Sylvia Tian wants to be a "bridge" for new Asian immigrants in Pleasanton. To build a platform for them to become active community members and have their voices heard.
And she and 10 companions hope to turn that goal into a reality through the newly founded Tri-Valley Asian Association.
"We help the community a lot," she said of the city's Asian residents. "But also at the same time, we want to voice out, say what is not right, we need to change, we need to improve."
Tian has lived in Pleasanton for six years and works as a Realtor, after spending more than a decade as a news reporter in Los Angeles and China.
She serves on the city's Economic Vitality Committee and the Pleasanton Unified School District (PUSD) Local Control Advisory Committee -- she's not an invisible presence. And through her new role as president of TVAA, Tian plans to encourage other Asian immigrants to join her in participating.
The nonprofit is in its infancy, with its grand opening taking place just a month ago. They have already stepped into the community spotlight since then, though, by publicly opposing proposed math class changes in the PUSD.
Currently, all of their members are Chinese-American, but they would like to bring in others too -- in the short-term they are looking to expand to other Asian demographics and in the long-term, incorporate other immigrant communities as well.
"I want to help new immigrants to know our society, and also help our society to accept the new immigrants," said Ying Ma, another TVAA board member. "We want to be the bridge for both sides, to know each other and understand each other. I want to do this, based on my experience."
The organization has roots in another collective: the Pleasanton Parents Association (PPA), a group of Asian parents in PUSD who discuss school and education-related issues among themselves primarily through WeChat, a Chinese messaging phone application. They have existed since 2015, and currently consist of over 450 members.
But early last year, some of their members took on more of an advocacy role, in response to a new enrollment form implemented at the state level.
The form asked parents to mark whether their child's ethnicity was or wasn't Hispanic or Latino, and then went on to direct parents to select a race for their child. Of the racial categories, nine boxes referred to specific Asian nationalities, five to Pacific Islander groups and one box each was designated for American Indian or Alaskan Native, Filipino/Filipino American, African-American or black, and white or Caucasian.
Several parents felt that Asians were being unfairly targeted or "subgrouped."
"Both of my sons were born and raised here in California," Tian said. "They don't think they're Chinese, they always say, 'I'm an American. But of course, I'm proud to be Chinese-American.'
"But they are American," she continued. "They have no connection to China at all. So why should I label them as Chinese in this context? It's totally wrong. Chinese is me, it's not them -- they are American. And I respect their nationality and identity."
PUSD board member Jamie Yee Hintzke is the only elected official of Asian descent in Pleasanton, and one of the few Asian-Americans ever to hold elected office in the greater Tri-Valley. While she said that the school board was only following state law with the enrollment form, she understood how the parents felt.
"It feels like they're being segregated," she said, adding that some of the parents coming out of the Chinese cultural revolution in the 1960s and '70s said the form was reminiscent of those they had been forced to fill out in their homeland, forms that dictated how they were treated under "stringent Chinese rule."
Tian added that many of the Asian countries separated out in the form actually shared a great deal culturally and linguistically, in contrast to European countries. So, she asked, why should Americans of European descent share only one box?
Some friends suggested that she establish a nonprofit, in order to make their platform more formalized and to get their voice heard in the "mainstream."
And thus was born the concept of the Tri-Valley Asian Association.
"I think previously Chinese parents were a silent community," said Grace Li, another TVAA board member, who moved to the U.S. with her family from China three years ago. "We talked in Chinese, we talked in WeChat, but nobody outside heard our voice."
While TVAA members do maintain cultural traditions with their families and friends -- such as celebrating the Lunar New Year last week -- as an organization they are focused on advocacy rather than on hosting cultural events.
The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that residents who identify as Asian alone consist of 30% of Pleasanton's population -- a 7% increase from the latest Census count in 2010.
The percentage of Asian students in PUSD, as of October 2017, is just shy of 41%. That represents a 10% increase over 2012, according to district officials.
Establishing as a nonprofit is a hefty, paperwork-heavy process, and hiring someone to take on that task would cost between $3,000 and $5,000, TVAA board members said. One of their board members, Chong Wang, took up the mantle himself.
"For me, I'm trying to save money for everyone," Wang said, now the secretary of TVAA. "That's the reason I spend my time to process the paperwork, which takes a huge amount of time, a huge learning curve. If you think about it, (you're constructing) a company."
They officially announced their formation with a grand-opening ceremony on Jan. 20, an event attended by a handful of local officials and a few dozen families and accompanied by a potluck.
"I am committed to increasing the diversity and representation on our commissions and committees, and we have seen changes there, though things are always slower than we might want," Pleasanton Mayor Jerry Thorne said in remarks during the ceremony. "But more now than ever, I believe that we need to say in a loud, clear voice that we embrace diversity in our community and we all benefit from the many different cultures we now see in Pleasanton."
"From the opening of Pacific Pearl (shopping center) to the growing number of Asians who are choosing to make Pleasanton their home for all the reasons I made it mine so many years ago, we celebrate you and look forward to bridging our cultures," he added.
PUSD Superintendent David Haglund, school board president Mark Miller, local Assemblywoman Catharine Baker and Pleasanton City Councilwoman Kathy Narum were also present.
"The Tri-Valley Asian Association is a welcome addition to our community, promoting not only culture but also our shared values," Baker said in an email. "I look forward to the contributions and leadership TVAA will make."
Now that they are established, TVAA are looking to grow their organization beyond the current 11 board members. They don't have a formal office space, instead making decisions and communicating via WeChat.
They are planning on holding a variety of workshops, including English classes and job presentations, in order for their children to see the different career options available.
It can be difficult for many new immigrants to feel comfortable voicing their opinions in public settings, in new systems and in unfamiliar political terrain. Not to mention language differences. Cultural norms also differ greatly, Tian said.
"A lot of Asians are so shy," she said. "They're not used to standing in the spotlight or standing on the stage, to say whatever. As a tradition (culturally), we think modesty is the value, not saying anything is the value. In America, it's totally different."
"We're learning," she added. "It's opposite from how we're trained."
For Hintzke, any chance for parents to become more comfortable being civically engaged in the community is a welcome sight. "We need the different viewpoints and perspectives," she said.
Most recently, TVAA came out publicly against a recent PUSD proposal that considered the phasing out of an accelerated middle school math program, which allows students to complete math 6/7 in sixth grade, math 8/algebra in seventh grade and honors geometry in eighth.
Tian and Li noted that their mini-campaign, which included turnout at the Jan. 30 school board meeting, had gained traction and support from the larger parent community.
"It's not only Asian parents that care about education," Li said. "Many others, a lot have the same opinion with us."
"Our school board greatly values input from the community, and groups like TVAA provide an excellent forum to collect and present constructive input from important constituencies," Miller said in an email. "Most recently, their feedback on our math pathways provided us with valuable input to help in shaping district direction."
And through their efforts, TVAA hopes to dispel misconceptions about Asians in Pleasanton -- especially when others say that they don't contribute or participate enough. This especially frustrates Tian and her friends, as they feel that the Asian community often does lend a hand, in particular pointing to significant donations PPA members have made in the past.
Even some of the more positive-seeming stereotypes can have negative connotations, TVAA members said, like when they are asked if their children are successful academically because their parents "force them as a slave," Tian said.
"It's really a biased opinion," she said.
Many parents who have moved here from China are highly educated themselves, she noted. "And of course, they pass on the tradition and the knowledge themselves. They value education very much," she continued.
With a greater presence in community politics, TVAA hopes to address these stereotypes and misconceptions.
"We want to communicate with the community," Tian said. "Come to know us. Maybe we speak a different language, and that language is so hard to translate into English sometimes, so you don't understand what I'm saying. But come and get to know us."