Over the past few years, the rise in anti-Asian hate and xenophobia, combined with a global pandemic have made normal, everyday life difficult for the AAPI community. By sharing stories and insights from those in the Chinese American community, Committee of 100 hopes to shed more light on the issue but also help celebrate the amazing accomplishments from within the Chinese American community to the world at large.
The staff of Committee of 100 sat down with some of our Next Generation Leaders and asked them about their careers, what the past few years have been like as a Chinese American and their hopes for the future as we move forward in this pandemic world we all live in.
Committee of 100’s Next Generation Leaders program focuses on young leaders who are passionate about the organization’s mission to promote the full inclusion of Chinese Americans across society and advance the betterment of U.S.-China relations. The program was first established in 2017.
This month, we spoke with NextGen Leader Elaine Cheung, who currently serves as Chief of Operations for a New York City elected official, where she oversees the internal operations of a borough-wide agency. She has over a decade of experience in New York City government and politics, with expertise in municipal budgeting, land use, and legislation. Most notably, Elaine previously served as Chief of Staff for the Council Member whose district encompassed the largest number of AAPI New Yorkers during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic and reported attacks on the AAPI community.
A champion of cultivating the leadership skills of young women in her community, Elaine has been recognized for her leadership by the Girl Scouts of Greater New York, the Alumnae Association of Mount Holyoke College, the New York City Council, and has twice been a recipient of the President’s Volunteer Service Award. She remains dedicated to serving the people of New York City and the AAPI community.
You can connect with Elaine on LinkedIn here.
Committee of 100: As a Chinese American, what are some of the challenges you have encountered to become a leader in your respective field?
Elaine: As an AAPI young professional, I have faced many of the same issues my peers have faced. People have assumed that I don’t speak English, that I’m not in charge, or that I can’t possibly be the subject-matter expert simply due to my race and ethnicity. In my field in particular, there is a lot of politics behind the politics, and having mentors to guide you through all of it is key to success. However, when I started I had few peers who looked like me – let alone mentors who understood what it was like to stand in my shoes as an Asian American female. I was lucky to find a supportive community, but this experience is also why mentoring and nurturing other young Asian Americans is so important to me. Thankfully, times have also changed and we’re seeing more and more active Chinese Americans and AAPI folks in the field at all levels and roles.
Committee of 100: There are more than 6 million Chinese Americans in the United States today and it is one of the fastest-growing populations in the U.S. Do you feel that Chinese Americans are well represented in government, business, and other parts of society?
Elaine: While Chinese Americans, and AAPIs in general, are a large part of the workforce, we don’t always see ourselves represented at the highest levels of our respective fields. For those who do make it to the higher levels, there are often unspoken or invisible barriers, including career ceilings. I personally look forward to hearing more and more about Chinese American elected officials who represent a non-Chinese American majority community, or Chinese American executive directors who lead non-AAPI-focused not-for-profits. Representation at all levels is important, but so is representation in a way that is fully inclusive of who we are as Americans.
Committee of 100: What moment or learning experience inspired you to work in your professional field?
Elaine: My family instilled in me the importance of being active in my community and giving back. Growing up, weekends were spent at park clean-up events, hosting food drives, and volunteering with my Girl Scout troop. This public-spirited upbringing is what inspired me to enter public service over a decade ago. In my current role, I am able to help make local government more effective and efficient in order to better serve the residents who rely on us daily. For many years I also worked with a large new immigrant population and the ability to speak the same language and provide culturally competent care was integral in getting this community the services they needed. The ability to directly impact the lives of others and serve the city I call home is what inspires me on a daily basis.
Committee of 100: For those Chinese Americans and AAPIs who just recently graduated college, what advice would you give to them?
Elaine: Take a moment to reflect on yourself, recognize your own achievements and how far you’ve come. Celebrate it. Take the compliments you’ve earned, and don’t undersell yourself or your abilities and skills. Knowing how to do your job is only part of it; soft skills are just as important as hard skills so make sure you’re an active participant. Find mentors and others that you can learn from, talk to, and use as a sounding board – and extend your hand backwards to help those coming up behind you. But most importantly, know who you are and what your values are, and if you let them guide them you, you will always be okay.
Committee of 100: What do you most want to be remembered for in terms of making your mark on this world?
Elaine: My hope is that I’ll be remembered for having a positive impact on the world, and that I made a difference in the lives of those I love and care about. Much of my life has focused on service to others and giving back, both in a professional and volunteer capacity, and I hope that my example inspires others to do the same – just as my parents have inspired me. Often in government we help people who may never even know who it was that helped them, but if that spirit carries on throughout the community then I’d be proud to have played my part in advancing it. I truly believe in the Girl Scout Law that I taught to many young scouts, namely, to “make the world a better place.”