Volunteer Appreciation Week with Hon. Casimiro Tolentino
Asian Americans Advancing Justice — Los Angeles appreciates and celebrates all who volunteer with us in various capacities. In this episode of Connie’s Comments, Connie is joined by the Honorable Casimiro Tolentino (Cas), who has been on the board and volunteering his time and services with Advancing Justice — LA since its genesis in 1983. As long time friends, our founder and President Emeritus, Stewart Kwoh, also joins Cas in this conversation as they take a trip down memory lane and talk about their hopes for the future of not only Advancing Justice — LA, but our AANHPI communities.
How did you learn about Advancing Justice-LA and how did you get involved?
I met Stewart Kwoh and Mike Eng at UCLA Law School. I was aware of their interest in starting an Asian Law Collective. I also shared the lack of advocacy and legal services to the Asian Pacific Community. After graduation, I worked for the Civil Rights Division of HEW in Washington DC, subsequently with the CA Agricultural Labor Relations Board in the Central Valley, and the Department of Fair Employment and Housing in LA.
I kept in touch with Stewart and when I got back to LA in the early 80s, the Collective had disbanded. There were Asian Pacific Americans (APA) lawyers that spoke about setting up an advocacy group for APAs. We spoke of the unique problems of domestic violence, language, unmet social needs, and immigration. We also were concerned about the ethnic and linguistic divide amongst the APAs.
One evening and several meetings later, Stewart and APA lawyers met to talk about setting up what we eventually called Asian Pacific American Legal Center, now Asian Americans Advancing Justice — Los Angeles. Stewart would spend half-time as Director and we would fundraise seed money to start a legal center. The APA churches were responsive and provided the initial funding.
I was a member, and the Chair of the founding board for the next 8 years. I was also a volunteer attorney on labor and employment discrimination. I attended many gatherings with Stewart just getting the Asian Pacific American Legal Center (now, Advancing Justice-LA) in their conversations and to engage them in learning more about the APA community. I helped recruit Board members and setting up our pro bono work with the other Asian bar associations. I was the Chair of the Philippine Lawyers of LA, now Philippine American Bar Association (PABA,) and Stewart was Chair of the Chinese Lawyers group, and Fred Fujioka was the Chair of Japanese American Bar Association (JABA.) Together, we were able to start a pro bono program. As grants came in, we hired staff and law clerks, and APALC (now, Advancing Justice-LA) was able to develop the programs we have today.
What have you learned or how have you been personally affected by your experience as an Advancing Justice-LA volunteer?
Just being a volunteer and a member of the Board, I was surprised to learn that the larger mainstream funding community were not aware of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders’ communities and that they also had the same concerns and problems as other communities of color. I learned that most held stereotypes such as the “model minority.” The 1992 riots showed that we were not homogenous, and that we were diverse communities, culturally and linguistically. I learned that we were not reaching out to the newer immigrant groups such as Koreans, Vietnamese, Thai and South east Asians. I also learned that we did not have bridges of communications with other communities of color. The riots showed a huge gap of communication between the Black and Brown community and AAPI community. Advancing Justice-LA was addressed these issues by creating Leadership groups in both Black and APA communities to bridge the gap. Our other programs such as the Parents programs in SGV bridged the gaps between APA and the Brown communities. Advancing Justice-LA’s advocacy with respect to the El Monte garment workers helped our engagement with the Central American immigrants.
Do you have an inspirational story you can briefly tell about your experience volunteering?
Most of Advancing Justice-LA’s work has been inspirational. We were able to create a national voice of advocacy by creating the Asian Americans Advancing Justice affiliation. We addressed issues relating to attacks on immigrants, we created programs to bridge the gaps between the APAs and other communities of color and we worked with other communities of color with their issues, which many times were also our issues.
The murder of Joseph Ileto as a hate crime was important to me as a Filipino American and prescient of today’s anti-Asian atmosphere. We recognized it as an important issue by helping the Ileto family in dealing with the tragedy and starting the Joseph Ileto Courage Award to celebrate individuals that are showing courage at our annual gala. It showed that APAs were also targets of racism and white supremacy, and it should not be ignored.
What advice would you give other individuals who want to participate in volunteer or pro bono work?
The work of Advancing Justice-LA is ongoing and is fueled by volunteer and pro bono work. Without them, we would not be able to address the issues and programs that are seriously needed to advocate for concerns and issues. I would encourage folks to give some time to advise program staff in areas of expertise; volunteer as an attorney for cases; participate in advisory boards and committees to provide input and guidance; and at a minimum donate to support Advancing Justice-LA’s programs and attend Advancing Justice-LA’s fundraising and policy events.