Interview: Chloe Bennet and Brad Jenkins of RUN
Get Politically Active and RUN
By Melissa Slaughter
We all know Chloe Bennet as TV's resident Hapa and the lead of Agents of Shield. If you follow her infamous Twitter account, you'll also know that she's an outspoken advocate of Asian-American representation and is vocal against the practice of whitewashing/erasure/yellow facing.
You might not know Brad Jenkins by name, but if you're politically-aware, you will know his work with Funny or Die. Did you see this video of Obama on Between Two Ferns? That was all Brad Jenkins doing. Brad also spent four years serving as President Obama’s Associate Director in The White House Office of Public Engagement. And finally, Brad is a Hapa who was featured as the first guest on the podcast Southern Fried Asian talking about his mixed-race Southern roots.
Brad Jenkins: “Chloe and I met at the Obama White House's final event before turning over the keys to Trump. It was a sad day, man. Chloe and I spoke on a panel to over a hundred Asian American Pacific Islander political leaders. The organizers planned this conference long before the election. So my guess is that they expected it to be a victory lap for Asian American political leaders. Instead it was a wake-up call.”
Chloe Bennet: “Brad and I realized that we couldn't count on anyone else to bring our communities together. We have to do it ourselves. There were barely any young people at the conference. And, we kept hearing about how Asian Americans don't vote. I mean, it’s crazy; we are the fastest growing community in the United States -- but, we vote the least. There weren't any real solutions being offered by these leaders. So, we committed that day to do what we can to lift our communities up. And now here we are!”
Once co-founder Cate Park was added to the mix, RUN (which stands for "Represent Us Now") was launched. Though Liberals and Democrats had a pretty big win in this past November, and there's a few Hapas in Congress (Shout-out to Senator Kamala Harris, Senator Tammy Duckworth, and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard!), there’s so much more work to be done. As Chloe says "we vote the least." Which means we have more power than we think, and with 2018 elections just around the corner, now is the time to get in the know and get involved.
Brad: “As Americans, I think we all took voting for granted this last election. Trump won because citizens weren't inspired to vote. Over half of eligible voters didn't show up. Especially Asian Americans. If we're upset about Donald Trump or local politicians supporting his policies, we all need to take a good look in the mirror. We all could've done more.”
As a politically active Hapa myself, I jumped at the chance to interview them both for Hapa Mag. There's continual debate as to whether or not Hapas are a part of the AAPI community; just look at the response to Henry Golding in Crazy, Rich, Asians. Many of us have been told that "we don't count". Chloe even had to defend her name change to a more Western sounding name in order to make rent. So how is it that two Hapas came to be running an organization focused on all AAPI's?
Chloe: “Being Hapa is so specific; we definitely have a different set of both upsides and downsides, compared to the AAPI community. But at this point for me, it’s really about bridging the gap in Hollywood between white people and any one with an ounce of diversity. In my experience in Hollywood, it’s like you’re either “white” or you’re just “ethnic”… so I’m trying to use my platform to speak for all Asians as a whole. I guess it’s my way of taking baby steps. But at home, I definitely identify with being hapa more than anything. Get me in a convo with any hapa and we could relate to each other for hours!”
Brad: “The exciting thing about (RUN) is that the Asian American Pacific Islander community is so incredibly diverse. We're talking over 50 countries and a hundred different languages, cultures, art, politics, and skin tones. As a teenager, I didn't really fit in with the black community and I wasn't really accepted in the Korean community either, and so I had no choice but to create my own diverse community of misfits who didn't fit in.
It wasn't until I worked at the White House that I realized how powerful the AAPI community could be if we started organizing and building together. Many argue that AAPI is just an academic term. While I agree, I think most are missing the huge opportunity to make it real with this next generation. The one thing that binds all of our cultures is that our parents have all taught us to be respectful and keep our heads-down. That's the same for Koreans, Chinese, Japanese, Indian, Indonesian. It's no wonder that our parents vote the least. Power in politics is all about speaking up and being loud and being heard. That's something that we all need to build up and why we are so excited for (RUN).”
I could continue to explain what RUN does, what inspired Brad and Chloe, what you can do to get involved. But I'll let them explain in their own words.
Melissa: Have you always been politically active?
Chloe: Hmmm, I would say I was always pretty socially aware. Growing up on the southside of Chicago with such a diverse family, really shaped me to see the world from so many different perspectives. And I Feel like in a way, especially with the current administration, it’s not really about politics anymore. It’s more about caring for people from different walks of life. And understanding their needs as well as your own.
Melissa: How did you get involved with the Obama Administration?
Brad: My family never talked about politics at the dinner table. It was frowned-upon. My dad is a black Vietnam War Veteran who grew up in the segregated south. My mom grew up very poor in Seoul and so my parents' focus was always on supporting their family. They both thought of politics as unnecessary. Barack Obama was the first politician that inspired me to think about politics as a responsibility. That our democracy is only as good as the people who actively participate. I volunteered for Barack in early 2007 (when Hillary was up on him by 30 points!) and it changed my life. I was one of the first volunteers in the Bay Area and I ended up quitting my job and moving to Chicago for the 2008 campaign and then moved to DC to work for President Obama in the White House.
Melissa: Since both of you sit on the intersection of politics and entertainment, what advice do you have to creative-type Hapas?
Brad: No one is going to tell your story for you. There is no great network exec that is going to discover you and write your script. We have to do it ourselves. You see that with artists like Mindy or Aziz or Hasan or Ali or Chloe! It's such an exciting time to be an AAPI writer or artist because gatekeepers are becoming less and less important. Now, we can create our own platforms and networks online, live, or through new formats. Shout out to Will Choi for everything that he is doing with Asian AF at UCB. Or Anna Akana who is reinventing content creation on YouTube and twenty other platforms. We have to bring that same energy and bravery to politics. There is no powerhouse AAPI political group like the NAACP or Voto Latino. There are countless inspiring AAPI kids out there who are considering running for office. We have to empower them all to believe that they can win.
Chloe: I totally agree with Brad. No one is going to tell your story for you. It’s incredibly important for me to take back the narrative of what it means to be in the AAPI/Hapa community. We aren’t just the nail ladies or the kung fu fighters or the goofy person who can’t understand English. We have SO many incredible stories to tell, and it’s up to us to tell them. Pop culture is so influential on young minds, in ways I don’t think people understand, especially these days with all the different social media platforms/different ways to watch content. We have to take what we put out there seriously. So just tell your truth, don’t be afraid to put yourself out there, speak your mind. We could change the way an entire AAPI/Hapa generation thinks about themselves, just through storytelling. That’s incredible. Let’s do it.
Melissa: Since you both had an inside look as to how Washington worked during the Obama administration, how have things changed for the AAPI community since Trump's inauguration in January 2017?
Brad: We have seen historic civic and protest engagement from our community. That's a good thing. But, that protest spirit has not yet translated into voting power. Protest t-shirts and signs are great and all. But, we need to get specific with our community about what power really means. Power is about representation. And, that happens at the ballot box. And, it starts with inspiring AAPI citizens who are brave enough to run for office -- especially local office. The only way we can protect our community from Trump's actions, actions like DACA or repealing the ACA -- is by getting more AAPI running for office and more AAPI citizens voting for our issues.
Melissa: Any words of wisdom to Hapas for how to tackle 2018?
Brad: Join (RUN)! Seriously. We'll be traveling the country doing events with inspiring AAPI peeps and we'd love to hang out with you! Many of (RUN) members are Hapas. So, you'll be in good company!
Chloe: Yes! Join (RUN), It's only gonna become bigger and better. It’s been so therapeutic for me to be able to speak with like-minded people throughout the year. And I have a feeling 2018 isn’t gonna be a walk in the park! But yeah just, join (RUN) stay creative. Create, create, create. And let’s take care of each other!
Find your local chapter of RUN here and get involved!
*This interview has been edited for flow.
Melissa Slaughter has lived in all four time zones in the contiguous United States. A former actor in Seattle, WA, Melissa now resides in NYC as a content creator. She is the producer of the We're Not All Ninjas podcast, which she also hosts with fellow Hapa Mag writer, Alex Chester. Melissa also writes for online blogs Nerdophiles and On Stage Blog. Find her @NotAllNinjasPod.