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These Arizona artists are encouraging Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders to vote next fall

Next year's presidential election is shaping up to be a closely contested race, with enormous consequences.

Many organizations have already launched get-out-the-vote campaigns. That includes the AAPI Civic Engagement Fund, which advocates for Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.

They’re funding artists through a fellowship to create work that connects with potential voters about the issues their community faces.

The fund has tapped two Arizona artists to help underscore the urgency.

AAPI Engagement Fund executive director EunSook Lee said now more than ever, there’s a challenge to overcome political burnout.

“It comes at a time when it’s arguable that there’s a lot of potential disengagement and disappointment,” said Lee.

So the artists’ goal is to create art that motivates people to vote, especially in a dynamic and politically important state like Arizona.

“America is best functioning when we have a healthy, multiracial democracy,” Lee said. “And that is what we are hoping to promote.”

And Lee said Asian American Pacific Islanders are an important component of that, along with other communities across the spectrum of race, ethnicity, religion and gender.

'Comics is my language'

“My hope is that it just really helps enshrine in people the belief and the feeling that voting matters,” said GB Tran, an Arizona-based cartoonist and a fellowship recipient. “That no matter what they're hearing or what they're seeing and what they're constantly being bombarded by, whether it's media or et cetera, that it doesn't take away from their belief that their vote actually matters.”

Tran said there was no question about what form his contribution would take: “Comics is my language.”

He’s working on a web comic aimed at first time voters — many of whom are members of Gen Z.

“If you feel like, ‘Yeah. Oh, man, it's up to us to fix it,’” he said of Gen Z-ers. “On one hand, I'm like, ‘thank goodness,’ you know, but on the flip side, I also absolutely empathize with the feeling of, like, ‘Man, why do you have to fix up the mess of multiple generations before you?’”

Tran said he’s looking forward to seeing how these conversations shape the comic’s story.

“I certainly have some ideas and I have some goals that I want to accomplish with this,” he said. “But I also know that with any creative project of this scale that it's really important to just be able to flow with whatever direction it takes.”

'It’s an automatic assumption that I’m not from here'

For his contribution, Safwat Saleem is also looking to others.

“I'm going to set up a voicemail where I'm going to actively ask folks to like, hey, send in your anxieties,” said Saleem.

It’s part of his ongoing project, Anxieties of an Immigrant Father.

“I'm going to map out my own anxieties as my charts,” Saleem said. “These are going to be black and white charcoal drawings.”

Charts of the community’s worries will go up alongside them. Saleem said it’s all about creating a sense of belonging.

“I've lived in Arizona for over two decades,” he said, “but I feel that I've always struggled to call Arizona my home.”

He acknowledged that a lot of people in Arizona are from somewhere else, but this is different. Saleem said even somewhere like the laundromat, the first question he often gets is: “Where are you from?”

“It’s an automatic assumption that I’m not from here,” said Saleem, “even though I’m probably here longer than the person who’s asking me that.”

Lee said it’s a relatable feeling.

“It’s the understanding that AAPI, Asian Americans Pacific Islanders, regardless of ethnicity, they’ve also experienced being made invisible and often misunderstood as being, for example, the perpetual foreigner,” she said.

In response, Saleem started making art “as a way to get a better understanding of that and process those feelings of belonging, what it means to belong, especially now as a parent of a 6-year-old.”

With this version of Anxieties of an Immigrant Father: “I just want to create that small moment of belonging, where maybe for half a second somebody feels less alone.”

And hopefully they’ll get a little laugh out of it, too.

'We’ve been here all this time'

“Humor is a very important part of everything that I make,” said Saleem.

Saleem said it pushes back on the expectation of artists of color to focus their work on trauma related to their identity.

“Some of those anxieties have to do with politics and can be considered political,” he said. “For example: ‘My daughter will find my accent embarrassing.’”

He contrasts that with more universal anxieties, “like she won’t eat enough vegetables.”

Saleem said efforts to get out the vote in different communities have grown as national attention on Arizona politics has increased, and that can be an opportunity for artists like him.

“We’ve been here all this time,” said Saleem. “The work that we’re doing is getting a little bit more attention, which is interesting that that’s what it takes.”

Tran said he remembers the way his parents sacrificed everything to come to America, and he hopes the project encourages first-time voters, no matter who they are or where they’re from.

“I believe that we as citizens can help form our government at a local level and then possibly at a national level,” said Tran. “And have a say about how our country grows and develops and evolves.”

The artists are set to complete their work by March 2024.

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Kirsten Dorman is a field correspondent at KJZZ. Born and raised in New Jersey, Dorman fell in love with audio storytelling as a freshman at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication in 2019.