Like all children and young adults, growing up for me was always shadowed by this massive question of identity. This question was made even harder for me by the fact that I was the child of immigrants – the world that existed inside my house was starkly different than that which existed just beyond its doors. The question was made even harder by being Filipino. We don’t fit into the typical Asian-American stereotype. Despite being the second largest Asian group in the U.S. second to Chinese, we are an invisible ethnicity. We are constantly thankful that we have escaped the poverty and corruption of the homeland, but we always yearn for the comforts of life at home. For some, the pride of being American has caused them to actively try to forget that they are Filipino and to teach their children to assimilate. For others, they will always consider them voluntary exiles in a foreign land. This question of identity dominates the Fil-Am psyche. Are we Filipino-Americans or are we Filipinos in America? What does that even mean and does it even matter?
This quest for identity has caused many of us to focus on carving out a definition and niche for Fil-Am-ness. Unfortunately, this quest often results in neglect of the Philippines itself. While I was in undergrad, it seemed the whole community of Filipino students on the East Coast was still searching for the history we never learned – the rudimentary data like the anti-colonial struggle and birth of our nation, the fact that a Filipino-American War even occurred, and the legacy of the Marcos years, which is when most of us or our parents left the Philippines. The story ended there.
When I went back to the Philippines after college, however, I realized that I was 20 years behind. Yes, Filipinos were aware of and valued the nation’s history, but there was an entire present to deal with. Increasing poverty, exploding population, labor export and brain drain, labor trafficking, deteriorating government institutions…the post-Marcos period has witnessed the Mendiola massacre, numerous coup attempts, rapid privatization, EDSA II, Hello Garci, and numerous other historical events and here I was still stuck on 1986.
Filipino-Americans need a way to connect with the Philippines now. They need a way to define themselves, not just in terms of the past, but also in terms of the present. They need a way to be proud of who our people are beyond a Pacquiao fight or a Black Eyed Peas concert. In fact, they not only want it, they crave it.
A few weeks ago I wrote an open letter to Feed the Hungry, a Filipino-American group based in the Washington, DC area. Without knowing much about them, I knew they were much more substantive than most Fil-Am groups in the country. Their activities consisted of more than parties and balls and cultural shows na pang magpapaporma lang. They had real programs and sought to deliver real services to Filipinos in need in the areas of health, education, livelihood and disaster relief.
The problem most Filipino and Filipino-American social service groups have is that of credibility. We have all heard of that priest who solicited funds for the poor and then built a 3-story house in the province, or that community association who spent member dues on a $60,000 Christmas party and a $500 donation to WowWowWee. I never, however, questioned Feed the Hungry’s credibility. Their website clearly featured activity reports, logs of expenditures and organizational strategies for keeping overhead low and transparency a priority. Furthermore, members of FtH were clearly individuals who understood the importance of credibility in a development context – many had careers at the World Bank Group/IMF.
What I did take issue with, however, was FtH’s choice of partners. Some of their outreach activities are done in partnership with the Committee on Overseas Filipinos, a sub-agency of the Office of the President. A photo of one of their recent outreach activities showed a young man with a t-shirt with “Office of the President of the Philippines” and the presidential seal clearly displayed. Me being myself and all, this clearly did not sit well with me. Also, being myself, I decided to contact FtH about it directly.
My argument was that even if all of FtH’s procedures were completely spotless, the same could not be said for those of the COF. While the FtH members were vigilant about any potential corrupt procedures among their partners, corruption occurs in hidden ways, such as procurement procedures, permit acquisition or location targeting. Furthermore, even if all of their activities were completely 100% corruption-free, the very presence of people from a presidential agency, with the agency’s and president’s names clearly on display, meant their activities could potentially feed populism, clientelism and electoral utang na loob. To me, these partnerships mirrored too many World Bank and IMF projects where a commitment to working directly with government all too often leads to ineffective, inefficient projects that can in fact be detrimental to political and social societies over the long term.
Most groups would have reacted either by ignoring me or with hostility, and I was bracing myself for such. What I received, however, was a well thought-out and heartfelt response, which led to a series of email exchanges where FtH leadership patiently answered all of my questions, and invited me to meet to talk more about the organization as well as brainstorm for new partnerships and approaches.
What became clear during the email exchange as well as the meeting was that this is a group of people that absolutely believe in the work they are doing, and that they do it energetically and emotionally, with joy and passion. What also became clear, is that this organization quite intelligently strives to ensure transparency, accountability and efficiency at all key stages in project implementation. Their interaction to COF was limited to acquiring data to assist in targeting communities, asking COF to help identify potential non-government partners for cooperation (who they later vet independently from COF influence) using COF office space to store goods, and allowing COF staff to volunteer to pack and distribute goods. They are careful to only engage young, junior COF staff and avoid the potentially tainted higher levels of leadership and management. Even more impressive and effective is the level of control and oversight that FtH maintains over all its funds and activities in order to ensure transparency, accountability and efficiency. There is also always someone from FtH who is physically present during outreach preparation and activities, FtH procures all of its materials independently (sometimes by staff personally trekking to Divisoria), and staff pay out of pocket for transportation and per diem costs.
What impressed me the most about this organization, however, is how open the leadership is to criticism and self-improvement. As an organization that has been in existence for 17 years with a respectable track record, they had a right to say, “Who the hell are you? We know what we’re doing,” as many such organizations do when faced with critiques. Instead, they invited me into their fold, sought to address my concerns, and have expressed genuine excitement at the prospect of exploring new strategies, approaches and partnerships. That in and of itself is a laudable achievement.
I was flabbergasted when I read FtH’s Executive Director’s response to one of my probing and presumptuous emails, “God Bless you. You may be the answer to one of my prayers — that the Youth with the kind of commitment and dedication you have for our Motherland be able, in the near future, will take our places (we are getting old).” As this generation of Filipino-Americans or Filipinos in America, or whatever name we choose to give ourselves seeks out our identity, I urge you to keep in mind two fundamental principles: 1) A defining characteristic of Filipino culture is the incomprehensible generosity our people exhibit. You see it every time you enter a Filipino household and the first question you are asked is “Kumain ka na ba?” You see it when you go out to eat with Filipinos and everyone argues over who has the honor of paying the bill. We all saw it in the wake of Ondoy when neighbors called each other to share their last half kilo of rice and their last thermos of water, all with not just a smile but joking and laughter. To be Filipino is to take joy in giving. 2) Who we are is defined by what we do.
For more information on Feed the Hungry, visit http://www.feedthehungryphil.org/.