United Way of the Columbia-Willamette staff members get together to celebrate Asian American and Pacific Islander Month
United Way of the Columbia-Willamette staff members get together to celebrate Asian American and Pacific Islander Month and listen to guest speaker, Kathy Thiri Yin Wai.

For the first time in over two years, United Way of the Columbia-Willamette held an in-person staff lunch event to celebrate Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month. A small step to celebrate in the face of this unrelenting pandemic, yet significant in its own way. While the group that gathered was small, everyone enjoyed the presence of one another – some meeting in person for the first time since starting at United Way. The room was decorated with paper lanterns and posters with information about different countries in Asia and the South Pacific. The smell of food from Thai Peacock welcomed the United Way team members and the event’s guest speaker Kathy Thiri Yin Wai, the Legislative Advisor to Oregon Secretary of State Shemia Fagan.


As a board member for TriMet, a member of the North Clackamas School Board and co-chair of Metro’s Supportive Housing Services Bond Oversight Committee, Kathy dedicates her time to building representation for the Asian American and Pacific Islander communities here in the Portland metro area. Kathy and her family immigrated from Myanmar when she was 6 years old due to a political war that was raging in her home country with traditions from her home country close at hand, she has passionately pursued a career advocating for Asian American and Pacific Islanders in Portland. . Keeping her home country and traditions close to her as she grew up, she has found a passion in her life to be an advocate for the Asian American and Pacific Islander people. She’s helped refugees settle into the region, organized a celebration for South and Southeast Asian Solar New Year, served as the Civic Engagement Director for the Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon (APANO) and worked on the 2020 Census effort to count Black, Indigenous, and communities of color. 

As Kathy talked to our group, she touched on the history of Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month and the individual stories that put an emphasis on why it’s so important.

As Kathy talked to our group, she touched on the history of Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month and the individual stories that put an emphasis on why it’s so important. May was designated as Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month to commemorate the completion of the immigration of the first Japanese to the United States on May 7, 1843, and to mark the anniversary of the completion of the transcontinental railroad on May 10, 1869. Many of the workers who laid the tracks that still connect our country today were underpaid and exploited Chinese immigrants. Kathy also emphasized the history of local AAPI stories here in our local community. People such as Minori Yasui, a lawyer from Hood River who fought against unfair laws and curfews targeting the Asian-American community post-Pearl Harbor and Ah Bing, a Chinese laborer who helped cultivate the famous Bing cherry in Milwaukee, Oregon. Kathy shared many other stories, some of which we’re empowering and others that provided opportunities to reflect on our nation’s many wrongdoings. 

To wrap up her presentation, Kathy discussed the increase in hate crimes against the Asian American and Pacific Islander communities here in Oregon. Oregon Hate Crimes reports a 366 percent increase in hate crimes since the rise of the COVID-19 pandemic. At times like this, we’re reminded how important it is to say something and speak up if you witness hate crimes. Kathy shared organizations such as Rise Above Hate, Asian Pacific Network of Oregon and Stop AAPI Hate to learn more about  the AAPI community and how to get more involved.  

"As a bi-racial member of the AAPI community, it was nice to listen and learn from the resources available to get more involved with my own community."

As the event wrapped up, it was clear that Kathy’s words and the day’s event had made an impact on the staff in attendance. “This is the first time any of my workplaces have celebrated Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month,” said Marketing and Communications Manager Emily Wilson. "As a bi-racial member of the AAPI community, it was nice to listen and learn from the resources available to get more involved with my own community. I feel like the side of me that I’ve kept on the back burner my whole life is finally being recognized and celebrated at my workplace.”  


United Way of the Columbia-Willamette would like to give a special thanks once more to our guest speaker Kathy Thiri Yin Wai for coming to our Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month lunch and speaking to our staff!