“Something I had not expected was the psychological impact of seeing a city of 10 million people who looked like me,” Stegmann said. “I had never consciously thought about that. But there was something affirming, something calming about seeing my face reflected in a place that was so foreign, yet so familiar.”
Stegmann was one of thousands of babies adopted by American families in the late 1950s and early 1960s. She said she found it difficult to access her Korean culture while growing up in Oregon.
“As a youth, I kind of felt like society frowned upon me exploring my roots,” Stegmann said. “I don’t know if other immigrants have felt that way to some degree, that once you are in America that you should leave where you came from behind. You shouldn’t.”
Stegmann, the first person of Asian heritage to serve as a Multnomah County commissioner, teared up as she spoke during a celebration of Asian & Pacific Islander Heritage Month held in the Multnomah County boardroom May 4. The gathering was sponsored by the Multnomah County Employees of Color Employee Resource Group and Managers of Color.
The celebration featured dance and spoken word performances and a panel discussion, during which speakers reflected on their experiences as members of the Asian Pacific Islander community living in the United States. The event’s theme was “Enlighten and Empower.”
Asian & Pacific Islander Heritage Month celebrates Asians and Pacific Islanders in the United States, including people descended from Asia and the Pacific Islands of Melanesia, Micronesia and Polynesia.
Oregon is home to a vast Asian and Pacific Islander community that includes more than 60,000 people in Multnomah County, alone. The diversity of the population was reflected in the differences among the celebration’s speakers: Consul General Joe Enlet of the Federated States of Micronesia, who is originally from Chuuk State; Dr. Alma Trinidad, a Portland State University professor born in Hawaii to Filipino immigrants; Kalpana Krishnamurthy, policy director at Forward Together, who was born in Oregon to Indian immigrants; and Manumalo “Malo” Ala’ilima, a Samoan American and the founder and chair of UTOPIA PDX.
Despite its size and diversity, the Asian Pacific Islander community is sometimes overlooked, Enlet said.
“One of the things Pacific Islanders face is invisibility,” Enlet said. “There are a lot of places where the identity of Pacific Islanders is met with a question mark. They just don’t know how to place you. We face the same barriers to social justice as other groups, but we have other challenges.”
One of those challenges is a lack of disaggregated health data about the many populations within the Asian and Pacific Islander community. Historically, people who identify their race as Asian and/or Pacific Islander have been combined as one group, a practice that can hide health disparities that disproportionately affect one group and not another.
“While I am proud of my Korean heritage and culture, I know that there are many Asian and Pacific Islander ethnic groups, who are both very diverse in language and culture,” Stegmann said. “And yet much of the data collected on us would imply that we are one homogenous group. We are not. And the more we can disaggregate the data and analyze the unique challenges that face our diverse communities the better we can close those disparities.”
Stegmann also called on those in attendance to get involved in improving outcomes for the Asian and Pacific Islander community by volunteering, running for office, attending marches and rallies, growing their networks and making their voices heard at meetings of local and state governments.
“...It is my hope that if other women and communities of color see me in a leadership role, then they will know that they too have a voice in the room and a seat at the table.”