An Interview with Javan Santos for AAPI Heritage Month

    By Jono Anzalone

To celebrate AAPI Heritage Month and this year’s theme of “Advancing Leadership Through Collaboration,” policy expert Javan Santos sat down with TCI Executive Director Jono Anzalone to discuss advocating for AAPI issues and pushing for climate solutions in those communities.

Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month is a celebration of the many Americans whose histories trace back to Asia and the Pacific islands. I sat down with Javan Santos, Policy Manager for The Climate Initiative and Editor for The Yappie, to discuss AAPI advocacy and how it intersects with his work on climate policy.

Javan is an experienced policymaker and youth advocate: previously, he was the Speaker of the Guam Youth Congress, worked as a policy analyst for the Guam Legislature, and interned in the U.S. Congress with the Asian Pacific American Institute of Congressional Studies (APAICS). His expertise, insight, and passion can serve as a guiding light for other Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders who are interested in starting their own policy and advocacy journeys.

Where did you grow up? How did your surroundings influence your interest in pursuing policy and advocacy?

I’m Chamorro, which is the indigenous people of Guam and the Mariana Islands, and I grew up in Guam. I remember growing up and watching as the sea level rose: the beaches and communities got smaller, and parking lots and docks were overtaken by the ocean. So I was able to experience those effects firsthand. I just recently moved to D.C. in September of 2021, and my hope is that by being here and being present in climate spaces and Asian Pacific American spaces in D.C., I’m able to advocate for the policy changes that a lot of frontline communities across the world need.

How are AAPI individuals and communities affected by climate change?

For context, Guam is a U.S. territory, and there are several Pacific islands that are also U.S. territories. So I’m an American, and people in those territories are also American. Those Pacific territories are seeing the same effects I saw growing up in Guam. Part of my work in the AAPI community is writing for a newsletter called The Yappie to make the broader community aware of AAPI issues. One of the topics I covered was the Marshallese community. The Marshall Islands are low-lying atolls that have been flooding because of sea-level rise, and so a lot of Marshallese are being displaced and are moving to the U.S. But they come here and are still being affected by climate change in other ways, such as hurricanes and flooding in some communities, or by heat, droughts, and wildfires in others. An important aspect of climate advocacy is understanding that climate change impacts all communities. So acknowledging that Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders here in the U.S. and in other territories are affected is a huge part of both climate advocacy and AAPI advocacy.

This year’s Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month theme is “Advancing Leaders Through Collaboration.” What is your advice for AAPI folks looking to become leaders and represent their communities?

I still consider myself pretty new to the AAPI and climate advocacy spaces, so I still feel like I have a lot to learn. When you’re first getting started, it can be super intimidating. There are a lot of people who might feel pressure to prove to themselves or the community that they belong in this space. But the space to advocate for issues shouldn’t have to be earned, it should be given. It can be a challenge to find people who are willing to support you. But those people are there, it’s just a matter of staying in those spaces and working with good people. Within the Asian American and Pacific Islander community, there are a lot of people who are supportive of the next generation and will be willing to help out in any way they can.

What can allies do to support AAPI folks?

A lot of people don’t understand that the Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander community is so diverse. Someone born in Chinatown in California will have a very different lived experience from an adopted Pacific Islander living in Alabama. It’s important that allies understand communities within the AAPI label are different, and that a lot of the conceptions of the Asian American community — the stereotypes of the “model minority” and easy access to opportunities — are false. Acknowledging that misconception and really listening to the issues from AAPI folks themselves is one of the best ways for allies to help.

What are some recent projects that you are proud of?

For The Climate Initiative, I’m super proud that we created the Collegiate Climate Policy Institute. I molded it after work I had done in AAPI advocacy spaces, and its goal is to help give youth the skills and resources they need to carry out climate advocacy. We were able to train 18 youth on climate policy and arrange meetings with some of their congressional representatives to have conversations about the policies they’re passionate about. In the Asian Pacific American space, I write for a newsletter called The Yappie, where I’m able to bring out Pacific Islander issues, do research, and learn more about the many diverse AAPI communities out there. Specifically, I’ve been focusing on the Micronesian community, which includes Guam, the Marshall Islands, and others.

Who is a person in the climate space or the AAPI space you admire and why?

My professor, Julian Aguon at the University of Guam. Not only is he a professor, he also runs his own international law firm, where he advocates for Pacific Island communities in international courts and pushes for environmental and climate issues. Julian is also Chamorro from Guam, and he’s such an inspiration to me in terms of being so young, being able to push for important issues, and really charting his own path for both his career and how he serves his community.

Is there a book, movie, TV show, podcast, or piece of content that inspired you recently?

Julian Aguon’s book The Properties of Perpetual Light. It’s a story about his experience growing up in the Pacific and his advocacy work on climate and environmental issues. It’s told in prose, poems, and essays. It’s a really inspiring story, I suggest everyone read it.