislation in 30 years — the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act — the President has continued to implement dozens of executive actions to help reduce gun violence and keep firearms out of dangerous hands — and he has consistently called for Congress to enact commonsense policies that reduce gun violence and save lives.

And again, I saw love in the midst of hate, when I recently went to Dallas, Texas, to read the Vice President’s letter at a community-wide vigil, to mourn and honor the lives lost in the Allen Outlet Mall Shooting. This vigil united numerous Asian American, Black, Tribal and Latino community groups in the Dallas region — and provide a space for remembrance, healing, and allyship as they called for racial solidarity, end of gun violence and safer environment for all Americans. This gives me hope.

4. What’s been your favorite?

There’s never a dull moment at the White House!

One of my favorite memories was to see the lion dance before the President and First Lady at the first-ever Lunar New Year celebration at the White House, AND before the Vice President at the first-ever Lunar New Year celebration at the Vice President’s Residence, with stakeholders and leaders from all communities that celebrate Lunar New Year, including the Chinese, Taiwanese, Korean, Vietnamese, Thai, and Burmese diaspora. We recognized the Year of the Cat for our Vietnamese and Nepalese sisters and brothers, as well as the Year of the Rabbit.

This took place right after the tragedies in Monterey Park and Half Moon Bay, and it meant so much to the community to just be together — to share tears and laughter, over prayers and…dumplings. It was healing. It was comforting. It was powerful to see the impact of the President and Vice President by showing up and really seeing and valuing the communities that they have sworn to protect and promote.

We’re really fortunate to have a President and Vice President who sincerely care about us. This White House has made historic firsts to ensure our community is heard, seen, and valued, that even the smallest groups within our community are uplifted. We honor Hmong New Year, Tibetan New Year and celebrate Diwali, Losar and Eid.

Three years ago, the Second Gentleman hosted the first-ever Vesak Lighting Ceremony with every stream of American Buddhists; we just celebrated our third Vesak celebration at the White House this month — with more attendees and in a larger space.

I’m tremendously proud to be part of the Biden-Harris Administration that celebrates our community’s heritage as a collective while also honoring our community’s uniqueness and rich diversity.

5. What can people do to celebrate the AA and NHPI community beyond the Heritage Month?

Everyday can be an AA and NHPI celebration!

I’d first recommend visiting and saving historic and endangered Chinatowns and Japantowns, and supporting districts of Pacific Islander businesses, expanding Koreatowns, Little Mekongs, and other community-based enclaves that embody a living piece of American history. Our “AA and NHPI-towns” are foundations of wayfinding for community to find and support each other as we create our respective American Dreams.

Check out their local AA and NHPI-owned markets, grocery stores, and restaurants. By doing so, you’re supporting local, small businesses – many of which are still struggling in the wake of anti-Asian hate, the pandemic, and the economic downturn — and also discovering the joy of authentic ethnic cuisines. Food has special power to bring people closer: You can learn about movements created by celebrated chefs, such as #SupportChinatowns or Chefs Stopping AAPI Hate, that aim to spread awareness and support solidarity against hate and racism that have increased during the pandemic.

Of course, I’d suggest watching films or shows that feature emerging and Oscar-winning AA and NHPI actors, writers, producers, and stylists. They will not only help provide a lens to our community and culture, but also help learn about AA and NHPI story, which is part of the American story and history. It’s why the President recently hosted a White House screening of a newly-released tv series, featuring Academy-winning AA and NHPI actors, writers, producers, and other talented professionals, with more than 500 members of the AA and NHPI community from across races, ethnicities, religions, sectors, generations, and geographies — who laughed and shed tears of joy together while eating popcorn because we felt so seen.

Last but absolutely not least, continue to read AA and NHPI authors or books about AA and NHPI history, or learn AA and NHPI languages. The more we know as a collective, the stronger our bonds and the more we can find ways to collaborate with empowerment. Let us not only be allies, but work together towards an America that is reflective of our hearts, values, and dreams.