AAPI administrators address the ‘bamboo ceiling’ at equity network

May 3, 2019 Staff Writer

Since 2016, ACSA has been hosting equity networks for African American, Latino, Asian American and LGBQT members. The events are part of ACSA’s larger equity vision and align with ACSA’s mission statement to be “the driving force for an equitable world-class education system, and the development and support of inspired educational leaders who meet the diverse needs of all California students.”

ACSA’s Asian American and Pacific Islander equity network held a meeting recently in San Francisco.Such an event occurred recently for ACSA Asian-American and Pacific Islander members in partnership with San Francisco USD’s Asian American Administrators Association, where central and site leaders from ACSA Regions 2, 4, 5 and 6 gathered to share their personal stories and engage in discussions about navigating specific road blocks to their success.

Asian American and Pacific Islanders lead with a style that is different from the American cultural norm. As a result, they are often overlooked as effective leaders. A Harvard study of the National EEOC Workforce Data showed that Asian Americans are the least likeliest group to be promoted to a management role — less likely than any other race, including African-Americans and Hispanics.

While stereotypes about the AAPI community, such as being quiet, respectful of authority, and technically competent, tend to appear positive on the surface, these categorizations can have a negative impact if they are misunderstood to mean that Asians are meek, submissive, just worker bees, and therefore lacking the skills required to be a successful leader.

“One of the greatest challenges for the AAPI community is the pervasive yet silent assumption that effective leadership is defined in a way that often precludes the styles that AAPI leaders hold,” said Victor Tam, principal of Edwin and Anita Lee Newcomer School at San Francisco USD. “Successful leadership incorporates all different styles. To provide true equity in education, the ranks of educational leaders need to reflect the cultural diversity found in our student population.”

Asian American and Pacific Islanders are often left out of conversations when we talk about equity and the glass ceiling, or in this case the “bamboo ceiling.”  The term “bamboo ceiling” was first used at ACSA by ABC USD Superintendent Mary Sieu during her 2018 talk at the Leadership Summit Women’s Breakfast.

“I wanted to focus on the cultural issues that may inhibit AAPIs from moving forward in various leadership roles,” Sieu said.  “Many people may not have heard of the term ‘bamboo ceiling’ before, and it was a means for me to integrate the challenges we face and means to overcome them.”

The Pew Research Center says AAPIs are the fastest growing racial group in the U.S. Despite their largely immigrant status, data show that Asians tend to be better educated than other ethnicities. Asians overall are twice as likely to have a college degree than the average American. Furthermore, statistics also say AAPI households are more likely to surpass the U.S. median household income.

“For these reasons, even though data shows that 74 percent of AAPIs are born abroad (including myself), Asian Americans & Pacific Islanders are not considered underrepresented minorities and, therefore, are given little priority when it comes to diversity and equity programs,” said Senior Director of ACSA Member Services Margarita Cuizon-Armelino, whose department currently oversees and funds equity networking events.

“One of the greatest challenges for the AAPI community is the pervasive yet silent assumption that effective leadership is defined in a way that often precludes the styles that AAPI leaders hold.”

–Victor Tam

That is not the case at ACSA, where all subgroups are provided a voice and a supportive platform to have discussions around their unique issues.

“This event was rewarding on so many levels,” Tam said. “Some points include the ability to network with AAPI leaders from outside my own district, learning from their experiences, and being inspired by their stories of overcoming challenge.”

Assistant Principal of Roosevelt Middle School Krishna Kassebaum, whose roots on his mother’s side are from India, also added that hearing from fellow AAPI leaders from neighboring districts and counties was exhilarating because they provided another voice to this conversation about our own identities and how important and impactful they are in the work school leaders do.

“I felt that I belonged to this community of educational leaders, and through this event, I was able to connect,” Kassebaum said. “That feeling of connectedness is the power of having a common experience. I really appreciated this event because it enabled all of us to learn and share with one another in a meaningful and safe space.”

Those stories of inspiration and common experiences came from several AAPI school leaders who managed to break through the “bamboo ceiling,” including Santa Rosa City Schools Superintendent Diann Kitamura, who believes that we should own our stories and allow our uniqueness to help us lead.

“Understand and be proud of your identity,” said Kitamura. “It is the cultural wealth you bring to all that you do, and will actually set you apart from others in a positive way when you create your own narrative about who you are and what you stand for on behalf of students.”

Partnerships with other organizations are important and should be intentional. ACSA often brings in like-minded organizations to broaden the network of support and expand the knowledge base.

“The formation of these types of networks and affinity groups allows for a deeper level of discussions which is highly relevant and can provide for more focused advocacy, professional development and strategic support, which can be shared and applied in the real work of leaders,” said Darlene Lim, former SFUSD administrator and AAAA representative.

Ultimately, ACSA hopes to continue bringing recognition and understanding to the different cultural values found within our membership and the students they serve and to provide opportunities to learn how to balance all of it with the expectations of different leadership positions.

For more information about ACSA’s Equity work, visit www.acsa.org/equity.

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