By Evangeline Cafe
Northwest Asian Weekly
Before becoming a staunch advocate for Asian Americans across Washington state, Ellen Abellera rallied for her father, a former politician in Kalibo, Philippines.
“I remember that at the age of 7, our house was always filled with people, and I would go with my father on his campaign trips to distribute rice and pamphlets to voters,” she said.
Abellera’s early exposure to politics instilled in her a passion for community involvement. In addition to campaigning, she served in school leadership positions, sang for her church, and represented her town in community pageants.
Abellera’s childhood was drastically altered, however, when tragedy hit.
“The saddest part of my life was when my mother died when I was 11 years old,” she said. “She died two and a half hours after her younger sister died, so we had two deaths in the family in [a short time].”
The joys and tribulations of childhood helped shape Abellera into the leader that she is today.
“Those experiences have taught me to be strong, to be kind in words and deeds … and to be helpful to people,” said Abellera.
Abellera’s compassionate leadership has helped empower and improve the lives of Asian Americans across Washington state, even since her retirement. Last year, the affable Filipina left her post as executive director of the Commission on Asian Pacific American Affairs (CAPAA) — a position she held since former Gov. Gary Locke appointed her in 2003. Abellera’s primary goal was to serve as a bridge between the governor’s office and the Asian community.
“I wanted to bring government to the people and to bring the people to government,” she said. She strived “to improve the lives of Asian Pacific Americans by giving them the opportunity to access all fields, whether government, business, education, or health care.”
Outside the CAPAA, Abellera balanced a myriad of leadership positions within local and state organizations such as the Filipino American Political Action Group of Washington (FAPAGOW), the Seattle Women’s Commission, and the Boundary Review Board of King County.
“I hoped to make a difference and really help people in any capacity that I could,” said Abellera.
Abellera’s retirement from the CAPAA did not extinguish her passion for civic engagement. In June of last year, she began work as a government partnership specialist for the 2010 Census.
In that capacity, Abellera served as a liaison between the federal government and Gov. Chris Gregoire to help increase census awareness and participation. Census data ensure fair congressional representation by determining how many seats each state will have in the U.S. House of Representatives. The results also affect how the federal government will allocate more than $300 billion in funds.
“We needed full census participation so that we could help get federal dollars to trickle into Washington state — for our social services, transportation, and education,” said Abellera.
Abellera’s past experience as a Census 2000 partnership specialist allowed her to tackle her new role head-on. She held a series of meetings with Gregoire, state agencies, and congressional delegations to devise ways to increase the number of people who would mail in their completed questionnaires.
“The awareness campaign was massive,” said Abellera. “The state put notices on the Internet, had fliers and posters in their offices, and even printed reminders on pay stubs that read, ‘Be counted in the census.’ ”
One challenge that Abellera faced in promoting the census was assuring people that their responses would be kept confidential. She explained that the Census Bureau takes extreme measures to protect people’s private information and that all answers are protected by law.
“We needed every person to mail [the questionnaires] back, whether the person was a documented or undocumented immigrant,” said Abellera. “My job was to ensure that the state made it clear that the questionnaires were safe and easy to fill out.”
Abellera’s diligent efforts in promoting the census paid off. Washington state’s participation rate in Census 2010 was 76 percent – up three percent from Census 2000. Washington also beat the national average of 73 percent.
While Abellera may be finished promoting the census, her work is not finished. She now focuses her efforts on supporting Seattle’s International Drop-In Center (IDIC) in its capital campaign. The IDIC provides support and programs for the elderly population, in particular, Filipino World War II veterans and their families.
Abellera immigrated to the United States in 1980 to partake in what her older sister described as “the land of opportunity.” Although she has since garnered nationwide respect as a tireless and effective community leader, Abellera never forgets her roots.
“To be a Filipina in the United States means a lot of hard work and firm conviction to succeed in any endeavor in life,” said Abellera. “When you succeed, you must be generous in sharing and mentoring others to succeed as well.”
For Asian Americans who wish to leave their mark, Abellera advises to “always work with dignity, honesty, persistence, and kindness.” ♦
Evangeline Cafe can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.