Greg Behrman, NationSwell Founder and Chief Executive Officer, interviewed Joe about the inception of the organization, the challenges it faces, why this is personal for him, and the impact the organization is already celebrating. This is what he had to say.

Greg Behrman, NationSwell: Thank you so much for talking to us today. Tell us the origin story of the Asian American Foundation.

Joe Bae, KKR, The Asian American Foundation: The origin story is a fascinating one. It starts with Jonathan Greenblatt, who runs the Anti-Defamation League, one of the country’s leading groups focused on anti-hate and discrimination. Jonathan and the ADL have a sophisticated infrastructure set up to track hate speech and violence towards not only Jewish people, but other marginalized and minority groups.

In March of 2020, when Covid first hit, Jonathan reached out to a few leaders in the Asian American community and said, “Listen. I’ve never seen anything like this in terms of our tracking of hate speech, harassment and bias directed at Asian Americans. It’s just spiking through the roof.”  A lot of that was likely because of Trump’s rhetoric around the “China flu,” and blaming China for the pandemic. It really sparked a lot of the negative anti-Asian sentiment across the United States.

But the most meaningful insight that the ADL shared with us was that when you see this kind of spike in hate speech against a community, it is almost always followed by a meaningful spike in physical violence against that community, like we saw after 9/11 against the Muslim American community.

So Jonathan called to tell us that this was likely to escalate and that this was going to happen at scale.  He was nervous for the Asian American community because we don’t have an equivalent infrastructure in the United States to, say, the NAACP for the Black community or the ADL for the Jewish community.   And as he predicted, we started seeing these one-off incidents of Asian American elderly people being attacked on the streets, an Asian American woman who had acid thrown in her face, or people getting spit on in the subway and buses. Stories like these — hundreds of articles and anecdotes shared on social media — were popping up all over the country.

That was really the kernel of this idea for creating TAAF: that we needed to build for the first time an infrastructure to go combat this immediate crisis. There were six initial Founders of TAAF, and we all got together for three days in July 2020 to start planning and debating what the core issues were that our community was facing.  What were our community’s inherent constraints and challenges?  How should we prioritize building a more robust infrastructure for the community?

The most immediate thing we all agreed upon was to basically incubate and fund an Asian American version of the ADL’s Hate Tracker so we could monitor incidents across social media. Our goal was to leverage the ADL’s experience for the next two to three years, to build the necessary expertise and knowledge, train local community organizations, and focus on Asian American hate crime tracking to proactively engage with local law enforcement and the FBI, engage with the media to get the most effective press coverage when bad things happen to members of our community and ultimately support victims of these crimes.

Greg Behrman, NationSwell: How does your personal story connect to the foundation? Why are these issues so personal to you?

Joe Bae, KKR, The Asian American Foundation: My experience as an Asian American reflects much of the Asian American experience, whether you’re a Korean, Chinese, Vietnamese, or Indian. We’re 6.5% of the population of the United States, but more than 60% of all Asian Americans and more than 70% of all adult Asian Americans were not born in the United States. So I think a big part of the constraints and challenges our communities face is that we are largely an immigrant community that came to the US in the last generation.  Not only is the AAPI community incredibly diverse and fragmented, but we simply have not had enough time to get organized and develop the social, political and philanthropic infrastructure to serve the needs of the community.

My kids are going to grow up differently. This past summer, I had all four of my kids at home during the COVID lockdown. We were eating three meals a day together. We were talking about what was happening to the Asian American community. All this discrimination. All the violence. And my kids, who were born here, had no idea what the broader Asian American experience had been for the last one hundred and fifty years. They had no idea what the Chinese went through with the Exclusion Act, or what the Japanese went through during World War II, or what the South Asian community went through right after 9/11. So I used lockdown as an opportunity to talk to my kids at the dinner table about our history every day.

A big part of the reason we feel like outsiders is because our kids who are Asian don’t understand our own history in this country. It’s never taught in the classroom or in public schools.  You never hear about Asian American studies. And there’s this “Model Minority” myth in this country which likes to characterize Asians as the successful minority, the poster child for what good immigration looks like. We supposedly don’t need any help as a community, we’re so successful, we’re lawyers and Ivy League grads.

But the reality is the vast majority of our community actually is not doing well. Asian Americans have the highest poverty rates among the elderly in New York City of any racial group.   Our community finds it incredibly difficult to access social services or government relief funds because of language and cultural barriers. So while the Asian American Anti-Hate Tracker is our immediate priority, there are broader needs within our massively fragmented community. There’s no national scale. Organizations in the Asian American community are very siloed. Today, there needs to be a different kind of organization that can help bring together big ideas, that can be a national, convening, organizational voice. That really was our starting point for how we thought about what our priorities need to be.

Greg Behrman, NationSwell: Is your approach informed by experiences of discrimination or difficulty in your professional or personal life?

Joe Bae, KKR, The Asian American Foundation: My whole family was born in Korea. We moved here in the 1970s. My parents didn’t speak English, and I went to public school out on Long Island. And I was one of two Asians at the entire school. We did not have the kind of diversity that we strive for now. And, things like playground racial slurs, bullying, all that stuff was common. And immigrant families didn’t really recognize that as a problem — the big focus was on assimilation, on fitting in and now drawing attention to yourself.  Growing up in that timeframe, you really felt like an outsider in America.

My mom is a social worker. She has spent her whole life helping provide access to social services that many Asian Americans don’t know how to access.  She was a counselor for domestic violence victims in the Korean American community because so many of these women don’t know how to access social services, or speak to counselors or therapists. I think a lot of these shortcomings and challenges facing the Asian American community were very real to me growing up and was an important motivation for me to join TAAF.

Greg Behrman, NationSwell: I know that the foundation is young, but what accomplishments and achievements are you celebrating?

Joseph Bae, KKR, Asian American Foundation: When we started, our Board members personally pledged $125 million over the next five years  to get TAAF up and running. Our plan was to do some incremental fundraising, so we went to friends and family and other like-minded non-profits or foundations to see if they would be willing to support TAAF as well. But what became very clear as we started these conversations with leading foundations, philanthropists, and corporations was that AAPI issues were really not on the radar screen for any of these organizations. In fact, AAPI non-profits and causes receive less than 1% of all the funding provided by foundations and corporations.

So we morphed our fundraising effort into something called the AAPI Giving Challenge where we talked to hundreds of companies and asked, “How are you thinking about supporting the Asian American community as part of your DE&I  and philanthropic budgets? Many of these companies have a massive number of  Asian Americans workers. What are you doing for them? What’s your strategic plan to support them?”

We told them, “We’re not asking you for money for TAAF — what we really want you to do is to be able to commit for the next five years a certain amount of money in support of whatever causes within the Asian American community that you decide. But we want a commitment of resources.”

Ultimately, we circled around $1.1 billion for the AAPI Giving Challenge among some of the biggest foundations, corporates, banks, and consulting firms. But if we could raise $1.1 billion in six weeks, there is no reason to believe that number can’t grow to over 10 billion dollars over time. So we’ll continue to reach out and hopefully unlock more resources for the Asian American community.

Greg Behrman, NationSwell: What is most helpful to support your organization during this leg of your journey? What would bring the greatest value right now?

Joe Bae, KKR, The Asian American Foundation: We certainly can’t do this by ourselves. So whatever project or initiative we decide to prioritize, we’d like to be the convener and organizer that brings together key stakeholders and partners to the table.

One example of this is the massive vacuum in public education around Asian American history and studies, which is critical to understanding that Asian Americans are an important part of the fabric of this country.  This requires governors, state legislators, teachers and Asian American advocates to work together. Recent success in Illinois, New Jersey and California are promising green shoots. It’s not going to be easy to get to all fifty states on board, so our educational advocacy efforts are one place that we need partners.

And then there’s cultural narrative, where Asian Americans are stereotyped in a very specific way beyond the model minority myth. We are not the leads in tv shows — we’re usually the geeky tech person. We’re certainly not associated with being great athletes. So we’ve partnered with a lot of content creators on the West Coast and in New York to help change that narrative, to help get the world to see us a little differently.

Lastly, we’re really just scratching the surface on our Giving Challenge. We need corporate CEOs and foundation heads to really start engaging in a conversation about how they can better support their stakeholders who are members of the Asian American community.

Greg Behrman is founder and CEO of NationSwell. Joe Bae is Co-CEO of KKR and co-founder of The Asian American Foundation. For more information on TAAF, visit their site. For more information on KKR, visit their site. For more information on NationSwell’s Institutional Membership, visit our Community page.