NaFFAA on 20th year: Fresh leadership takes on continuing mission toward ‘One Voice,’ FilAm empowerment

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By Cristina DC Pastor

A millennial blizzard has swept the leadership of the National Federation of Filipino American Associations with younger leaders vowing to “create a lot of action” toward making NaFFAA truly the “voice” of Filipino Americans.

“Expect creativity and innovation, fresh perspectives… and a lot of renewed excitement under this new administration,” said Brendan Flores, 31, NaFFAA’s first millennial chairman, in an email interview with The FilAm.

Millennial leaders take the helm at NaFFAA. From left: Brendan Flores, Kelly Ilagan, and Jason Tengco.

Millennial leaders take the helm at NaFFAA. From left: Brendan Flores, Kelly Ilagan, and Jason Tengco.

“The Filipino American community can also expect a very clear sense of direction from the leadership team,” he said further.

Brendan was recently joined by two leaders eager to make a difference in an organization perceived by some to be diffused in its direction and seemingly leaderless for periods of time. Jason Tengco, who was Hillary Clinton’s outreach director for the Asian American community during the presidential campaign, will be co-managing NaFFAA’s National Chairman’s Council with a strong emphasis on National Programs, Strategic Partnerships, Legislation, Government Affairs and National Development. Kelly Ilagan, president of the Young Republican Women of Columbus, Ohio, is the new national operations officer.

“Kelly and Jason are two bright and equally talented millennials with different perspectives and experiences,” said Brendan. “They will be extremely effective within their own roles, as well as in their partnership together.”

Established in Washington D.C. in 1997 and first led by its founder, newspaper publisher Alex Esclamado, NaFFAA was set up to be an umbrella of FilAm organizations. The goal then as it remains today: Political Empowerment for Filipino Americans.

Over the years, the original objective appeared to some to have scattered in different directions depending on who the national chairperson is and how he or she portrayed ‘empowerment’ to be. For instance, businesswoman Loida Nicolas Lewis of New York sought greater involvement of FilAms in politics when she was national chairperson. During his term, immigration lawyer JT Mallonga led a campaign for Temporary Protected Status for Filipino immigrants in the aftermath of typhoon Haiyan. The campaign went on and on with no clear resolution because neither the Department of Homeland Security nor NaFFAA wanted to be on record as stating Filipinos were not granted TPS.

“Every NaFFAA chairman has brought a new and unique perspective to the organization,” said Brendan, a banker from Florida. From each administration, he was able to “grow and learn.”

He met all chairs
Then a newcomer in the financial services industry, Brendan joined NaFFAA in 2006, admittedly, seeing it as an “opportunity to network.” He was 20 years old when he joined although he has heard about NaFFAA two years prior.

“I was such a young banker and I thought it was a great business decision,” he shared. “After being involved, I fell in love with the organization’s mission.”

His experience is unique because he was able to observe all the NaFFAA chairpersons, their focus, and leadership styles. He joined as Loida Nicolas Lewis was ending her term and Alma Kern from Seattle was taking over. At the time, he was helping founder Alex Esclamado from California with organizational work. Esclamado passed away in 2012.

“He was the one who introduced me to the organization along with some local leaders in Nevada including former Commissioner Rozita Lee of the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.

During NaFFAA’s 9th empowerment conference in San Francisco, Brendan was elected national youth chair together with Ed Navarra as national chair and JT Mallonga was national vice chair. At the time, NaFFAA was 13 years along. The position of national youth chair was later abolished.

New wave
Although a new wave of young leaders has come on board, Brendan said the national executive officers, which reviews objectives and approves programs, remains “age diverse.”

“Our elected national vice chair Emraida Kiram comes from the traditionalist generation, being the oldest serving national vice chair. Elected national secretary Mariela Fletcher was born in the Baby Boomer generation, while national treasurer Brad Baldia is part of Generation-X.” Like Brendan, Jason and Kelly represent the millennial generation.

The Board of Governors — comprising 15 elected board members and 13 regional chairs — is a diversified unit as well, he said. “With communications director and Board of Governor Jon Melegrito of Washington D.C. stepping down, we have Juanito Amor, the program director for FilAm Vote and a Gen-X appointee, to fill his place.”

NaFFAA’s “balanced leadership approach” indicates not just diversity but also inclusiveness. One of the initiatives under Brendan’s administration is the creation of the National Diverse Segments Council, led by Fresas Flores Balistreri of San Diego and Mark Arevalo of Washington who will lead the outreach with LGBTQ groups, young professionals, women’s networks, veterans affairs, and other sectors of the community.

Seeking to give flesh to political empowerment, FilAm representation in each level of government remains paramount.

Explained Brendan, “We want to continue to encourage community leaders to seek office and represent our needs as the Filipino community, but also give them the right tools to do so.”

From his travels around the country, Brendan had occasion to meet local FilAm officials and take note of their ideas on how to develop young leaders.

“Councilman for the City of San Diego, Chris Cate, has proposed a candidate preparation program. Mayor Ron Falconi of Brunswick, Ohio echoed these sentiments,” he said. “We need to work to ensure that there isn’t just a pipeline of leadership for community advocates, but for elected officials as well.”

Fil-Am Vote remains a fervent campaign because, really, how can FilAms win elections if they are not seen as a voting power?

“There are local elections coming up in 2017 and 2018, and we want to be proactive in encouraging and educating voter registration, voter education and voter engagement,” he said.

“We want to continue to have representation for the community under President-elect Donald Trump’s administration,” he added.

Immigration reform is another advocacy that deserves renewed attention. Brendan said NaFFAA would like to play a critical role “to make a concerted effort in seeing perspectives on both sides of the aisle.”

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