UMass student undertakes project to provide translated voting resources in various Asian languages

Lily Tang’s capstone project includes translated materials in seven different languages, including Chinese, Vietnamese, Khmer, Tagalog, Korean, Nepali and Japanese.

By Patrick Nie, Collegian Staff

With an Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) population of approximately 500,000 people, Massachusetts ranks within the top 10 states with the highest number of eligible AAPI voters, according to research conducted by the Pew Research Center. Nationally, the Asian American community is the fastest growing demographic of eligible voters, yet voter turnout varies greatly among its diverse internal subgroups.

“Asian Americans are actually the fastest growing electorate in the United States, but it’s not recognized because our population — there’s so many non-English speakers,” said Lily Tang, a senior political science and BDIC major at the University of Massachusetts.

During the Fall 2020 semester, Tang collaborated with the Commonwealth of Massachusetts’ Asian American Commission to provide translated voting resources in seven Asian languages, including Chinese (simplified), Vietnamese, Khmer, Tagalog, Korean, Nepali and Japanese. The translated materials can be found on the AAC website as downloadable PDF files.

“Now that we’re coming out of the 2020 election, we’re seeing the impact of Asian American voters,” Tang said. “However, as a government and as candidates, there’s not a lot of effort to outreach to the AA community when we know that there is a very specific need that the AA community faces that the majority of other communities don’t.”

English proficiency among eligible AAPI voters varies by origin group. According to research conducted by the Pew Research Center, while 91 percent of Japanese Americans identify as being able to speak English “very well,” only 51 percent of Vietnamese eligible voters identify this way. This disparity in language proficiency is reflective of several factors, including place of birth and refugee status.

Jessica Wong, UMass alumnus and interim executive director of the AAC, worked with Tang to complete this project.

“When you think of our parents, who are first generation immigrants, a lot of them came from countries where you could not participate,” Wong said. “You didn’t have a choice in who was your leader — you weren’t allowed to, you know, talk about politics, right. All of that was suppressed, but now you have this opportunity.”

Tang and Wong hope to see similar steps taken outside of the quadrennial presidential elections, calling upon state officials to work with organizations to provide translated voting resources for AAPI communities year-round.

Tang and Wong also encourage students to have conversations, reach out to government officials and call on organizations to take initiative during upcoming elections.

“We should basically look at this and see that it’s an important thing that we did for 2020,” Tang said. “If this gets really good feedback, then it creates more incentive for organizations like the AAC to want to recreate something similar for the upcoming elections.”

Brooke Kamalani Yuen, community engagement coordinator in Western Massachusetts at the AAC, also worked with Tang and Wong to complete the project. Yuen’s work with the AAC focuses on providing support in communities where AAPI resources are scarce compared to areas such as Greater Boston.

“The communities we’ve worked with are the Bhutanese, Chinese, Cambodian, Filipino, Vietnamese and, most recently, the Tibetan community,” Yuen said.

According to Wong, if states do provide translated resources for the AAPI community, they often neglect the languages of the less populous communities.

“I don’t think the state has their own department to provide language translations,” Wong said. “At the same time, if they are, they’re only translating a certain amount.”

Wong said that it was particularly important to compensate translators for their skill and time, as bilingualism is vital to allowing organizations to provide resources for minority communities throughout Massachusetts. Due to the prevalence of Spanish and Chinese speakers, there is an abundance of individuals or groups that can function as translators. However, smaller AAPI ethnic groups often lack the capacity to do the same.

Additionally, many resources, such as seminars and other informative events, are typically based in Boston, so communities that are geographically disadvantaged can miss out on important information. Yuen noted that the virtualization of these events would potentially allow residents of Western Massachusetts to participate without limitations.

Though the project initially began as a capstone project, funding was required in order to make a real impact within Massachusetts’ AAPI population. This prompted Tang to apply for a grant through the Massachusetts Youth Leadership Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to enabling high school students to make change in their communities.

MYL Foundation President Christian Bedoya spoke about how Tang’s project aligned with the foundation’s mission.

“We saw that it really went with our motto of empowering citizenship,” Bedoya said. “She wanted to empower her community to, you know, really be able to act as citizens and perform their duty to vote.”

Bedoya hopes that more young individuals will follow in Tang’s footsteps.

“You don’t have to be the president of your student council or the captain of your team to really enact change,” Bedoya said.

While November’s election featured a record number of AAPI voters, the months following the outbreak of COVID-19 also saw a drastic increase in hate crimes reported by Asian Americans, with over 2,120 incidents between March and June.

“In the context of COVID-19 and a lot of the anti-Asian rhetoric and racism, I think it’s even more and more important that Asian Americans stand up and get involved in politics, even if it’s simply voting or encouraging other Asian Americans to go helping your family members to vote,” Tang said.

“We are expanding the definition of who is American and not simply being like, ‘an American is somebody who can read and speak English perfectly right,’” Tang said. “Translations and making translation a norm contribute to that and disrupts that narrative.”

 Patrick Nie can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @Patrickleinie.