Dan Choi, Minorities’ Champion in Diverse Virginia
By: Jennie L. Ilustre
Daniel Seokhwan Choi has such a deep passion for helping minorities, in his day job as well as in his advocacy work, that he probably needs more than 24 hours a day.
Dan is an attorney at the Legal Aid Justice Center (LAJC), located on 6400 Arlington Blvd, Suite 600, Falls Church, Virginia 22042. He has been with LAJC for about six years.
At LAJC’s Northern Virginia office, Dan advises and represents immigrants, “mostly monolingual Spanish-speaking immigrants from Latin America, with their problems related to employment, housing, and consumer law.”
LAJC was founded in 1967 in Charlottesville. It was originally called Charlottesville-Albemarle Legal Aid Society (CALAS). LAJC (www.justice4all.org) has been providing free legal services to qualifying low-income individuals in Virginia. Its mission is to serve those in the community who have the least access to legal services.
Born in South Korea, Dan came to the U.S. when he was eight years old. His parents are small business owners in Brooklyn, New York. A graduate of State University of NY Binghamton and New York Law School, Dan is a former Equal Justice Works Fellow.
He is probably among the very few Asian Americans hereabouts who is fluent in Spanish and adept at the Latin American culture. Chalk it up to his experience as a Peace Corps volunteer in El Salvador.
Dan described the years he was there (2001 to 2003) as a wonderful experience which forever shaped his career. “Today,” he said, “most of my clients are monolingual Spanish speakers from Central America, and I also collaborate greatly with Latino rights groups as part of my work.”
Immigration, which affects both Hispanic Americans and Asian Americans, is a complex issue because, for one, those who are legal immigrants have relatives who may be undocumented. Dan pointed out: “Immigrants contribute greatly to Virginia’s economy and we just want to make sure there’s dignity in the way they are treated, regardless of their status. We are also looking for community solutions to this complex issue.”
Dan is also the president of the Coalition of Asian Pacific Americans of Virginia (CAPAVA). CAPAVA is a non-partisan, non-profit, pan-Asian statewide organization. It advocates on the policies and issues concerning Virginia’s Asian and Pacific American communities.
Dan also works with, among other groups, the National Association of Asian American Professionals-DC Chapter and the Virginia Coalition of Latino Organizations.
Dan sees the Big Picture, as well as the nuances, leading him to form the Virginia Asian Pacific American Roundtable. “The Roundtable is a non-hierarchical platform for individuals and groups to network and share information about issues important to Virginia’s APA population,” he said in an interview, conducted in person and via email and phone.
Roundtable, CAPAVA and allies are planning a candidate’s forum in September for the Virginia’s Asian Pacific American community. “We need all the help we can get,” Dan said. “We are looking for individual and organization partners, volunteers, sponsors, and allies to help organize the candidate’s forum.”
“This is an important year for national politics, and Virginia is at the forefront of how the country may swing,” he stressed. “As such, we want to make sure that APA voices are heard and are part of this important process. We also want this Pan-Asian event to show APA strength and unity in Virginia.”
At a forum preparation meeting on May 4, attendees will also discuss issues and events related to Get Out the Vote (GOTV) and voting monitoring in anticipation of the Nov. 6 general elections. Rose Chu and Tania Hossain from CAPAVA will lead this discussion.
On the Roundtable, Dan elaborated: “It is an email listserv and we also have some meetings. No one is pressured to join or do anything, and everyone is welcome, which creates a good atmosphere for people of different backgrounds and interests to come together.”
Remarked top OCA-DC leader Ted Gong: “This is really the value that Dan provides. Through the Virginia Asian Pacific American Roundtable, he maintains a comprehensive network that keeps individuals and ethnic groups aware and engaged with one another. This engagement–the opposite of isolation–is an essential element of a healthy community. Dan sees that. And, that is good for a multi-cultural Virginia.”
Ted knows Dan, having worked with him on a candidate’s forum and CAPAVA’s Annual Legislative Day in Richmond.
Aside from Dan’s obvious assets, what other traits make him successful in this endeavor? Ted pointed out: “For the physical bulk of a man that Dan is, he is soft-spoken and has a ready smile that invites people together. At the same time he is a firm manager of time. These traits are essential in keeping meetings of diverse personalities and interests moving forward. He is articulate, speaks authoritatively, and drafts public communications quickly.”
As CAPAVA president, Dan’s top priority is “to fulfill CAPAVA’s mission of building a movement to positively advocate for policies and issues affecting Virginia’s sizeable pan-Asian and Pacific American community.”
“Most of this work has been focused on connecting and engaging leaders from our diverse APA communities to collaborate with each other and with members of other immigrant and minority groups,” he explained.
“Whether Chinese, Korean, Indian, Filipino, Vietnamese, Thai or other, we have so much in common as APAs in Virginia,” he added. “We also have so much in common with Latino Americans, African Americans, and other immigrant and minority groups. There is strength in unity and collaboration, and CAPAVA hopes to take a vital role in connecting people to make those positive changes happen.”
Dan credits CAPAVA’s continuing success to the accomplishments of past Chairman Eric Jensen, and his teamwork with current Chairman Ting-Yi Oei and other CAPAVA board members. This year, the group held its 9th Annual VA APA Legislative Day with Asian American Society of Central Virginia (AASOCV) and the Governor’s Asian American Advisory board.
The leaders spent half the day in education, lobbying and policy discussion, capped by a reception. “We had a list of bills, including on three main issues–language access, immigration and voting rights,” Dan said. Lawmakers and their aides received an information packet on immigration, and discussions included checkpoints by police officers and children’s status when they enroll.
For the first time, CAPAVA collaborated with both the VA’s inter-faith community and the Latino community: Virginia Interfaith Center and the Virginia Coalition of Latino Organizations (VACOLAO).
CAPAVA’s partners likewise turned up in great numbers, Dan said. “The Vietnamese American Chamber of Commerce bused nearly 50 people from Northern Virginia to Richmond to lobby for APA rights. Our Korean, Chinese, and other allies from NoVA, Richmond, and elsewhere also brought many to meet with legislators and talk about APA issues.”
Challenges abound, to be sure, Dan noted. Reason: Model minority myth still greatly hurts the APA community. “Legislators, the public, and even some of our own community members do not think APA communities face problems and often ignore APA issues,” he noted. “Poverty, immigration, voting, language access, and others affect APAs greatly and uniquely. Yet these are often overlooked, and it becomes a hurdle convincing people to get involved.”
But Dan Choi, who speaks three languages–four, if you count the language of advocacy–does not intend to give up, a trait he shares with his immigrant parents.
Ask fellow advocate Ted Gong. Ted, whose main advocacy work is in cultural preservation and historical awareness, described Dan in email and phone interviews. He remarked: “A trained lawyer and keen civil rights advocate, with wide connections and fluency in Korean, Spanish and English, Dan is an ideal coalition builder for Northern Virginia, where the population is increasingly diverse culturally and socially.”