Celebrating Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month
Read the stories of two passionate people in the MS movement who are amplifying the voices of the Asian American and Pacific Islander community.
“Where are you from?”
For many, this question is fairly straightforward to answer. But for Laura Bennett — or LB, as everyone calls her — the question gives her pause.
LB has been with the National MS Society for seven years and serves as the director of grassroots advocacy. She often moved as a child because of her parents’ careers — spending time in places like China, Thailand, Africa and Europe — but grew up mostly in her mother’s native Philippines.
“I don’t know where I’m from. I never actually lived in the United States, despite being born here, until I was 19 years old,” she shares.
LB is proudly half Caucasian American and half Filipina. Growing up, her home life was filled with different languages and cultures. This has shaped her to become more adaptable and aware of the cultural differences that others bring to spaces, including in her work.
“One thing I’ve seen over the last seven years is the misunderstanding that MS only affects white women of a certain age. It’s just absolutely not true,” she says. “And what I love is that MS activists are always empowered and fired up to bring that back to their community. We get to see Black activists talk about the importance of bringing that back to their community and clarifying these misunderstandings. And our Asian activists go back to their communities and say, ‘Nope, absolutely not. I’ve been diagnosed with it, and I don’t fit that criterion that was once believed to be the target population of people living with MS.’ ”
The work of activists across the country is a shining example that the MS community is strengthened and empowered by its diversity. As the Society celebrates Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, LB proudly shares her love for her Filipino heritage. She hopes others celebrate their cultural identities to bridge understanding and break down preconceived notions.
“America is a melting pot, and to be able to celebrate that, we need to stop and recognize the different pieces that make up that pot. Even though I look more like my Caucasian half than my Filipina half, I identify just as much with that Filipina half because my Filipino identity and heritage are an intrinsic part of who I am. I was raised around Tagalog. I was raised in Southeast Asia my entire life. And so, for me, it’s important to speak about these things and share these experiences because there’s so much more to people that we need to learn.”
“I think my perspective is an interesting one, in that I’m adopted. Coming from a family that had multiple people from Asia adopted into it, it really gave me the perspective of a broad pantheon of people.”
Will Ziegenhagen has been with the National Multiple Sclerosis Society for almost 16 years and is currently serving as the senior director of volunteer engagement. Will is Indian, born in Calcutta, and grew up in Minneapolis. He has been able to use his own experiences to shape his work and how he connects with others outside and within the Society.
“It’s been interesting to connect with … so many people who’ve had similar experiences over the years. It’s been really powerful to connect with people in that way, and reassuring,” he says. “It’s been hard to see some of the pain that’s come from being a minority surrounded by the majority, but also very proud of the organization to see the effort that we’re making to try and improve on that, and to build a better future, both for the MS Society and the people we serve.”
Will has always sought to bring a diverse perspective to work and to be an advocate for others. He has found it rewarding to be a face of familiarity and comfort to other people of color who may be participating in an event for the first time by making them feel connected to the mission.
The Society continues to spotlight Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, and Will shares why this kind of awareness is vital to understanding the diversity of Asian heritage and culture.
“There are people that are just so different and cultures that are so different, religions that are so different, languages that have nothing to do with each other … and so the concept of ‘Asian’ is so broad,” Will says. “The one thing I love about the focus of the month is that it gives us a chance to kind of highlight the diversity and also highlight areas of the world and cultures of the world that people don’t always necessarily first think of when they think of the word Asian, or they hear the word Asian.”