Staff Photo : Keith Farner Kiran Ahuja, the executive director of the White House Initiative on Asian-Americans talks with attendees before a dinner program with business leaders and elected officials at the Ashiana restaurant ballroom in Norcross on Thursday evening. Ahuja was in Gwinnett to learn about the improvements and issues in the Asian-American community.
NORCROSS -- As a native Georgian, Kiran Ahuja is familiar with how the state's demographics were when she grew up in Savannah. So on a visit to Gwinnett on Thursday, she had a clear reaction when she learned that Gwinnett County is nearly 13 percent Asian-American.
"I almost fell out of my chair to be honest," said Ahuja, the executive director of the White House Initiative on Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders.
Ahuja toured Gwinnett and met with business leaders and elected officials as Asian-American leaders showcased the contributions made to Gwinnett, said Tim Hur, co-chair of the Georgia Asian-American Pacific Islander Task Force. That group's long-term goal is to develop a bi-partisan state commission of Asian-Americans to do a feasibility study to determine how to help the AAPI community, co-chair Farooq Mughal said.
By many accounts, Gwinnett is well on its way, and being compared to such cities as Houston; Dayton, Ohio; and Philadelphia.
"I have to say I'm especially happy with what's happening here, with the Asian-American leaders, local elected officials that I heard over and over again have embraced this diversity and this rapid growth and see it as a tremendous asset and advantage," said Ahuja, an Indian immigrant. "I do say I'm impartial to wherever I go, but it's home and it means a lot to me."
Ahuja shared those sentiments at a dinner program at the Ashiana Restaurant in the Global Mall in Norcross, what event organizers called the largest mall collective of South Asian businesses in Georgia.
"It's important to find leaders in different communities who are willing to go across cultures," said Norcross mayor Bucky Johnson, who was one of several Gwinnett mayors at the event.
Earlier in the day Thursday, Ahuja met with Gwinnett County Commissioners and local AAPI nonprofit organizations to gain a better sense of the community. The dramatic shift is measured by U.S. Census figures that said between 2000 and 2012, the AAPI population in Georgia grew by 81 percent and represents nearly 6 percent of people in metro Atlanta.
Ahuja said the White House seeks to engage Asian-American business leaders as President Barack Obama has set of goal to double exports to Asia by 2015.
The initiative was created in 2009 to develop better engagement with this community, Ahuja said.
"To not only take advantage of the assets, but better address the needs and concerns," she said.
One concern is people who are language deficient getting access to health services, she said.
For improvements, Ahuja said she would like to see more involvement in local government, not necessarily with elected officials, but serving in the administrations of county and state governments, for example.
"There is value in people coming from different communities, because they bring those different perspectives," she said.