Grace Mah thought long and hard about her decision to apply for a seat on the Santa Clara County Board of Education in 2007. She had fought a lengthy battle to start a Mandarin Immersion language program in the Palo Alto school district, even raising $60,000 for district staff to conduct a study.
At times, the animosity of a few of her opponents took on decidedly racial overtones. One anonymous phone call stands out in her mind.
"They told me, 'Why don't you just go back to China?'" said Mah, who is of Chinese heritage but American born.
But she said she had developed expertise and a passion for education and felt undaunted by the controversy.
"I've always been out there and willing to speak my mind," she said.
Following her passion, Mah was appointed to the vacated seat on the county board and then was elected to a full term in 2008.
After more than a century of marginalization in the United States, residents of Asian descent such as Mah are increasingly exercising a voice in public life.
Palo Alto's most recognizable Asian Americans, in addition to Mah, include City Council members Yoriko Kishimoto and Yiaway Yeh and school board members Dana Tom and Barbara Klausner.
Kishimoto, a native of Japan, in 2001 became the first Asian person elected to the Palo Alto City Council and the city's first Asian mayor in 2007. Yeh, born in San Francisco of Taiwanese immigrants, was elected in 2007.
Tom was the first Asian member of the Palo Alto Unified School District board in 2005. Klausner was elected in 2007.
Perhaps the biggest change, though, is coming at the grass-roots level, where highly educated and more affluent immigrants have been weighing in on issues ranging from high-speed rail to math textbooks, according to local leaders.
Palo Alto's overall Asian population has increased from 17.2 percent in 2000 to 23.9 percent, according to the U.S. Census's 2005-07 American Community Survey. The demographic shift -- along with factors such as wealth and increasing interest in community affairs -- is facilitating civic participation among U.S.-born and immigrant Asians alike.
It's a far cry from 30 to 40 years ago, when Asian Americans had little voice in Palo Alto politics and often faced flagrant discrimination, according to real-estate agent Roberta Yee, the first Asian woman to serve on a Palo Alto real-estate board. Yee recalled in 1964 being told by a Realtor for whom she worked of an agreement not to sell Palo Alto's prime properties to "foreigners," which included Asian people born in the United States.
Yee said there was little recourse against such open racism.
"When we grew up here we kept our places. ... You knew not to go in there or mingle or throw your weight around because we had no weight to throw around," she said.
That "weightlessness" had historic roots, Kishimoto said. Older Japanese Americans, who were interned during World War II and lost their property, returned to become housekeepers and gardeners, never regaining the prominence they had before they were sent away, she said.
"They took away two lessons: Keep your head low, or the other is they should be active," so that something like this wouldn't happen again, she said. "In general, that generation was not that active in politics."
But that low profile began to change as residents of Asian descent started to band together around common interests.
The Chinese Community Center in Palo Alto, founded in 1968, began to build a sense of community among local Chinese Americans with cultural activities and language classes, Yee said.
In 1973, concerned over a lack of services for the Southeast-Asian refugee population settling in Silicon Valley, a group of young Palo Alto professionals formed Asian Americans for Community Involvement (AACI), according to Michele Lew, the San Jose nonprofit organization's executive director. Allen Seid, a Palo Alto resident and a psychiatrist, provided much of the vision for the group, she said.
AACI also took a political stance, focusing on public policy changes. The group waged a successful three-year campaign to eradicate stereotyping of Asian/Pacific Americans in textbooks and add cultural and historical contributions of people of Asian heritage in California to school curricula.
It was an era when most Asians organized with others from their cultural group. But greater assimilation, more inter-racial marriages and increased tolerance in the past 20 years have transformed the way individuals participate, according to Yee.
"Things sure have changed now. People have more guts," she said.
In the past decade, Palo Alto has seen its Asian residents weighing in on broader issues and seeking to participate on mainstream governing boards.
Yeh decided to run for Palo Alto City Council in large part because of the polarization that occurred during the Mandarin Immersion debate, he said. Once the word "racist" was on the table, it became difficult to frame the debate in different terms, he said. He wanted to begin to bring another Asian face into the public forum to help break down the fear of "other," he said, and he wanted to address the broader issues of all Palo Altans, not just those perceived as "Asian," he said.
Yeh became interested in public service while at Gunn High School in part because academics were too stressful, he said. His school experience was uncomfortable because of the constant pressure to not only achieve, but to excel beyond one's best achievements.
"My self-esteem suffered. Not every kid can go on this narrow path," he said.
He developed an interest in environmentalism -- a Palo Alto value, he said -- and became involved in Youth Community Service and joined the Peace Corps. In West Africa, he became aware of the worldwide Asian diaspora. In Burkina Faso, he found an immigrant family that had opened a Chinese restaurant.
"The last thing I expected to find in West Africa is chopsticks," he said, laughing.
Kishimoto's vision for Palo Alto has also gone outside so-called "traditional" Asian values to encompass environmental issues and global warming, transportation and housing.
A graduate of Stanford University Graduate School of Business, she wrote a book in 1988 called "The Third Century -- America's Resurgence in the Asian Era," with Joel Kotkin. During a time of recession in which Japan was emerging as the world economic leader, she and Kotkin reasoned that the United States -- and the Bay Area -- could reinvent itself by becoming globally oriented. Part of her vision has been to position Palo Alto for that shift, she said.
But her initial brush with politics came from a much more grass-roots situation, when she received a card in the mail from the city.
"They wanted to raise the speed limit on my street. My reaction was, 'What in the world are they thinking about?' I marched to City Hall with my neighbors. As someone who had never been to City Hall and never met anyone up on the dais, I was impressed. They debated logically and voted 5 to 4 against raising the speed limit," she said.
Her later candidacy for council in 2001 highlighted how old attitudes die hard, though.
A Japanese-American man who ran for council in the 1970s had some advice: "He said I should run under my husband's name and not draw attention to my Japanese background," she said. "That shows how much things have changed."
Kishimoto went on to several terms in local politics, in part due to a political structure she said was welcoming. She plans to run for California State Assembly in 2010.
As for Mah, she said she didn't have particular goals when she joined the county school board, but she was very interested in supporting programs that prepare students for college, as well as strengthening preschool options for all.
Mah did not want to be known as "the Chinese candidate," though, she said. On the board, she has worked to close the achievement gap for students of all ethnicities -- especially among Latino males, who have the highest dropout rate in the county, she added.
Though Mah, Kishimoto and Yeh didn't run with an "Asian agenda," nor did they consider being Asian an obstacle to election, they all acknowledged receiving support from Asian-American groups and the ethnic media, which spread the word about their candidacies.
In 2001, Kishimoto gain the endorsement of the Silicon Valley Asian Pacific American Democratic Club, which helped her with public outreach. In 2006, she gathered together five other Asian vice mayors in Silicon Valley and they exchanged ideas and advice on running their campaigns.
Yeh received support from a variety of individuals when running his 2007 campaign, he said. However, three Chinese-language newspapers that hadn't covered Palo Alto politics previously enthusiastically reported on his campaign. He also received the endorsement of the Asian Pacific American Democratic Club, as Kishimoto had, which sent emails to its members on his behalf and helped him connect with other Asian/Pacific American networks.
In addition, Yeh said local Chinese-American families hosted "house parties" on his behalf during the campaign, introducing him to their network of friends.
Aside from those seeking elected office, Asians in Palo Alto are weighing in on education and neighborhood issues, which reflect more traditional Asian values, Mah and Yeh said.
In the case of high-speed rail, where more than 14 percent of signatories to a recent petition had Asian surnames, the battle line is clear and well-integrated: Condemning homes to make way for the new rail is a color-blind issue.
Last year's library-bond measure also brought out Asian participation, with people throwing informational house parties in neighborhoods heavily populated by Asian Americans, such as the Greenhouse condominium complex in south Palo Alto, Yeh recalled.
The recent uproar over the selection of Everyday Mathematics as the district's new textbook series for elementary schools also sparked interest -- mostly in opposition -- from people of various Asian ethnicities, according to Dana Tom.
Many parents come from technical backgrounds where mathematics is of great importance; they have a passion for how the subject is taught, he said. Some, who were schooled in more traditional mathematical techniques, are skeptical of the newer methods, he said.
Because educational issues often reflect cultural values, new participation has also caused friction, community leaders said, referring not just to Everyday Mathematics but to Mandarin Immersion as well.
That involvement is likely to continue. Nowhere is the city's demographic shift more evident than in the schools.
Districtwide, Asian students make up 31.5 percent, according to Dana Tom. At Gunn High School, that population accounts for 36.9 percent, he said.
Hoover Elementary School's more structured, academically focused program is 71.5 percent Asian, and the majority of Mandarin Immersion students have some Asian heritage.
When the City Council recently met with the Palo Alto Youth Council, the vast majority of the students were Asian. And that was striking, Kishimoto said.
"It's very different from the City Council. It makes you wonder if this is the future," she said.
Talking about Asians as a block is a sticky proposition, even when considering the differences between immigrant and U.S.-born Asians.
The term "Asian" includes cultures ranging from Hawaiian and Filipino to Southeast Asian, such as Indian and Pakistani.
Each group has unique interests.
Vicky Ching, owner of Ming's Villa on Embarcadero Road, said most immigrant groups tend to live with their minds partially back in their homelands.
"Many of my friends in their minds are still concerned with the politics there. ... It's a process of Americanization. We treat ourselves more as transients in that sense. A large part of my heart is with Taiwan," she said.
Some Asian immigrants bring wealth. In her banquet rooms at Ming's, which won this year's Palo Alto Chamber of Commerce Tall Tree award, Ching sees many Asian CEOs of companies founded both in Silicon Valley and Taiwan. Taiwanese businessmen often send their families to live in California, where they invest as protection against political volatility in their homeland.
"There is a Chinese saying: A smart rabbit always has three hideouts," Ching said.
And many Asian engineers dissatisfied with the glass ceiling in high-tech companies have formed their own companies and now are venture capitalists. Their VC money is being invested in biotechnology and green energy, she said.
Kishimoto, meanwhile, said that no stereotype should be drawn of the immigrant who shies away from civic engagement because he or she is too busy building a life here. During her tenure as mayor, the five other Silicon Valley mayors who were Asian were all immigrants, she said.
In contrast to immigrants, Asian Americans, born in the U.S., feel fairly well-assimilated and are interested in keeping in touch with their roots, according to Dana Tom.
While in the past there was a large push to blend in to the mainstream, "today, I feel there's more acceptance of people retaining their heritage. The compulsion to fully assimilate is not as great now," Tom said.
"Second and third generations now almost have a hunger for their children to hold on to some of that heritage. It's a tension that any immigrant feels: pulled to wanting to be considered fully American and yet also wanting to maintain their heritage."
Reaping the benefits of their parents' hard work and success, Asian Americans have increasingly become some of the country's most skilled and brightest, who will not be content with sitting in the shadows, Ching said.
"Yiaway's generation is like Obama, Harvard educated. That is not an exception; it's a trend," she said.
Whether newly immigrated or born and raised in the U.S., Asians seeking to get involved in civic life are finding ways to do so.
Mah and Kishimoto said they learned about government by sitting on boards and commissions. The YMCA recruited Southeast Asians and Chinese members, according to Mah.
"Being on the YMCA board was a strong training ground. It was formative for my getting into the Palo Alto network," she said.
The Asian Pacific American Leadership Institute of Silicon Valley at De Anza College holds classes for adults and youth on civic engagement, teaching people how they can become involved. Michael Chang, executive director of the Institute and former mayor of Cupertino, started the organization 11 years ago when, as mayor, he realized there weren't many Asians on boards and commissions, despite half of Cupertino being of Asian heritage.
"People often do not understand their role in this civic engagement. They think they have to be an expert," he said. "Many are actually quite interested, but they don't know the ropes or whether they're qualified."
Chang said as the population continues to mature, people will find it natural to participate in greater numbers.
"This is not the '60s and '70s, where there was protest involvement. There is a more natural involvement," he said.
Chang sees interest in participation in many areas: in recreational facilities, public safety, financial oversight and architecture, he said. He acknowledged that some resistance is bound to take place, as Asians increase in civic engagement.
"There are always some struggles. Our whole region is undergoing a lot of change in the last 40 to 50 years. ... A lot of local communities have strong emotional ties that are good. But each community needs to respect the past and embrace the present and future," he said.
Ching thinks having more decision-makers who are of Asian background could be a good thing for Palo Alto, where the "process" is notoriously slow.
"They say China is the most efficient place in the world. On the first day that policy makers try to make a bridge, by the third day, it's already mobilized and done. ... We are able to compromise things and save money," she said.