VICKSBURG, Miss., — The U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center (ERDC) continues to explore new avenues to ensure inclusion and understanding of all members of its workforce. In observance of Asian-American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month, the organization held its first ERDC-wide AAPI panel.
The virtual event titled, “A conversation with colleagues: Life through the eyes of AAPIs,” included five participants and two moderators from various laboratories across the ERDC. Organizers encouraged panelists to share their own experiences inside and outside the workplace. The panel also discussed the effects of the current COVID-19 pandemic, prejudices some have faced throughout their lives, recent fears of violence in their communities and potential solutions to help promote understanding of their cultures.
The idea for the panel was proposed by Rosa Affleck, a research civil engineer at the ERDC’s Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory. A Filipino American, Affleck says she was motivated by the opportunity to not only celebrate Asian-American and Pacific Islander resilience but to start a discussion about current acts of violence against Asian Americans.
“It is time to own the stories and the histories of Asian Americans and native Hawaiian-Pacific Islander communities, which are so often forgotten,” she said. “Our community has helped shape our country. We have a rich and diverse culture, but we’ve also endured societal biases.”
“I recently had a discussion with a good friend who asked me about the current hate crimes against Asian Americans,” she continued. “I felt I needed to talk about it and express my opinions, which I normally do not do. I realized later on that it’s probably not just me feeling this way. We all have different experiences, and I think the best way to understanding is to share and learn from each other and hopefully provide community awareness.”
The exchange began lightheartedly, with panel members sharing their favorite memories and culturally specific holidays ― including the Lunar New Year and Diwali — but quickly took on a more serious tone as the conversation turned to personal experiences of intolerance and discrimination.
Panelist Dr. Kumar Topudurti, acting director of the ERDC’s Construction Engineering Research Laboratory said his appeal to all races is to “seek to understand before seeking to challenge.”
“If we really try to understand the people around us before making assumptions, the world would be a lot better place,” he said. “We need to think with our hearts. We are all human beings — let’s think with our hearts and embrace diversity.”
For panelist Vineet Gupta, a physical scientist with the ERDC’s Geospatial Research Laboratory, the way to diffuse prejudice and improve AAPI relations can be summed up in three key words. “Education, awareness and conversation,” he said. “If you can have a conversation with someone who is willing, it can go a long way.”
All panelists agreed that holding future cultural events within the organization would encourage those conversations and promote cultural understanding.
“It’s an opportunity to learn about other cultures, religions and practices,” said Topudurti. “It’s the first step — when you understand things, you can begin to appreciate them.”
“Objectivity and empathy are something we need to hope for and strive for both inside and outside the workplace,” he said.
“The event was very insightful,” said Affleck. “I feel encouraged and hope that we can carry what we learned forward for a better future.”