UPDATED:  June 29, 2008 9:47 PM
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By: Amanda L. Andrei

WASHINGTON, D.C.—For eleven years now, the Smithsonian Institution’s APA Program has served as a resource center for the range and talent of the Asian and Pacific American community.   On Friday, August 1 at the National Museum of the American Indian, the Organization of Chinese Americans will honor the APA Program and its director, Franklin Odo, for their cultural and educational contributions.

Back in 1995, there were no concrete blueprints for an APA Program—only the drive to integrate the array of Asian and Pacific American experiences into the Smithsonian museums.  Support came from individuals such as Irene Hirano, head of the Japanese American National Museum (JANM) in L.A. and Jack Tchen, a professor at Queen’s College in New York city (now teaching at New York University).  Franklin Odo credits three main people for the program’s early success: Marshall Wong from the Center for Museum Studies, Stacey Suyat, an administrator knowledgeable of the APA community and cutting through red tape, and James Early, then the Assistant Secretary for Education and Public Service. 

Odo had taught as a college professor for thirty years before coming to the Smithsonian; his original training was in Asian Studies, but as he relates, “I got involved in Asian American studies as a result of anti-war activism and anti-racism activism in the late 1960s and early 1970s.”  While a visiting professor at Columbia University, Odo’s involvement with the Smithsonian began as an exploration study of how to better include APA issues in the Institution’s museums, research, and educational resources. 

This resulted in the creation of an advisory board chaired by Secretary Norman Mineta (then Congressman and member of the Smithsonian Board of Regents).  By July 1997—only two years later—the Asian Pacific American Program became official.  It was two more years later that the APA Program sponsored its first exhibition: “From Bento to Mixed Plate: Americans of Japanese Ancestry in Multicultural Hawaii,” originally from the JANM. 

Since then, the program has sponsored at least a dozen exhibits, touching on the ethnic identities of many Asian Americans, including Chinese, Filipinos, Vietnamese, Korean, Japanese, and Hawaiian.  They have also hosted conferences and scholarly panels, as well as over a hundred public film premieres, plays, literary readings, and children’s events.  It is for this and more that OCA recognizes and honors the achievements and future endeavors of the program at their 35th Annual Convention. 

“Franklin Odo has always been very supportive of the community and helping every organization when he can,” praises Michael Lin, executive director of OCA.  The night of recognition is a tribute to the work done “in advancing the visibility and viability of APAs in America.” 

Douglas Lee, senior Program Manager at OCA, recalls the 2001 exhibitions on Chinese American history: “It was a huge honor for the Chinese community.”  That year, three exhibits focused on the community: “On Gold Mountain: A Chinese American Experience,” and two traveling exhibits from the Museum of Chinese in the Americas in Chinatown, Manhattan.  These exhibitions featured artwork, vignettes, and poems created by the early immigrants—as well as contemporary artists—in order to showcase the struggles, successes, and lives of the early Chinese Americans. 

Along with its achievements, the program has faced challenges as well.  Program Specialist Gina Inocencio points out, “We are such a small unit, and we’re also pretty young compared to the other units, so we still have a lot of work in terms of being incorporated to bigger SI initiatives.”  Currently, the office only receives funding for two staff positions.  As a result, many efforts are directed to fundraising, and Inocencio also remarks, “Not enough emphasis is put on educational offerings and outreach as I would like.”  And as Odo observes the plethora of public programs available to the community, he also speculates, “Just imagine what we could accomplish with a few more people!”

Despite such obstacles, the staff at the APA Program remains optimistic and busy.  It has just launched two new projects: “Homespun: Made in the U.S.”, featuring the Asian Indian experience in America, and a new Kellogg Foundation sponsored exhibit serving as an introduction to Asian and Pacific American history, culture, and contemporary issues.  It also has two exhibits on national tour: “Singgalot: Ties that Bind; One Hundred Years of Filipino Presence in America” and “Exit Saigon, Enter Little Saigon: The Vietnamese American Heritage Project.”  Odo explains, “So many more communities need to understand that the world’s largest museum complex is ready to work with them to preserve and interpret their histories and cultures.” 

The APA Program gives the APA community a hands-on chance to be involved in the exhibition process—leaders of certain communities often approach the program and begin discussion, fundraising, hiring curators, and collecting objects and art for the display.    “It’s very rewarding to be able to bring the community to SI and have them participate as committee members, docents, and volunteers,” adds Inocencio. 

The Program’s efforts have benefited the mainstream community as well.  As Odo says, “Encouraging all our colleagues to include APA experiences in their thinking and planning will stretch the parameters of their imaginations and provide unexpected insights into traditional paradigms.”  Not only does the program commemorate and conserve Asian Pacific American history and experiences, it also enriches the main body of American history and culture.  Within the different threads of ethnic groups emerges a story of perseverance, hard work, and pride—a story of America.

OCA’s Night of Recognition will take place Friday, August 1 from 5:30-8:00 PM at the National Museum of the American Indian on 4th St. and Independence Ave, S.W.  While it is open to the public, advance tickets are required.  There are no on-site ticket sales.  The cost is $65 per ticket and may be purchased through the OCA website at www.ocanational.org.

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