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Family Ties

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Mindful of the teachings of her civic-minded parents, Mary Anne Foo brings together diverse immigrant communities to work toward common goals.

A smiling Asian woman.
Mary Anne Foo

When Mary Anne Foo (MPH ’93) was 9, her parents gave her a children’s book series on civil rights for her birthday. She wasn’t pleased. “I wanted a Barbie; I wanted to be like Barbie,” Foo recalls. “And my mom told me, ‘Mary Anne, when I was 9, I had been taken from my home and placed in a Japanese internment camp during World War II. I want you to remember that. I want you to grow up wanting to change the world.’ ”

A fourth-generation Chinese/Japanese American, Foo was raised in a rural region of Northern California under the constant specter of racism, but her parents urged her to be proud of her background and assured her she could contribute to a better world. By the time Foo was entering the workforce, she had embraced her unusual upbringing – the stories about Jim Crow and Brown v. Board of Education, the trips to Sacramento to talk with policy makers, her mother’s insistence that she join the National Organization for Women at age 6. “I started to see what advocacy could do and I began to focus on health care as a civil right,” Foo says. “All of my parents’ lessons suddenly made sense.”

Foo has applied those lessons, enhanced by early community-based work experience and what she describes as two pivotal years learning about immigrant health issues at the Fielding School, to build the Orange County Asian and Pacific Islander Community Alliance (OCAPICA) into a nationally renowned organization working with the approximately 60 Asian and Pacific Islander ethnic groups in the county. OCAPICA promotes the health and well-being of Orange County’s Asian and Pacific Islander (API) communities, as well as other underserved populations, through research, advocacy and education. Starting in 1997 with Foo as the executive director and lone staff member along with three interns, OCAPICA now boasts an annual budget of almost $5 million and a staff of nearly 60, who between them speak 16 languages.

Foo moved to Southern California in 1990 to pursue her MPH at the Fielding School. “I wanted to learn more about public health, and specifically immigrant health,” she says. “I chose UCLA because it was the best place to do that. The Fielding School has always pushed its students to work in neighborhoods and understand immigrant communities.”

A group of images showing different aspects of OCAPICA.


She began working for the County of Orange, just south of Los Angeles, at a time of dramatic growth in the area’s API population – including a large wave of Southeast Asian refugees. “I could see that there were many Asian and Pacific Islanders in Orange County but not many organizations serving them, and hardly any federal funds coming in, especially around health care,” Foo recalls. “So I started talking with leaders of community organizations about coming together as a coalition, sharing grant money and working together to meet the growing needs of the population.”

With three other community leaders, Foo launched OCAPICA to bring in resources, address disparities and organize the county’s API communities around common goals. It started with a $76,000 grant from The California Endowment to address the public health implications of welfare reform on the county’s immigrant population, and quickly expanded from there. In 1999, when the organization received a five-year, $5 million grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to address disparities in breast and cervical cancer affecting API women, Foo brought in her former Fielding School professor, Dr. Marjorie Kagawa-Singer, along with two alumni, Sora Park Tanjasiri (MPH ’89, DrPH ’96) and Tu-Uyen Nguyen (MPH ’98, PhD ’04). Together they helped OCAPICA publish some of the first data of its kind on strategies designed to improve breast and cervical cancer screening for women in eight immigrant and refugee communities.

“I started to see what advocacy could do and I began to focus on health care as a civil right. All of my parents’ lessons suddenly made sense.” — Mary Anne Foo

OCAPICA has continued to expand its scope with increased funding and ever-growing community ties. There are now active programs in mental health and wellness for youth and families; civic engagement and voter empowerment; youth employment; and academic mentoring and college readiness. “We have always been focused on health, but we look at it through a public health model – encompassing a broad range of issues that include housing, education and access to jobs,” Foo explains.

“Mary Anne Foo is a go-to person for elected officials and others in Orange County whenever they want information about the needs of the API community,” says Tammy Tran, who has worked closely with OCAPICA as the former district director for state Sen. Lou Correa (D-Santa Ana) and current senior community liaison to the API community for Southern California Edison. “She not only is a long-time leader, but she also has a staff of subject-matter experts who, along with the OCAPICA board, are very engaged in the community. They make sure our leaders understand and are held accountable to addressing the community’s needs.”

“Our staff are the people we serve,” Foo says. “Because they understand and live in the community, they know how to reach the community.”

A large group of people standing on a sweeping staircase.


Foo learned about reaching communities as a Fielding School student. “My public health education helped me appreciate that the work has to be grass-roots rather than top-down, and you have to start where the community is,” she says. “If people can’t put food on their table, you can’t just go in and say, ‘Stop smoking.’ What I learned is that you have to think about policy change, systems change and pop-ulation health rather than focusing on individuals.”

It’s been nearly two decades since she co-founded OCAPICA, and Foo continues to draw life lessons from the immigrant communities the organization serves. “Many of these people have gone through horrific experiences, and to come here and want a better life for themselves and their families, that resilience is just amazing to me,” she says. “The strengths and values they contribute make our community a better place and keep me passionate about our work.”

The diversity within OCAPICA’s target popu-lation presents challenges. “Every immigrant group has distinct cultural backgrounds and experiences,” Foo says. “People haven’t always wanted to work together, and there has been some prejudice among our communities. But we see that changing with the next generation. Now we have different groups working together and with other communities toward common goals.” Not surprisingly for someone schooled from an early age on the teachings of Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King, Jr., Foo adds: “I find that really exciting.”