Meet 6 Asian-American leaders you should know in the Tampa Bay Area

No matter the color of your skin, your ethnicity, or where you came from, we’re all human beings, we all live on this Earth, we all are empowered by our hearts. Everyone has a right to have his or her voice heard, according to the U.S. Constitution, so why do some attempt to silence individuals because they are of a different race? 

Six Asian-American leaders residing in the Tampa Bay Area share their stories with 83 Degrees. Read on to learn what makes them who they are: their passions, goals, and accomplishments.

These leaders are taking a stand, addressing anti-Asian hate crimes that have drastically risen since the beginning of the Coronavirus pandemic. Such issues need to be addressed head on, they agree. If there’s any hope of change for good, these individuals plan to help get us there.

Nan Sook Park, Associate Professor of Social Work, University of South Florida and Member of the Hillsborough County Diversity Advisory Committee

Nan Sook ParkAs a gerontologist and social work researcher, Nan Sook Park has spent a lot of time working on projects to understand the social world of older immigrants which has connected her to many older Korean Americans with limited English proficiency. Park was born in South Korea and lived there until she came to the United States when she was in her mid-20s.

She earned her Ph.D. at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, master's degrees at UNC and Western Illinois University, and a bachelor's degree at Chungnam National University in South Korea.

Now in her mid-50s, she has been a U.S. resident longer than she lived in her birth country. She and her husband have always tried to keep that strong sense of “Korean” ethnicity and values by staying true to their roots and teaching their two kids their traditions and language. 

In working with these older immigrants to try to uncover their social world, Park has found it to be extremely rewarding and meaningful to hear their backgrounds through shared stories, getting the chance to see who these individuals are.

“Our research team coined the term ‘broken convoy’ as a model to understand the distributions older immigrants would have experienced in their social network system in the process of immigration,” Park says. 

“There are many Asian-Americans and communities that need more information and resources to navigate the mainstream society,” Park says. “I would like to contribute to building community capacity for caring for older Asian-Americans, especially for those with memory impairment such as Alzheimer’s disease and dementias.”

“All big projects may start in small steps,” Park says. “The tragic things we have experienced since the start of the pandemic may be used as a springboard to the social movement toward being aware of the racism and mistreatment toward Asian-Americans.”

Jose “Joey” Horstman Omila, Director of Cultural Affairs and Public Relations Officer of the Philippine Cultural Foundation, Inc. (PCFI) and founding Director and Choreographer of the Philippine Performing Arts Company

Jose “Joey” Horstman OmilaBorn in the Philippines to a family of 10 children, Jose Horstman Omila completed his Fine Arts degree with a bachelor’s in advertising. The knowledge he gained from his studies is reflected in all the work he’s done for the Filipino-Americans in the Tampa Bay Area. 

For PCFI, which he does mostly on a volunteer basis, he plans all cultural events for the foundation from festivals to concerts, art classes, fashion shows, lectors, and more. While forming the dance group and being involved in the local community, Omila has helped build the Tampa  Philippine cultural center, “Bayanihan Arts and Events Center.”

The Bayanihan center stands on the 10-acre property they call the Philippine Enrichment Complex where the annual “PhilFest” takes place. Before taking his position for PCFI, Omila traveled worldwide performing with Bayanihan, a national Philippine dance company. 

Along with planning future PCFI events, he’s begun organizing a crash course in self-defense for the community. 

“Of course, I would be lying if I said that the Asian hate crimes have not affected me,” Omila says. “For right now, the country is so divided that sometimes we cannot avoid thinking, ‘What is happening to the America that we all used to love and adore? What has happened to the kind and loving Americans?’ ” 

Once things get back to normal, he plans on creating an apprenticeship program. 

“My worries are, what happens when I am gone? Would anybody continue what I have been doing? Will our youth today remember all the things I have taught them and pass it on for generations?” Omila says. “Hard sometimes, as it may be, I am very passionate about what I do.”

Man Le, President/Founder of NAAAP (National Association for Asian American Professionals) Tampa Bay

Man LeAfter going to a lot of business and leadership meetings, Man Le realized that Asian-Americans were underrepresented most of the time.
 
“I was thinking that there had to be an association or a group that supports and encourages voices for Asian-Americans but researching through the Tampa Bay Area [a few years ago], I did not find one,” Le says. “There were multiple groups, but none that brought everyone together.”

During his research he read about the NAAAP and found that there wasn’t a chapter in Tampa. So in 2018, Le brought this chapter to the community with their mission being to promote leadership and career development, provide professional networking, and focus on community service. The chapter was meeting together in person (before COVID) around once a month, representing 16 different countries throughout Asia. Members meet to support each other on a variety of topics such as, how to promote yourself in the workplace coming from an Asian-American background. To get involved visit their website or Facebook page.

Le immigrated to the U.S. from Vietnam as a young child in the late 1970s with his family and had to quickly acclimate to the culture and language.
 
“Before immigrating, his dad had worked for the American Embassy over in Vietnam as an accountant. When the war ended, and they got the opportunity to come to America they said yes.
 
“If we had stayed, I, 100%, would have been prosecuted. We basically had to start over.” Le says. “My worldview from all of that growing up has made me more aware and more empathetic to people who are considered to be ‘others’ or to be on the outside. It makes me consider everyone’s point of view, because you don’t know where they’re coming from or what they’ve been through.”

He has a law degree from Stetson University College of Law in Gulfport.

Mariben E. Andersen, Technical Manager/Environmental at Michael Baker International; VP of Operations and Charter Member of NAAAP
 
Mariben E. AndersenAs a senior environmental scientist consultant, Mariben E. Andersen is an ecologist. She sees her job as balancing development while protecting the environment. After getting sick with pneumonia and being out for almost a month, she couldn’t go back to med school, so she found herself on a boat at age 21, scuba diving every day and falling more in love with marine zoology.
 
“It’s my legacy to future generations. It’s not just my profession, it’s not just my livelihood, it’s my entire life,” Andersen says. “I live and breathe it, protecting the environment and everything I do.”

What drives her passion is the challenge that comes with her job, “it’s like a puzzle, you have to take it apart and put it back together in the least amount of energy possible,” Andersen says. A new project she is currently working on is falconry in airports. They bring hawks and falcons to airports over a six-week time period as a fear-tactic to use a biological, natural way to show small birds that they shouldn’t come to these airports to improve safety. You can read more about one of her projects here. 

“We call our group DIApact (Diversity Inclusion Awareness) pact, because at Michael Baker we consider ourselves a wolf pact,” Andersen says. “It doesn’t matter if you’re Asian-American, African, Indian, Hindi, whatever color you are if there is a hate crime against you, that is not right.” Being Asian is something Anderson holds close to her heart being born and raised in the Philippines, but it doesn’t matter what race you are, she would stand for any human being singled out.
 
“The most important thing about falling down is getting back up and moving forward, learning your lesson, and strengthening yourself,” Andersen says. “My message is, you should know your self worth because more than anything you’re just like any other human being, but with hard work, you can reach whatever heights you want to.”

Andersen is currently starting her next goal within the community which will go on through the duration of the next two years being a life coach to a young Philippine in Orlando. She is also mentoring someone by sharing her challenges in work and helping her learn how to go about resolving these problems. 

Zarra R. Elias, Labor and Employment Attorney/Partner at Akerman LLP; Immediate Past President of the Local Asian Bar Association, Asian Pacific American Bar Association of Tampa Bay (APABA Tampa Bay); Alternate Regional Governor for the Southeast Region of the National Asian Pacific American Bar Association (NAPABA) 
 
Zarra R. EliasIn Zarra Elias’s line of work, she represents employers, businesses, and management in all aspects of labor and employment law. With her Florida Bar Association work and service, she has led the organization APABA Tampa Bay for two years and is now on APABA Tampa Bay's and NAPABA's boards, continuing to promote justice, equity, and opportunity for Asian Pacific Americans. To note, NAPABA represents over 50,000 attorneys, judges, and law students across the country and in Canada.

“In light of my background, I want to highlight representation and opportunities for my fellow Asian-Americans,” Elias says. “I want to ensure that AAPIs’ voices are amplified, and that I contribute to ensuring there is indeed diversity, equity, and inclusion in our community. The number of AAPI attorneys in Florida is way lower compared to other states. As such, it makes it even more important for me to take on leadership roles to help our collective efforts to break the bamboo ceiling.”

Also, in her practice area, one of the most meaningful aspects of Elias’s work is assisting companies and employers in improving policies and procedures that impact and can reach thousands of employees or workers.
 
Born in Manila, Philippines, she came from very humble beginnings, being raised mainly by her grandmother while her mom worked to provide for her. She moved to Hong Kong with her mom when she was 11 years old and was enrolled in a public Chinese school where racism and discrimination became all too familiar at this young age. At the age of 18, she moved to the U.S. with her mom and American stepdad who knew with her passion of being an attorney she would have more opportunities in the states. Elias earned her law degree at the University of Florida Levin College of Law and her bachelor's degree from the University of South Florida.
 
Moving forward, Elias wants to increase her efforts in servicing and assisting AAPI owned companies and businesses.
 
“I have always felt a sense of responsibility because of my background. I am grateful that my profession gives me the opportunity to help empowers and guide AAPI companies. Whether it be helping them avoid getting sued or drafting policies and procedures to assist with managing employees or running their businesses, I am aware that I am given a unique platform to reach AAPIs and increase their awareness of the various legal traps that could end up costing their business,” Elias says.

As to community service, Elias is actively participating in community efforts to combat hate crimes, racism, and xenophobia against AAPIs.
  
“Some AAPI community leaders and I have had discussions with the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office and the City of Tampa Mayor Jane Castor and her team to find ways to strengthen our AAPI communities. There is progress, and I am eager to take part in these efforts,” Elias adds.

With everything going on with the rise of hate crimes, there is just more need to raise awareness as individuals are feeling more comfortable to speak out which, in turn, is the most important thing in fighting the stigma of anti-Asian hate crimes.  

Angelina Lim, Partner at Johnson Pope Bokor Ruppel & Burns, LLP

Angelina LimHelping bring the Asian Pacific Bar Association to Tampa, Angelina Lim has been a part of this group while also working as a bankruptcy lawyer at the Johnson Pope law firm in Tampa. She represents both corporate and individual debtors, secured creditors, landlords, and more in the firm’s bankruptcy, creditor’s rights and insolvency related practice group.
 
“You see people [in her line of work] in their weakest moments … so you grow empathy,” Lim says. 

Coming from a Malaysia-Chinese background, she was born in Malaysia, attended high school in Singapore, and came to the U.S. for college. She graduated from Rutgers University and earned a bachelor's degree from the University of Southern California.

Asian-Americans will always stand out in terms of looks, so it’s hard to stop what some people automatically put in their heads.
 
“I think the only way you can combat that is individually one on one, you’re not prejudiced against people you know. … You have to make yourself really know someone from another category or another group of people,” Lim says. “Until you see everyone as humans, then it’s going to be very difficult.” 

We weren’t born racist, she says. Lim remembers a time back when her son was in kindergarten and she asked him if he knew he was Asian.
 
“He was all befuddled,” Lim says. “He goes ‘I’m regular,’ and that this the perfect summary of how it should be, everyone is just regular. Just because everyone comes in different sizes and shapes doesn’t mean they’re inherently different.”
 

Read more articles by Lauren Wong.

Lauren Wong is a graduate of the University of Tampa with a degree in journalism who is freelancing while she looks for a full-time job. Originally from the Chicago area, she enjoys travel and aspires to be a travel photojournalist. During the summer of 2019, she worked for Premier Travel Media in Chicago and as a correspondent for Input Fort Wayne, another Issue Media group online magazine based in Indiana. She loves spending time outdoors camping, kayaking, and taking pictures.
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