AAPI students grow their leadership skills during yearly conference

For more than 30 years, the Asian Pacific Youth Leadership Project (APYLP) has hosted a no-cost leadership conference for California high school juniors and seniors where students meet with Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) elected officials, community leaders and organizers to learn about the legislative process. The 2023 APYLP conference was held both virtually and in-person from March 30–April 2, providing a select group of 50 AAPI students from local educational agencies throughout California with a unique opportunity to gain first-hand knowledge of the legislative process, community leadership and political activism.

During the conference, students participate in a Mock Legislature that includes the election of peer legislative leaders, lively debate of current issues through the introduction of legislation, and the lobbying of bills during virtual committee hearings and the virtual Senate floor session. Additionally, small group workshops facilitated by AAPI legislative staff, community activists and business leaders assisted students in developing their leadership and public speaking skills, enhanced their cultural awareness and identity, and explored the richness and diversity of AAPI communities in California.

This year’s theme was “Everything, Everywhere…” — not only a nod to the Academy Award-winning movie but to this moment in time, according to AYPLP President Karen Kim. “It’s a poignant theme because a lot has happened in the U.S. that impacts the AAPI community — from legislation, social movements and national tragedies to community celebrations; AAPI issues are in everything, and everywhere we look. It was important for us as a community to understand how AAPI issues continue to shape our community, from gun violence to families living in single-room occupancies,” she said.

APYLP was founded by the Asian Pacific Legislative Caucus in 1989 when legislators were driven to action by the absence at that time of legislators of Asian and Pacific Islander descent, and by a seeming lack of interest in politics by the next generation. APYLP refines the conference each year, making adjustments for demographic changes in the AAPI community, increased sophistication of students, the steady growth in numbers of AAPI legislative staff, election of AAPI legislators and emerging community issues. Fundraising opportunities and sponsors were secured over the years, providing APYLP with the ability to offer a first-rate conference at no cost to the student participants.

Fiona Lu, a senior at Northwood High School in the Irvine Unified School District, attended the conference to connect with peers, learn from current legislators and staff, and increase the representation of the AAPI community in civic engagement. “I feel like civic engagement and public service isn’t emphasized as much in Asian American families due to a lot of Asians status as immigrants and being unfamiliar with being civically engaged,” Lu said. “I think because of that there is an underrepresentation of Asian Americans in public service and government — not to mention the lack of diversity even within the Asian American community that is represented.”

Due to the conference staff’s intimate knowledge of the legislative process and access to the State Capitol and its facilities, the cornerstone of the conference is the Mock Legislature. By assuming the roles of elected officials and presenting bills for passage in committee and on the Senate Floor, students are able to put into action the public speaking, advocacy and other skills they gain in workshops they attend during the first two days of the conference. The opportunity to debate real-world issues and experience the influential role that elective office plays in their lives inspires students to consider their own career options. The supportive environment created by conference staff allows students to discover and explore their own leadership potential.

“I really loved hearing from the legislators, Assemblymembers Alex Lee and Stephanie Nguyen,” Lu said. “Hearing from them was really impactful. I know Alex Lee is one of the youngest legislators in the Legislature, so it kind of makes me feel like I can also be in his position in the next couple years where I feel like a lot of young people feel like that’s inaccessible. I especially like seeing people who look like me, who have gone through the same experiences and the struggles like language barriers, so I feel like it makes running for office seem less inaccessible in the future.”

APYLP continues to draw students from across the state, from rural and urban communities, to contribute their voices to a national civic dialogue. “Student advocacy is critical because it instills in our youth a sense of responsibility and an early understanding of the critical role civic engagement and elective office plays in the success of our communities,” said Kim. “Our youth is truly the next generation of leadership, and high school is a pivotal time for students to begin understanding the impact representation and public policy has on the lives of all.”