May is Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month. Each year, it provides an opportunity to listen and learn about the diversity of AAPI communities and recognize their importance in American history.
“As we reflect on the current state of our city, state and country, we know that Raleigh is a diverse, multicultural city, committed to equitable outcomes,” said Dr. Audrea Caesar, Director of the Office of Equity and Inclusion.
“However, historically we have omitted the voices of those in the Asian American and Pacific Islander community and the unique challenges they face. The recent surge in the mistreatment of and violence against Asians in our country should be a concern for all of us," Caesar said. "According to the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism, anti-Asian hate crimes increased by 149 percent in the year 2020. Ultimately, as human beings, we are all connected. Collectively, we must condemn violence, hate, and discrimination in order to truly serve Raleigh’s residents.”
In honor of AAPI Heritage Month, we’ve invited City employees to share their stories to learn alongside them and strengthen the bonds within our community.
Lisa-Ann Utsumi | Cultural Outreach and Enrichment Program Coordinator for Parks, Recreation and Cultural Resources
"My name is Lisa-Ann Utsumi. My parents couldn’t decide between Lisa and Ann for my first name, so they just hyphenated it and used both. I often tell people that my first name sounds Southern, but I’m not from the South. I was born in southern California and spent most of my formative years (8-18) in the suburbs of Long Island, NY. After returning to California for college, and then teaching English in Japan for four years, I found myself in North Carolina in 2011, where my parents had retired. Who I am and what I value is a culmination of experiences in my life, many of which were shaped by my family.
My family has been in the U.S. since the early 1900s. My paternal grandfather came to the U.S. from Japan via Mexico and my paternal grandmother was born in California, grew up in Japan, and then returned to the U.S. when she was 20 to marry my grandfather. My mom’s side of the family is from Okinawa, Japan. My grandfather was born in Hawaii (before it was a state), grew up in Okinawa, and returned to the U.S. as an adult. He married my grandmother, also Okinawan, but who was born and raised in California. My parents grew up during WWII. My dad was 4 years old when his family was sent to one of the internment camps in Arkansas, while my mom was born in an internment camp in Arizona. Both sides of the family ended up moving back to California after WWII. Growing up, I heard stories about the times in the camp but didn’t realize until much later what that meant for my parents in how they identified themselves as Japanese Americans and Asian Americans, and how that shaped and affected me.
I’ve always had a longing to understand who I am as a person: as an American, an Asian American, and a Japanese American. I took time to reconnect with my heritage, minoring in the Japanese language in college, and moving to Japan after graduating. This was an important chapter of self-discovery, where two seemingly disparate sides of myself came together. During this time, I realized my love for languages, cultures, and passion for understanding people on a deeper level. So, it’s no surprise that I’ve ended up working for the City of Raleigh in my current role as the coordinator for the Cultural Outreach and Enrichment (COE) Program – it’s a way for me to stay connected to my Japanese heritage while also developing connections with other ethnicities and cultures that call the Raleigh area home. In addition to offering English language programs for adults and cultural programs for youth, I am fortunate to collaborate with some amazing local ethnic and cultural groups to showcase their music, food, arts, sports, games, etc.: things that we value and share as humans. In my personal and professional life, I strive to bring joy, hope, and a sense of belonging to those I work with and serve.”
Chris Holcomb | Captain, Raleigh Fire Department
“As an Asian American, along with other different heritages, I love and embrace this part of my family. My mother and her side of the family, hail from the great state of Hawaii. She is a granddaughter of a brave woman who came from Korea, landed on Hawaii, married a Portuguese man, and started the Kohala Kimchee factory in Kohala. Their daughter married my grandfather. He was a Chinese, Hawaiian man who worked hard and their union created my mother.
My mother married a military man and I have had the honor and privilege of moving around this great country and meeting some of the bravest men and women this country has ever seen. After high school, I enlisted and served three years in the 82nd Airborne Division. Afterwards, I attended Campbell University, began to volunteer at the local fire department, and ultimately ended up working for the Raleigh Fire Department.
As I understand it, and those that I know of, there are only a hand full of Asian Americans (five to be specific) in the Raleigh Fire Department. This year and last, have shown us the importance and need for diversity, recognition, and acceptance in our workforce. As the only officer in the department that is a member of the AAPI community, I feel obligated to express my desire to have those who are of Asian descent, to be able to acknowledge their heritage and be recognized for their contributions which make this country as great as it is, as well as to the City of Raleigh. Also, I feel the City of Raleigh should increase its recruitment efforts in the AAPI community to represent its growing population more adequately in Raleigh and the RTP area. It has been recently noted that the Asian Community is the fastest-growing demographic in North Carolina and Wake County has the highest Asian population in the state.”
Diversity is one of Raleigh’s core values. To accurately represent the growing Raleigh community, we must aim to build a team that mirrors the residents. Therefore, the City strives to increase workforce diversity and provide resources for education and support. Currently, two percent of City employees identify as AAPI. Nearly one-third of employees identify as Black/African-American; American Indian/Indigenous; and/or Latino/Hispanic.
The Office of Equity and Inclusion supports this work by intentionally focusing on embedding equity and inclusion within our organization and the communities we serve. Housed in the City Manager’s Office, the FY22 Proposed City Budget recommends the elevation of the Office of Equity and Inclusion to a formal department with the addition of three full-time employees to support equity initiatives.
Uplifting Asian Voices
While there is much to celebrate during AAPI Heritage Month, the rising incidence of anti-Asian hate crimes does not go unnoticed. In response, the Office of Equity and Inclusion hosted “Talk Inclusion: Uplifting Asian Voices” on April 14 and 21. The events included a panel of community members, local businesses, and elected officials that spoke about their cultures and personal experiences living in Wake County.
One of the panelists was Chuan Tsay, Co-Owner and Executive Chef at Heirloom. Heirloom is a Laotian and Taiwanese-inspired restaurant, cafe, and bar located in Downtown Raleigh's Warehouse District. The artistic and plant-filled space that Tsay has curated was recognized as one of Bon Appetit magazine’s top 50 restaurants of 2019 and online magazine Hop Culture's best coffee shop in the country that same year. We spoke with Tsay again to hear about his experience as a local business owner and the history behind Heirloom.
“Heirloom is a continuation of the journey our parents started when they moved to America, except we're doing it on our own terms, leading with our identity,” said Tsay. “Heirloom is a fabric of individual uniquities, the appreciation of heritage, and the understanding that people and communities grow over time. Heirloom has been our canvas to feel welcome and welcome others into this fabric in Raleigh.”
Tsay shared a word of advice to entrepreneurs and small business owners: don’t be afraid to do things on your own terms. By leaning into your unique vision, Tsay says you can reach success without losing authenticity. “Don't let anyone else control your identity or destiny. Our community is richer, more diverse, and more genuine that way,” he said.
The City values the contributions of all citizens and believes an inclusive, diverse environment is what enhances Raleigh and spurs creativity and innovation in our community. To learn more about Raleigh’s commitment and Racial Equity Action Plan, please visit the Office of Equity and Inclusion page.