Building equitable communities for AAPI people in Iowa

May 24, 2023

Trevy Augustin, Executive Officer in the Iowa Office of Asian and Pacific Islander Affairs

Trevy Augustin always makes sure to bring two things when she presents around the state of Iowa: a globe and a map.

The map is one commonly found in school classrooms. It has the U.S. on the left with Europe on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. Meanwhile, the Pacific Ocean is split into two.

“It’s very easy for our minds to discard what’s on the edges,” Trevy says.

Next, she presents the globe. Her audience, who normally associates Asia with more prominent countries like China and Japan, can see how many small countries and islands actually make up the Pacific area.

People of Asian, Asian American, and Pacific Islander (AAPI) ancestry are one of the fastest growing populations in Iowa, which has led to an increase in resources and support to ensure that these new Iowans have the capability to participate fully in Iowa’s cultural, social, and economic life. In her position as Executive Officer in the Office of Asian and Pacific Islander Affairs within the Iowa Department of Human Rights, Trevy advocates for AAPI people throughout the state to combat any miscommunication, prejudice, or bias that may occur.

“I have the time and capacity to talk with you about what we can do as a community to make sure you have all of the information and resources,” Trevy explained of her position. “I make sure that this population feels supported and knows who they can go to.”

A Cultural Education

Trevy understood the experience of AAPI folks in the U.S. long before she started her position in April of 2021.

Trevy’s family is from Micronesia, a set of Pacific islands in the western region of the Pacific Ocean. She was born in Guam near the island her parents are from.

“Micronesia is both a region and a country,” Trevy said. “Within the country of the Federated States of Micronesia, there are multiple ethnicities and multiple languages.”

Trevy has navigated the U.S. immigration system nearly her entire life. She grew up speaking primarily English. Family members depended on her to assist with and navigate complicated U.S. programs like Social Security and Medicaid for her parents.

In her role at the Iowa Department for Human Rights, Trevy has witnessed that no two cultures experience the same issues and roadblocks when arriving in the U.S. There are more than 50 countries, sovereign territories, and special administrative regions that make up the continent of Asia, so Trevy knows she cannot understand or speak to every community member’s experience. Instead, she works with communities to combat discrimination against AAPI people and maintains strong relationships with resources around the state, ensuring her office can support all who identify as AAPI.

Advocating for New Iowans

“First and foremost, I am an advocate,” Trevy said.

With so much diversity within the AAPI identity, the community calls on Trevy’s office for support on a wide variety of issues. In order to address these issues, Trevy must approach the situation with sensitivity to the specific culture being affected. Some people may come to the United States as refugees from countries in the midst of war—others may be wealthy and attending school.

“I help providers, organizations, schools, advocates, and the families themselves understand their rights and feel supported, no matter the reason they’re here,” Trevy said.  

Her projects range from helping immigrants navigate getting established in a new country, to facilitating positive and productive relationships between these new Iowans and their established communities.

Recently, a city government official notified Trevy that a group of AAPI immigrants in a small town felt unwelcome and discriminated against. Trevy attended town halls and city council meetings in the community to facilitate conversations between groups. Realizing that the issues stemmed from a lack of understanding between different cultures, she worked with the city council to host the town’s first community picnic. Citizens gathered over food and drink to connect and develop a sense of shared humanity.

According to world atlas, over 2,300 languages are spoken on the continent of Asia. This often leads to communication issues within AAPI immigrant populations in the U.S.

For example, an Iowa community contacted Trevy to discuss how they can better communicate health service information to the growing AAPI population within their town. A subsequent town hall revealed that the group was also struggling to understand U.S. laws, so so Trevy encouraged their local leaders to empower and employ community members within the public health and hospital system.

Iowa is Striving Toward Equity

Growing up in a military family, Trevy has lived in Japan, Chicago, St. Louis, and several other places throughout her life. Wherever she goes, it seems people make assumptions about AAPI people.

“It can be very easy to just group all of these people together, and I think that can be harmful,” Trevy said. She explained that some countries, such as North Korea and Papua New Guinea, experience high levels of poverty and infant mortality rates. Meanwhile, South Korea’s education system is flourishing and Singapore boasts the highest GDP in Asia.

“In that data, we don't consider everyone else who’s not from those countries that have higher rates of success,” Trevy said. “Because of that, they don’t get as much humanitarian support for medical inequity, educational inequity, gender inequity.”

During the town hall meeting she hosted to improve communication in the small town, Trevy and local government leaders invited an embassy employee from the country in question. He’d never been invited to a town hall in the United States in the decade he’d been working at the embassy. Trevy believes this shows Iowa’s commitment to building equitable communities.

“It’s a reflection of our local leadership wanting to be present and wanting to learn,” Trevy said.

Iowa has a history of supporting refugees since the Vietnam War, which has led multiple generations of AAPI families to make the state their home. Today, when the U.S. Government resettles refugees in another state, they are likely to move within 8 months—a common practice known as “secondary migration.” Many families settle in Iowa.

“Iowa might not be the first state that people with refugee status or immigrant status come to; it’s often their second or third state,” Trevy said. “Anytime I ask folks, ‘why Iowa?’ they tell me there are job opportunities here and they’ve been able to find homes for their families. They feel safe here.”

CultureALL believes that sharing the cultural richness of our community with others will elevate our society and the quality of life for all.