Disaggregation of demographic data has been an important goal for activists and students of Southeast Asian heritage because grouping all ethnicities into the broad category “Asian American and Pacific Islander” (AAPI) obscures disparities in educational outcomes and economic conditions. Community advocacy prompted Washington State legislators to fund an achievement gap study in 2008 which recommended disaggregated data collection and offered suggestions to close opportunity gaps for all AAPI students in Washington’s K-12 public school system. Beginning in 2010, students had the opportunity to self-identify with ethnicities that, at that time, mostly corresponded with national origin (e.g., Vietnamese or Cambodian, but not Cham).
With improved data collection, educational disparities came into focus and thus can be addressed in a targeted and more effective way. As one example at the college level, although when viewed as a single group, AAPI Washingtonians have the highest bachelor’s degree attainment among any race and ethnic group, disaggregation showed that not to be true especially for those of Southeast Asian heritage. On average, 32.1% of Washingtonians have a BA degree or higher, but that number is 11.3% for those identifying as Cambodian, 16.9% for Vietnamese, and only 9.8% for Laotian.
It was student and community activism that pushed for the state government to disaggregate data. The increased visibility in data collection showed significant disparities among AAPI communities. To help close those gaps by raising awareness among Southeast Asian middle and high school students about college opportunities and to foster leadership, the University of Washington’s Office of Minority Affairs and Diversity (OMA&D) sponsored the first Rising SEAs conference in 2013. At the second annual event in 2014 thirty area high school students attended and heard from keynote speaker Robert Yuong, a Cambodian American teacher at Tacoma’s Henry Foss High School and Golden Apple Award recipient.
Rising SEAs is a conference formerly hosted by the UW but over the past few years, funding and programming that support SEA students have been discontinued. This year, Southeast Asian students activists are doing it for themselves: organizing the 2018 Rising SEAs conference with the backing and support of the Southeast Asian American Education (SEAeD) Coalition.
“We have come together to mobilize and organize with a number of SEA RSOs, community coalitions and organizations, our own 2018 Rising SEAs. As student activists and organizers who recognize the immediate needs within our communities, we choose to maintain the name of this conference as an investment in the future partnership between the UW and our SEA communities, as well as to sustain the impact of the conference for future students. One of our goals is to show UW the needs of our communities face-to face in hopes of re-institutionalizing this conference annually. The participants of this year’s conference will remember and hold onto their time at 2018 Rising SEAs, which will transfer over to future Rising SEAs conferences (if the UW so chooses to make that investment) and the next cohort of SEA youth when they recognize the name.” – A student activist and organizer.
The event will be held on campus Saturday, November 17th 2018. Organizers are hoping to host more than one hundred Southeast Asian youth from refugee backgrounds across Washington state with the purpose to “civically engage, culturally empower, and educationally invest in their long-term development as leaders.”
Local organizations, civil rights groups, lawmakers, and educational institutions have been invited to attend and registration is open to middle school and high school students. Joe Nguyen, who is running for State Senate in the 34th Legislative District (which includes White Center and Burien) is expected to attend and lead a workshop on “Running for Office”. Despite the fact that Washington State has one of the largest Southeast Asian American populations in the nation, if elected Nguyen would be the state’s first Vietnamese legislator.
“We would like to invite UW Staff, Faculty, and Administration to attend 2018 Rising SEAs on Saturday, Nov. 17th 2018. We hope that you will be present and connect our youth with resources within your own departments and networks. If you are a staff, faculty, or administrator who would like to be present, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.”
For more information about the event or activism work behind it, please contact the SEAeD Coalition at email@example.com
 In 2017, a task force recommended further refinement to include underrepresented ethnic groups, including Cham and Mien.