Interview with Peggy Saika

Founding Sister, Peggy Saika

In March 2011, Peggy Saika was interviewed on her thoughts about NAPAWF’s founding, what it means for us to be celebrating our 15th anniversary and what she sees in store for our next 15 years.

At the time NAPAWF was coming together, Peggy was the Executive Director of Asian Pacific Environmental Network (APEN).

“When the Beijing International Women’s Conference was being organized, I was dismayed that there was very little discussion or support to women going to Beijing.  Ten years earlier at the Nairobi International Women’s Conference, there was tremendous support for African American women going to Nairobi.

“I had received a fellowship from the Gerbode Foundation of about $5000 and I thought, ‘I’m going to divide this up between the 5 women on the APEN board who are also going to Beijing.’  A year before the Beijing Conference, we submitted a proposal for a session inviting Asian American women who were going to the Conference to see who would be there.  So we submitted a session proposal and it was rejected.  Then a month before Beijing, we get this postcard in the mail saying that ‘your session is going to be in the Conference booklet,’ and it had a room number.  It was from the NGO Office, so I thought this is so crazy but it must be meant to be. The other coincidence that had happened the year before was that the Ms. Foundation called and said of the 100 women that Ms. would be sending to Beijing, 3 to 4 would be Asian American women.  They asked me if I would lead the delegation and I said is that really a delegation!  But we get there and 75 Asian American women showed up.  We were blown away!  I said, ‘Gee, when we go back home we have to figure out a way to bring Beijing home.’  It is all well and good to go to an international convening but so what if you don’t bring it home.  And there was no Asian American women’s group to bring it home to so we kept trying to connect with the women who were there.  We kept saying we had to organize ourselves.  We kept meeting and we put out the call and invitation to as many people we knew.  And then 125 women came together in Los Angeles a year later.  It was amazing that we could do it in a year, without any grants but on sheer political will.  Part of the challenges was that everyone was busy with their own lives, working and doing political stuff.  It was really difficult and challenging — even trying to organize meetings and talking to people — people were spread across the country.  We knew there were all of these ad hoc groups but we were not organized.

We invited an Asian American woman who was a Clinton appointee but only 5 or 10 of us came.  But we gathered in a circle, J Lee Wong had flown up from LA —  we were crazy but we kept going.  It was really to the spirit of it.  We asked ourselves can’t we organize something that is multi-issue, not single issue like other women’s groups.

There was no capacity for fundraising in the first year.  If you go for a grant then that consumes everything, as opposed to the real activism of women organizing ourselves.

I knew that the hopes and dreams and aspirations and ideas were forever but I did not know where the org itself would go.

Alice Hom and Judy Han and a bunch of the women from the API queer community were in Los Angeles and it totally jacked us up about the lack of visibility and leadership of api queer women.  And I thought that was so fabulous — the push back.  To me, everything about that was great.

I think NAPAWF’s focus group work and the issue development work is what Lora Jo Foo used for the substance of her book.  Those were the issues that became the issues that she wrote about.  We always look at the birthing of the National Gender and Equity Campaign as fundamentally tied to all the years of work that Asian American and Pacific Islander women had poured into these issues and their level of activism.  This didn’t happen because of a Ford grant, but because of the work NAPAWF had been doing.   We were quite elated to give NAPAWF it’s first grant dedicated to really hiring its first staff, and that came out of that Campaign.

That campaign is still going as it is in the last year.  The Campaign is about really developing a gender lens within social justice organizations.  It’s really about organizations doing anti-racism work that really put gender as an essential core analysis for their approach which didn’t exist at the time.

I think the birthing of NAPAWF in Los Angeles was amazing.  Then just over time, when I was involved for a while, for me, to have my daughter get involved with NAPAWF totally on her own, having meetings at our house, graduating from college – that was really amazing.  I saw that NAPAWF truly was a multi-generational organization and that it actually inspired so many young women to get involved and organize.  It had traction with a lot of women across the country still, not just women of a certain generation but very young women.

When I look back when I was trying to give birth to both APEN and NAPAWF, I still lament the fact that I didn’t devote more time to NAPAWF.  It was really difficult to dedicate focused time and effort to NAPAWF then.

As for the future, I think I would really like to see NAPAWF becoming much more recognized and acknowledged for the uniqueness about being a multi-issue national women’s organization.  I would like to see it acknowledged in a much more robust way so that there is actually a vision of NAPAWF that gets incorporated much more deeply in the women’s movement and much more broadly in gender and equity movements, so it is not seen or dismissed as just a women’s organization.  When you are really talking about confronting patriarchy, especially as women of color, we have to do it differently.

I would love to be able to see NAPAWF grow in a more powerful way and have that replicated – that power and influence – because of the political perspective and approach of the organization.

That whole paradigm of being at the table seems to be from a still a very disempowered place.  We really want to set the table, not just sit there – nice to be invited but we actually want to be setting the table.

I would like NAPAWF as a national membership organization get to the place where there is a convening every year or two years — where people come, and you think about electing people to be there.  To have it in a much more ambitious way thinking about its own democratic practices and how it really builds and promotes leadership.  You think about what kind of issues like policy issues or organizational issues we get involved in and there is real leadership from the grassroots that actually develops and informs that.  It’s a circular motion of leading of how you continue to have the voices of your members actually be the driver, to really think that through.  And I have to say this because we at AAPIP also struggle with these issues ourselves as a national organization.  So I am very keen to learn from other organizations who have similar structures about how to do that.  It is very amazing that NAPAWF is not just still around but doing very well.”

Peggy Saika is the Executive Director of Asian Americans/Pacific Islanders in Philanthropy (AAPIP).

Read previous interview with Kaying Hang | Read next interview with Kiran Ahuja

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