Abstract: Changing Identities Among Identity-Based Asian Pacific American Ethnic Agencies (Society for Social Work and Research 25th Annual Conference - Social Work Science for Social Change)

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164P Changing Identities Among Identity-Based Asian Pacific American Ethnic Agencies

Tuesday, January 19, 2021
* noted as presenting author
Suzie S. Weng, PhD, MSW, Assistant Professor, California State University, Long Beach, Long Beach, CA
Julian Chow, PhD, Hutto-Patterson Charitable Foundation Professor, University of California, Berkeley, Berkeley, CA
Cheng Ren, MSSA, PhD Student, University of California, Berkeley, Berkeley
Brenda Mathias, MSSA, PhD Student, University of California, Berkeley, Berkeley, CA

Ethnic agencies have a long history of serving specific racial/ethnic groups alongside mainstream agencies as parallel service delivery systems. Jenkins (1980) defined an ethnic agency with the following characteristics: serving primarily ethnic clients; staffed by a majority of individuals who are of the same ethnicity as the client group; an ethnic majority on its board; ethnic community and/or ethnic power-structure support; integrating ethnic content into its programs; viewing strengthening the family as a primary goal; and maintaining an ideology that promotes ethnic identity and ethnic participation in decision-making processes. Even though the demand for culturally responsive services has significantly increased over the past few decades, research is lacking on how ethnic agencies sustain their identity as they mature and grow. This study attempts to address the gap in the literature.


This project used exploratory qualitative design of semi-structured, one-on-one interviews with 36 leaders of Asian Pacific American ethnic agencies in California. A sampling frame of 174 agencies was developed using Internal Revenue Service form 990 (the annual report filed by nonprofits) by identifying all the Asian countries and Asian nationalities as keywords. For instance, if an organization’s name contained keywords such as “China” or “Korean” they were included in the sampling frame. The researchers then invited the agency leaders for an interview. Constant comparison was used for data analysis that entailed: 1) unitizing data; 2) sorting and categorizing units; 3) reviewing units within each category and re-categorizing if necessary; and 4) identifying themes among the categories.


Three themes were found that affected the evolution of ethnic agency identities: 1) While ethnic agencies were first located in ethnic neighborhoods, as the ethnic makeup of the neighborhoods changed, organizations struggled with whether to remain an ethnic-based agency to serve populations no longer residing in the neighborhood or become placed-based to focus on the residents of the geographical area. 2) The first generation of leaders in ethnic agencies tended to be of the same ethnicity as the identity of the agencies. As ethnic agencies grew and matured, it was no longer a given that leaders were of the same ethnicity as the agency. 3) Organizations also contemplated name changes which affected their identity, purpose, and stakeholders when they experienced changes in populations served, staff makeup, and/or leadership that did not match the original identity of the agency name.


Ethnic communities have played an important role by providing newcomers to the community a safe haven and helping them adjust to the host country. Ethnic communities living in close proximity have traditionally facilitated the development and maintenance of ethnic agencies. If ethnic agencies change their identities and purpose, first generation immigrants who are particularly reliant on these agencies may be challenged in successfully establishing themselves within a United States context. Additionally, inclusion of nonethnic staff and leaders might have negative consequences on organizational culture and representation of clientele, a dilemma that ethnic agencies must confront in the future.


Jenkins, S. (1980). The ethnic agency defined. Social Service Review, 54(2), 249-261.