Co-leaders in Advocacy: Anita Gundanna and Vanessa Leung

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During the early stages of their careers, Anita Gundanna and Vanessa Leung cultivated a friendship and a love for coalition building, policy advocacy and Coalition of Asian American Children and Families (CACF)—a collective voice of almost 50 member organizations that serve Asian Pacific Americans (APAS) and advocate for the improvement of social systems and policies.

Determined to achieve their shared vision for CACF and the future of leadership in the nonprofit sector, Gundanna and Leung proposed an unconventional co-leadership model to the organization, which they affectionately refer to as a “package deal.” 

“A lot of folks question that model, but we are upon our two-year anniversary of being co-executive directors, and it’s a testament to forging this leadership model and supporting each other in this space,” Gundanna says. She also acknowledges that being women of color and leaders of an organization comes with its own challenges, and Leung agrees, highlighting what this professional partnership gave to them: the support of shared responsibility for the organization, trust in one another and encouragement to take personal time for family and self-care.

“As mothers of young children, it provided an opportunity to not feel isolated in a leadership position,” Leung adds.

As co-leaders, Gundanna and Leung live out CACF’s mission to “advocate for equity and opportunity for marginalized APA children and families.” Since CACF’s inception in 1986, a core tenet of the organization’s work is providing culturally competent care to address the struggles of the APA community. 

“There are myriad barriers that community members [face]... and community organizations [like CACF] [are] trust[ed] to have staff who understand [community members’] experience, speak their language and honor their cultural background and experience,” Leung says.

Culturally sensitive organizations can also help reduce bias that further perpetuate APA stereotypes. For example, the model minority myth—the notion that APAs are generally smart, successful and wealthy—often leads to the assumption that APA communities do not need support. In reality, eight of the 19 Asian groups analyzed by the Pew Research Center had poverty rates higher than the U.S. average. Millions of APAs struggle to access resources, like health care, for their basic needs. 

“It is so difficult to navigate health insurance, and to try to figure out the cost and explanations of benefits, even if you know English,” Gundanna says. Imagine trying to navigate the health insurance system in an unfamiliar language.

But organizations like CACF help with this issue by assisting APAs who face language barriers when accessing health care and other services. 

Another issue the APA community faces is the misconception that APAs are one entity. “We are constantly in the process of appreciating the diversity within this broader community to help folks understand that we are not monolithic in any way,” Gundanna says. Different pockets of the APA community have distinct needs. Raising awareness can help us address those needs adequately, she adds.

Despite all the progress they are making, Gundanna wants to see more APAs in the nonprofit sector. “There are definitely very strong and powerful leaders within Asian Pacific nonprofit spaces, but not enough.” She hopes she will not just see a “few bright, shining stars,” but will see enough stars to build constellations.  

 For more information about CACF and the work they are doing, visit their website