He­len He: A vi­sion­ary rooted in ser­vice


China Daily (Canada) - - ACROSS AMERICA - By CAI CHUN­Y­ING in Wash­ing­ton charlenecai@chi­nadai­lyusa.com

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.

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