Helen He: A visionary rooted in service
CHINESE COMMUNITY LEADERS
Chinese Lunar New Year, which this year falls on Jan 31, has been celebrated in public schools and government offices in Maryland for eight years now. And Helen (Xiaohui) He, former president of the Coordination Council of ChineseAmerican Associations, had a lot to do with it.
In 2006, responding to a petition signed by thousands of Chinese Americans along with members of Korean and Vietnamese communities who also observe the tradition, then Maryland governor Robert Ehrlich signed into law an official recognition of the holiday, putting it on the state’s calendar.
He’s organization was the key player in mobilizing the local Chinese community and gaining support for the bill.
“The recognition has a farreaching effect,” said He, a resident of Gaithersburg, Maryland, who now sits on advisory boards of both the state and county’s committee on Asian American affairs.
“Public schools started to teach about the holiday. We also saw government buildings being decorated with Chinese themes around that time each year,” she said.
Her 20-year-long love affair with the Chinese community in the Washington area started with a simple hobby: singing.
In 1994, six years after coming to the US, she founded the cultural and performance-based Yellow River Art Ensemble, to help local Chinese Americans connect with their heritage.
“There are many Chinese in the area who were musicians and performing artists back in China. They had to give up their artistic pursuits and rarely had a chance to pick it up. What a pity! The ensemble helped to take us back to those old days singing our favorite songs,” she said.
During the Autumn Festival that year, the group staged their first show, drawing more than 1,000 Chinese from as far as Philadelphia.
Two things moved her beyond cultural activities and into civic advocacy.
The first was in 1995 when she applied for federal funds for her nonprofit. She learned from a bulletin list that Jewish organizations got funds in the millions each year while Chinese American groups only got grants in the thousands.
“I was shocked to see the difference,” she said. “I realized that as a minority group we really needed to form a more powerful community entity and reach out actively for support.”
The second event was a wellpublicized case — Wen Ho Lee’s espionage charge in 1999. Lee, a Taiwan-born scientist who worked at Los Alamos National Laboratory, was indicted on 59 criminal counts of spying for the Chinese and put in confinement for more than nine months.
The FBI dropped the case within a year and only charged Lee with mishandling classified data. President Bill Clinton issued a public apology to Lee over his treatment. Lee later said that his Chinese ethnicity was a primary factor behind his prosecution.
“I remember at the time I could not imagine what I would do if I were Wen Ho Lee. I would feel so powerless,” she said. “There was no ChineseAmerican organization to stand up for him.”
From then on, she devoted herself to building a strong Chinese community that could also be a powerful advocate in difficult times.
In Washington at the time, there were many small groups, so called “hometown associations”, that were established to bring together people from the same province or city in China.
“I thought the best thing was to first form an umbrella organization to group those hometown associations together — because everyone comes from somewhere in China,” she said.
In 2002, the Coordination Council of Chinese-American Associations was born.
For the next five years serving as deputy, she helped organize Chinese participation in many activities, some for the first time, such as the Community Service Day, the Independence Day Parade in Washington DC, the Memorial Day Parade in Montgomery County and Asian Pacific Heritage Month.
“Chinese as immigrants tend to bond with each other in Chinese culture and traditions, which is natural and should be encouraged. But as an organic part of a new society, we need to do more to let local government and fellow citizens know we are here, we belong and we care about the society,” she said.
Her efforts attracted the attention of the state government. In 2010, she won the Governor’s Volunteer Service Award, the only Asian American among the 33 recipients.
Her full-time job is as a program associate at the language and culture institute of Virginia Tech, where she got a Master’s degree in natural resources.
“Oddly enough, I do not have big ambitions in my personal career,” the soft-spoken community advocate said. “I seem to always find great pleasure in doing community-oriented things.”
She became president of her organization in 2007 and started to devote more energy towards her larger goal of engaging Chinese Americans in mainstream politics, from voter registration to fund-raising for election campaigns.
“Even though we came from China we are still authentic members of the United States. We need to follow its system in order to get assimilated and have our voice heard and needs met,” she said.
“The more voting power a group has, the more attention it will get from elected officials. Besides, voting is a privilege and we have the obligation to use it,” she explained.
She knows it is not an easy road. According to statistics, the voting rate among Chinese Americans is less than 25 percent, much lower than other Asian American communities such as Indians and Koreans.
She would set up voter registration tables at her many community events. She helped to organize the first-ever town hall meeting for Chinese Americans to meet representatives from both the Obama and McCain campaigns during the presidential election of 2008, the year that she herself became a US citizen.
“I often feel like I am still a dreamer even at this age,” she said with a laugh.
Her next dream is to form an overarching committee, participated in by leaders of main organizations in the Chinese community who could meet regularly to design development plans for the community as a whole.
Asked if there was a model for that dream, she laughed and said, “Probably the UN.”
Helen He proudly shows the sign “I Voted” after casting her vote in the 2012 presidential election.