In a section of Woodside, Queens dubbed Little Manila, there's a large flowery mural under the 7 subway line with the word "Mabuhay"— a Filipino phrase with multiple meanings, including "welcome" — painted in bold leaders on a beige-colored wall.

Jaclyn Reyes, an artist and community organizer, created the mural in June 2020 as a way of honoring the Filipino community’s efforts during the early months of the pandemic, specifically its nurses at nearby Elmhurst Hospital, which had been strained by the first COVID-19 wave. The mural doubled as a way of establishing a visual presence for the Filipino community, which Reyes says has largely been overlooked by the city.

That oversight is one of many Asian communities in New York City are looking to redress as the city updates its Council maps in the current redistricting process. With the community only growing throughout the five boroughs, groups are pressing for district maps that will help consolidate their political power.

The need was evident, Reyes said, when translation services for businesses seeking to apply for federal loans to keep them afloat during the pandemic were initially unavailable in Tagalog, the main language spoken by Filipinos. Meanwhile, a long-standing push to reopen the Bayanihan Filipino Community Center, once located two buildings from where the mural sits at 69th Street before it closed in 2013, have gone nowhere. The center offered immigration services for Filipinos, which Reyes said is critical after Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. – the scion of a former dictator – recently won the presidential election in the Philippines, worrying the community in the city and abroad.

I just wonder if we had a leader who understood our needs that maybe we would have a community center, we would have a lot of things that could support us.

Jaclyn Reyes, artist and community organizer

Reyes believes the geopolitics of Woodside plays a role in the lack of support and urgency for these services. The neighborhood – home to roughly 24,720 New Yorkers of Asian descent, the largest of any demographic in Woodside – is separated into the 22nd, 25th and 26th Council districts. Rendering any strong collective power, be it for a community center or reliable translation services, remains a challenge, Reyes said.

“I wish that Filipinos had a stronger voice, at least politically,” Reyes said. “I just wonder if we had a leader who understood our needs that maybe we would have a community center, we would have a lot of things that could support us.”

Boosting political power for Filipinos in Woodside might be easier if the community fell in the same Council district as neighboring Elmhurst, home to another concentration of Filipinos, Reyes said.

“If we’re going to two different leaders with the same issue, there’s no guarantee that they're necessarily going to work together to get this thing for our community,” she said. “They might just pass it off to each other.”

In the last decade, Asian-dominated communities have struggled to obtain consistent resources as they fall under multiple Council districts. Now, with redistricting underway, Reyes is part of a campaign intent on preventing communities with high concentrations of Asian New Yorkers from being broken into multiple districts.

The mapmaking process takes several months and must follow a set of city, state and federal rules. This includes ensuring the maps conform to a provision in the Voting Rights Act that mandates communities with common interests fall under one district. That can include cultural, racial, ethnic or religious commonalities. Those communities of interest are largely defined by residents. That’s one reason why Elizabeth OuYang — coordinator of the Asian Pacific American VOICE Redistricting Task Force coalition — is urging more Asian New Yorkers to provide input during redistricting’s public comment process.

Such cohesion translates to more political power, said OuYang, whose group is seeking greater representation on the legislative front: Lawmakers typically give their attention to the dominant voting bloc in their district.

“They’re going to listen to the people who make up the majority of their district and they’re going to give more money to the people who make up the majority of their district,” OuYang said. “If they were kept whole their voices would be consolidated and be a bigger part of that majority.”

Lawmakers might heed greater attention to minority communities this time out, given the passage of a Council bill allowing non-citizen residents to vote in city elections.

Conversations on redistricting have played out since early April in a series of town halls within Asian communities designed to help Asian New Yorkers bone up on the process by the 15-member NYC Districting Commission. The commission first convened in March and plans to present its new maps for public review beginning June 7th. The process can wrap up in the summer or winter, depending on whether the Council approves the first round of maps.

Screenshot of the NYC Districting Commission meeting on May 11, 2022.

NYC Districting Commission meets on on May 11 to review the redistricting process.

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NYC Districting Commission meets on on May 11 to review the redistricting process.
Screengrab/NYC Districting Commission

But compared to the redistricting process on the state level, the commission will have the final say on the look of the maps, no later than February 7th, 2023, three weeks before petitioning begins. This will result in all 50 current Council members running for their seats once again next year.

Keeping Asian communities together following the redistricting process is OuYang’s core strategy for producing a homegrown candidate. She believes the 33% increase in the number of Asian New Yorkers in the last 10 years is a “game changer” that will boost their political power. That doesn’t mean Asians haven’t made strides: there are currently six Council members of Asian descent, compared to two a decade before.

“The recent New York City Council elections has given hope to Asian American communities of the ability to elect the candidate of their choice and to see people in office who understand the language needs, immigration issues and occupational concerns,” OuYang said. “That has helped, but we have a ways to go.”

Despite the ramifications in having a divided community, showcasing the urgency for redistricting in Asian neighborhoods remains a challenge, OuYang says.

“The problem with redistricting is [that] redistricting is so esoteric,” OuYang said. “Oftentimes it is left to the communities to do that education.”

It’s for that reason that OuYang has sought to crystallize redistricting’s major implications to communities. Last month, at a redistricting town hall in Bensonhurst – home to a fast-growing Asian neighborhood split into four Council districts – OuYang recalled the need from residents for a greater response to bias attacks. She noted that if the neighborhood were kept under one district, it might elicit a better response from lawmakers.

It might have also produced greater resources for the neighborhood during the pandemic, when applications for federal loans were unavailable in Chinese, according to OuYang. This forced community groups to contact then-Council member Margaret Chin, whose district covers Manhattan’s Chinatown, for resources.

The ability to attract consistent resources stands as a driving force for Mohamed Amin, executive director of the Caribbean Equality Project, an LGBTQ advocacy group in Richmond Hill/South Ozone Park in Queens. The community is divided into three Council districts, one of which has an office within the community.

Even so, attempts at getting the attention of lawmakers are difficult, according to Amin. That was evident during the pandemic last year when there were calls for more city-run testing and vaccination sites in the neighborhood by groups such as South Queens Women’s March.

It wasn’t until Richmond Hill became the top neighborhood for COVID positivity rates in January 2021 that the city established its own testing and vaccination site on Lefferts Boulevard and Liberty Avenue. Amin asserts with the community fractured, drumming up a homegrown candidate reflective of the community is impossible.

Advocacy groups for Asian New Yorkers rally at the steps of City Hall on April 5 to urge New Yorkers to get involved in the redistricting process.

A coalition of advocacy groups for Asian New Yorkers rally at the steps of City Hall on April 5 to urge the Asian community to get involved in the redistricting process.

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A coalition of advocacy groups for Asian New Yorkers rally at the steps of City Hall on April 5 to urge the Asian community to get involved in the redistricting process.
David Cruz / Gothamist

“The community itself is fractured in a way that we don't have an equitable opportunity to elect a candidate of our choice that will fight to bring resources to Richmond Hill and many of the community,” Amin said. “What we've seen over the years is that Richmond Hill has historically gotten the short end.”

Richmond Hill/South Ozone Park’s political woes stretch back more than a decade when the neighborhoods were carved into seven state Assembly districts. That number has been consolidated to four following a concerted advocacy campaign by APA VOICE, though the group sought an even bigger reduction.

We don't have an equitable opportunity to elect a candidate of our choice that will fight to bring resources to Richmond Hill.

Mohamed Amin, executive director of the Caribbean Equality Project

With redistricting hearings expected in the summer, Aminta Kilawan-Narine, an organizer with South Queens Women’s March, said Asian New Yorkers should get involved. At a town hall on Wednesday, Kilawan-Narine noted the strength in numbers when vying for change.

“The more that the folks in positions of power hear us and about us, they have to do something because it would make no sense any other way,” Kilawan-Narine said.

Correction: This article has been updated to correct the date the city's redistricting maps take effect. The maps must be in place no later than February 7th, 2023.