Justice, Fairness, Inclusion, and Performance.

AAPI Heritage Month Spotlight - Ginger Lew

											 Lew headshot 2016

What does AAPI Heritage Month mean to you? Why do you think it is important?

First, thank you so much for asking me to participate in NAPA’s celebration of Asian American and Pacific Islanders (AAPIs) Heritage month. In 1977 Congressman Frank Horton of New York introduced House Joint Resolution 540 to proclaim the first ten days in May as Pacific/Asian American Heritage Week. In 1990, George H.W. Bush signed a bill to extend Asian-American Heritage Week to a month and two years later, May was officially designated as Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month.

America is a nation of many people from all around the world, and its own Indigenous people. Whether immigrants or native born, we have contributed to the rich history of America. It is important to acknowledge and celebrate each community’s contributions. Thousands of AAPI workers worked the land to grow America’s food; built this nation’s first transcontinental railroad; discovered medical breakthroughs; advanced our educational systems; developed some of the world’s most power IT companies; and served our country with honor in peace and war. Without the contributions of the AAPI community, the American landscape would look quite different. Can you imagine a United States without Chinese cuisine? In all seriousness, AAPI Heritage Month is important to me because it recognizes, validates, and values our collective AAPI contributions to America’s past, present and future.

The theme for AAPI Heritage Month this year is “Advancing Leaders Through Collaboration”. How do you think we can all work to achieve this goal?

We see few AAPIs in leadership roles. While Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders represent 6 percent of Federal employees, only 3.4 percent of the Senior Executive Service are AAPI employees. According to Fortune magazine, there were 35 AAPI CEOs of Fortune 500 companies from 2000 to 2020. There are a number of possible reasons for the lack of AAPI in leadership roles – one of which is a pervasive perception that AAPIs are excellent technical workers but lack the management skills to become leaders.

According to a 2018 Harvard Business Report – “Asian Americans Are the Least Likely Group in the U.S. to Be Promoted to Management”, “[o]ur analysis of national EEOC workforce data found that Asian American white-collar professionals are the least likely group to be promoted from individual contributor roles into management — less likely than any other race, including blacks and Hispanics. And our analysis found that white professionals are about twice as likely to be promoted into management as their Asian American counterparts.”

How can we get more AAPIs into leadership roles? By working together. People seldom rise to leadership roles without the collective help of many others. I believe that few leaders are born – most are made. We become leaders by learning from those who have come before us, and we build a pipeline of future leaders by helping those who come after us.

For those already in senior roles, it is important to ask if there is an unconscious bias that AAPIs are good workers but not leaders - in the selection of potential candidates? If you are an AAPI leader, proactively reach out and mentor others to move up the management ladder. For those who are starting out or in mid-management, actively seek coaches, sponsors and support from peers and family/friends. I think you will be very surprised at most people are willing to help.

Who or what inspired you to work in public service?

My dad inspired me to work in public service. He was a postal clerk at our neighborhood post office. He loved interacting with our neighbors and helping them with their problems. He felt the post office made a difference in people’s lives by delivering their mail – or checking on their well-being as he made the delivery rounds. And this was back in the 1950’s – well before “wellness checks” became formalized for seniors or shut-ins. He felt that he made a difference by doing what he did. My dad also felt that government service was a great equalizer. He was an immigrant from China. English was not his primary language. He had to learn English “on the job.” Government service gave him a steady job. More importantly, he felt he was treated fairly and as an equal by his peers. It gave him the opportunity to advance in his career. By the time he retired from the Post Office he had more than 33 years of continuous service.

What is your favorite class that you ever taught or took, and why?

I went to law school (Berkeley School of Law) in the early 1970’s. The Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act had just been passed. These emerging areas – and what they were trying to accomplish through federal regulation – was groundbreaking and exciting. The textbooks were pretty “thin” since there was not a lot of legal precedents, but the emergence of whole new fields was fascinating. As a result, I became an active member of the Ecology Law Quarterly. It gave me a focus- a purpose – in my legal studies. This led to my lifelong interest in clean energy which has been a significant part of my professional life.

What advice can you give to folks beginning careers in public service?

Be curious and be open to opportunities. Public service touches ALL aspects of our lives – ether its health care, education, infrastructure, food safety, clean water, etc. If you are a liberal arts degree, an English degree, or a business degree – you are not limited to a specific field of work. Perhaps you don’t have a specific industry in mind when you take your first job, but wherever you land, you will be exposed to many, many fields. For example, if you got an internship at DOD, you could find yourself working in cybersecurity, supply chain issues, telecom, IT, health care, the Internet of Things, community affairs, R&D, etc. My own experience has been that if you are hardworking and willing, you will be given more and more responsibilities. The opportunities for growth and for making a difference are real, tangible, and exciting.

Was there a transformational experience in your life that relates to public service?

I was very honored to have been a member of the U.S. Delegation to the United Nation’s Fourth World Conference on Women in 1995. I was General Counsel at the U.S. Department of Commerce at the time. I was the only Asian American and the only Asian American woman in the delegation.

Beijing was hosting the conference. When we arrived, I was overwhelmed by the thousands of women delegates from around the world. Many of the delegates were ordinary citizens – not government officials – who were advocating for a broad range of issues such as access to health care, educational opportunities for girls, the right to work, the right to own property in their own names. About every country in the world was represented.

The delegates were eager to learn what other countries’ policies and practices were. They wanted to learn how could they build coalitions? How best to petition and advocate for changes? What were some of the challenges women other countries/societies face? What were some of the strategies for overcoming institutional obstacles?

One of the most important outcomes of the meetings was this believe that women could make significant social changes through organized actions – that positive change could happen if we collectively worked together and supported each other. It was transformative for so many of the women delegates who felt empowered for the first time in their lives. It was so inspiring and renewed my commitment to public service.

If you could witness any historical event, what would you want to see?

I was just entering my teens when President Kennedy issued the moon challenge. I was absolutely enthralled with the idea of humankind traveling to the moon. As a result, I avidly followed the news about NASA’s accomplishments and occasional mishaps. I read everything I could about the emerging technologies; the selection of the astronauts; the engineering challenges and the political ramifications as the U.S. jockeyed with the Russians about who would be first to reach the moon. During this time, I lived on the west coast and most of the rocket launches occurred in the early morning hours at Cape Canaveral. My parents allowed me to get up at 3 am so I could watch the broadcasts of the launches. I remember where I was when millions of people around the world watched the lunar module landing and humankind’s first steps on the moon. It was truly historic and so exciting.

To me, it was one of America’s finest moments. Thousands of federal and private sector workers were working tirelessly toward a single goal – not knowing if it was achievable. Workers were challenged to look for innovative solutions to novel problems. New R&D programs were launched to explore groundbreaking technologies such as new materials, new information processing systems, and more. I was thrilled to have been a witness to such an historic period in history.

Do you have a favorite podcast, journal, newspaper, or other kind of media?

I’m pretty old fashion when it comes to media. I don’t like to read books or newspapers on a digital pad unless I am traveling. I like the feel of turning the pages of a book or a newspaper. I read several papers each day including the Washington Post, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the local paper. Lately, I’ve been listening to TED Radio Hour on NPR – a great cross-section of topics and issues.

What is the best piece of advice you have ever received?

It’s actually a compilation of advice.

  • Never forget your roots.
  • Never forget the sacrifices others made on your behalf.
  • Never forget how hard you worked to get where you are today.
  • Never forget to say thank you.
  • Never forget to stop and appreciate how far you’ve come.
  • Never forget that who you are is so much greater than what you do.
  • Never forget to pay it forward.