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Speeches

Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month Remarks
T. Bella Dinh-Zarr, PhD, MPH
Federal Trade Commission (FTC)
5/10/2018

​Good afternoon!  Thank you to Maneesha Mithal for that kind introduction and thank you to Kevin Williams, Yvette Delgado and everyone on the Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month organizing committee for inviting me.  It is a pleasure to be here today with you, our colleagues at the FTC (Federal Trade Commission), who -- like all of us at the NTSB (National Transportation Safety Board) -- work every day to protect the American public.  I would like to thank all of you at the FTC for taking time out of your busy schedules to attend today either in person or via webcast.  I also would like to recognize my colleagues from the NTSB  - please raise your hands.  Please do not hesitate to talk with them now that you know who they are.  Today, I would like to tell you about my agency, what we do, and, since it is Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month, how I got here and why diversity and inclusion are important to the success of our agencies and our nation.

At first glance, the FTC and the NTSB may not seem very similar, although we are both independent federal agencies.  What we share is a common mission to protect the American public every day, albeit in very different ways.  You protect people in their daily lives as consumers and business owners, and we protect people in their daily lives as travelers and commuters.  Neither of our jobs can be called “glamorous”, but both of our agencies are essential to the health and well-being of our nation, and we are fortunate that both of our missions are noble ones.

As you know, Asian-American Pacific Islander Heritage Month began more than 40 years ago with a Congressional Bill sponsored by Congressman Frank Horton and co-sponsored by Congressman Norman Mineta, who later became the longest serving Secretary of Transportation in the United States, and then volunteered to do pro bono work as head of an international road safety campaign where I got to know him.  The month of May was chosen to commemorate the arrival of the first Japanese immigrants in the United States as well as the completion of the transcontinental railroad, many of whose tracks were laid by Chinese immigrants.  I myself am a Vietnamese-American immigrant, with ancestry from both China and Vietnam, as well as with Japanese-American relatives. But for me, this month is about more than simply celebrating and recognizing the contributions of Asian Americans to our great nation.  This month reminds me that equality and inclusion are important conditions not only for their own sakes, because they are key elements of fairness and justice, but also because having a diverse and inclusive workforce makes our agencies, our government, our communities, and our entire country stronger.  I am certainly proud of my own heritage, as an American who also is Vietnamese, Chinese, and yes, Texan.  But I am equally interested in the diverse backgrounds of everyone around me, like my confidential assistant John Brown who is African-American and Washingtonian or my special assistant Shannon Bennett who is Irish-American and Iowan!  It may seem obvious, but I hope that these types of months that recognize people of different backgrounds, remind us to keep an open mind - open to differences in appearance, gender, sexual orientation, and anything else that tries to separate us as fellow human beings.  By having an open mind, we are open to a much greater pool of talent and, as a result, we will have the best people for the job, no matter what they look or sound like, and ultimately, we will do our jobs better.

Well, I seem to have jumped right into the concepts of diversity and inclusion, so perhaps I should take a step back, so I can tell you a little bit more about our agency, the National Transportation Safety Board, who we are, and why it is so important for all of us to have conversations about diversity, inclusion, and yes, about racism.

The NTSB, as it exists today, is not as old as the FTC.  In fact, at more than 100 years old, you are twice as old as we are!  We were established first as part of the Air Commerce Act of 1926 as part of the Commerce Department, but it was not until 1967 that the NTSB was designated as an independent entity, so we turned 50 years old last year.

Under the statute that created us in 1967, the NTSB is charged with investigating transportation accidents.  You may hear about us most often when we rush to the scene of disasters all over the country during a Go Team Launch.  I dressed up for you today, but at the scene of a disaster, we all wear our trademark dark blue uniforms with our logo and large yellow letters spelling out NTSB on the back.  You will see us at the scene of transportation disasters of all types - aviation, highway, maritime, rail, as well as pipeline and hazardous materials.  During my time at the NTSB, I have been to launches around the country -- to Philadelphia and to Hoboken, NJ, for train accidents; to Akron, OH, for a business jet that crashed into an apartment building; to Jacksonville, FL, for the El Faro cargo ship lost in Hurricane Joaquin, to the train derailment in Washington State just before the holidays, and most recently, to the helicopter crash into the East River in New York.  The hardworking NTSB staff investigate accidents throughout the country almost every day.

Wherever there has been an accident, we get there as fast as we can so we can collect data before it disappears.  As one doctor I know says, we are like infectious disease outbreak investigation teams, except what we are investigating is an outbreak of kinetic energy instead of a disease.  We get as much information as we can to make recommendations to prevent the next “outbreak.”  We also are mandated by Congress to provide assistance to victims and their families, a less well-known but very important part of our work.

Those on-scene investigations are a key part of our work – that is why we are on call 24-hours a day, 365 days a year.  Once we have finished our on-scene work, our work continues back at our state-of-the-art labs.  The final result of an investigation is a very thorough report covering every aspect of an accident, including a probable cause and safety recommendations designed to prevent that type of accident from happening again.

People do not talk about values very much these days, but it is our values at the NTSB that set us apart and help us advance our safety mission.  Some of our most deeply held values are independence, credibility, and transparency.

Independence

Like the FTC, we are an independent agency and we have five independent board members, like myself, who are nominated by the President and confirmed by the Senate for a certain term of office, so our terms are not tied to Administrations or elections.  We do not report to anyone – not the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) nor any other federal agency – so we can make recommendations to anyone.  We always perform our analyses alone - completely independent of any other agencies and organizations.

Credibility

Unlike many government agencies, the NTSB does not have regulatory authority, so it is our reputation that allows us to advance safety recommendations.  We maintain our credibility by conducting very thorough investigations that touch on every single aspect of an accident from engineering to human performance to the weather.  We are fortunate that communities welcome us during some of their most difficult times because we are considered to wear the “white hats” since we are there to help them find out what happened and prevent it from happening to other communities.

Transparency

As for transparency, all of our meetings and deliberations are done in the public eye under the Government in the Sunshine Act, so they are open to the public as well as webcast online.  As you can see if you watch our televised meetings, as Board Members, we sometimes do not agree – but that is part of the beauty and strength of the NTSB.  We debate publicly, not for any political gain, but in order to come to the best resolution for the sake of safety.

Board Members like myself are not political in the traditional sense, but by law, like the FTC, the NTSB is bipartisan since no more than 3 of the 5 board members (like your Commissioners) can be nominated by the same party – but we never let politics get in the way of safety.  This philosophy of collegiality for the sake of a good cause is strong among the current NTSB Board Members and we all fiercely protect our values of independence, credibility, and transparency.

Investigations

Ultimately, our work results in products that contain recommendations to advance safety including – accident reports, safety studies, and special investigative reports. We deliberate, we make decisions, and by-law, we vote on all items in public, during our sunshine meetings.

Although we have no regulatory authority, our good reputation has enabled us to successfully set and track targets for the benefit of safety.  We have issued over 14,000 safety recommendations to over 2,300 recipients over the years –in all modes of transportation.   In fact, about 80% of our recommendations have been adopted.  Although we have a good track record of having our recommendations adopted, we also do not give up on targets that are not achieved.  Some recommendations take years or even decades, especially if they must pass individually in all 50 states or require federal rulemaking.  We also are sometimes criticized, even vilified, for our efforts.  But that does not stop us.  We are persistent.  Federal agencies, states, territories, companies, and associations have used our recommendations to make progress on issues such as: airport design, air traffic control procedures, maritime vessel traffic systems, rail car design, training and equipment for operators in all modes, event data recorders or “black boxes”, fatigue, road design, setting standards for signage, alcohol-impaired driving, and seat belt use, just to name a few.

Most Wanted List

One of our tools is the NTSB’s Most Wanted List.   For over 25 years, the NTSB has chosen ten issues - covering all modes of transportation - that represent safety challenges; challenges which have a strong chance of being advanced if given some good hard pushes.  These 10 areas are:

Impairment, Occupant Protection, Data Recorders, Vehicle Crash Avoidance Systems, Distraction, Medical Fitness for Duty, Fatigue, Loss of Control in General Aviation, Rail Transit Safety, and Safe Transport of Hazardous Materials.

We have brought copies of our Most Wanted List information if you would like to have them.

SEAT BELTS AND DRINKING & DRIVING

As you can see, while we are probably most known by the public for our aviation and rail investigations, we do not forget that we lose the most Americans every year to motor vehicle crashes.  So I cannot ever pass up an opportunity to mention two things that each of you can do personally--one of which even has to do with commerce--to help prevent the more than 30,000 deaths on our roads every year. These are two simple actions, with decades of scientific evidence, that you can do right now to protect yourself and your loved ones.

First, one single most important thing you can do, every time you get into the vehicle, no matter where you are sitting, or how short the trip, is to simply put on your seatbelt. You may ask “Doesn’t everyone use their seatbelt these days?” Unfortunately, no, and more than 30,000 people die on U.S. roads every year.  Using seat belts reduces serious injuries and deaths in crashes by about 50% but 1 in 7 adults do not wear a seat belt on every trip.  We especially tend to forget to wear a seatbelt in the rear seats, which not only puts our own lives in jeopardy, but we become a deadly projectile that can hurt or kill our loved ones who are in the vehicle with us.  So please, we want you to be safe and continue your important work at the FTC.  Please wear your seatbelt in every seating position and for every trip - and make sure everyone else does too, with children in an appropriate child passenger safety system, of course.

Second, did you know that 10,000 Americans die every year because of someone drinking and driving?  I know you know that every state and the District of Columbia has a .08 BAC (blood alcohol concentration) law but did you know some states are considering changing it to a .05 BAC law?  I wanted to let you know that this change is for safety to prevent people from getting into crashes; it is NOT intended to prevent people from drinking alcohol!  Opponents of safety will give all kinds of false information, such as innocent people getting arrested or restaurants losing business, but actually, these types of lower BAC laws prevent people who have been drinking from getting behind the wheel, even those who are well over .05 or even over .08 or .10!  The message used to be “Don’t Drink and Drive” but I think all of us are too sophisticated for that these days.  You can drink or you can drive, just – “Choose One.”  We all have a cell phone so we can call a friend, a ride share, or a taxi – if you have a phone you have a ride.  So please, separate your drinking from your driving.

But back to the NTSB…our agency is made up of about 400 dedicated employees, who have diverse professional backgrounds.  They are police officers, administrative professionals, accountants, doctors, social workers, anthropologists, lawyers, researchers, analysts, meteorologists, metallurgists, engineers of all types, firefighters, just to name a few.  Likewise, their personal backgrounds are just as diverse.  Those differences, both professionally and personally, make our agency strong.  We certainly are not perfect, but by casting a wide net and being inclusive, we are able to have a greater pool of talent to accomplish our mission of investigating accidents to prevent future tragedies.  When you see these photos of the NTSB, and the capable men and women who worked there, it paints quite a rosy picture of our work, of our agency, and of our nation.

But we all know the reality is not quite so rosy.  If you are here today or participating via webcast, I know I am already preaching to the choir. You recognize the importance of diversity and inclusion, and of Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month, and other diversity and inclusion events.  We do not speak about racism enough.  But it is a reality and I am certain that you, or at least colleagues you like and respect, have experienced racism.  I cannot speak for others, but I will tell you that I have often experienced racism myself, as a child growing up in Galveston, Texas, as a young professional, and yes, even now as a Board Member of the National Transportation Safety Board.

Some of it could be taken humorously as simply ignorance, such as when I was working for a large, nationally known association.  Our office was often called by media asking for an interview with me about a safety issue.  Having only seen my photo and name, the news outlets would ask our public relations director, “Do you think we will be able to understand Dr. Dinh-Zarr because of her Asian accent?”  Fortunately, he handled it with humor by saying, "Oh, I think you will be able to understand her, if you can get past her Texas drawl!”  I also have been instructed, on Twitter, to "speak English" after having given an interview in Spanish!  Most recently, just a few months ago, my sister-in-law sent me a news clip where I was being interviewed in the rain after the train derailment near Olympia, Washington.  She sent it as a compliment, not realizing that, in the comments below, someone had written, “Get someone else to represent the NTSB!  She only got that job because she is an Asian woman!”

I give these examples not to put a damper on today, a day when we are celebrating diversity, but to show that even though there will always be some racist people, those of us in the majority who believe in diversity and inclusion must also speak up.  I think it is important, not so much for myself, since I am in a relatively privileged position, but for children and young people who could be deterred by racism.  It is especially important that we stand up and speak out for young people, just starting out, who can be impacted by this type of ugliness and meanness of spirit.  We need to speak out to show that there are people like us, people who do not necessarily look like each other, people who are supportive of others regardless of appearance.

I have to tell you, I was very disturbed by a story I read in the paper and heard on the radio last week.  It was the story of the three young women from Banneker High School here in Washington, DC, who were finalists in a NASA young scientist competition to develop practical uses on Earth for technologies that NASA had created for their space exploration efforts.  After seeing water fountains in their school closed due to potential lead contamination, these smart young scientists designed a tool to make lead-contaminated water safe to drink using a NASA purification system.  That is the inspiring part of the story.  The sad part is when NASA opened up the competition to public voting and racists began flooding social media with cruel comments urging others to vote against these young women because they were African American.  NASA did the right thing and closed down the public voting, and the young women handled the situation very maturely, simply saying that they were happy to have made the finals and they wanted people to see that people who look like them could be scientists, too.  Now these three young women are clearly resilient, but what if they were not?  What a tragedy if this kind of talent were suppressed because of unchecked racism.  What about all the racist and derogatory remarks that are made quietly, out of the public eye, the racist remarks that do not appear in the Washington Post or on NPR?  What if racist remarks deterred a smart young kid from becoming a teacher, scientist, engineer, or economist?  The NTSB and FTC would be poorer for the loss of such talent.  And, we may never know it.  So racism is a tragedy for the young people themselves, but it  also is a tragedy for our nation and our world to lose this type of potential, this type of talent and intelligence.  We have to be vigilant and never, ever accept racism in any form.

When people ask me about how I ended up at the NTSB and about my family, I know some expect a story of how we pulled ourselves up by our bootstraps and how we became an Asian American immigrant success story.  But you are not going to get a bootstrap story today.  Yes, my family was able to succeed but that is because we were given government assistance through food stamps and free school lunches and college scholarships.   We succeeded because teachers, neighbors, and others helped us.  My three older brothers and I did not do it alone - the social safety net and our community invested in us.  Sure, we were good in school, but how well would we have done if we had come to school hungry every day?  Despite looking the way we look, despite prejudice, despite institutionalized racism, my brothers and I are examples of how people of all types were helped and ultimately, can contribute to this nation if given a chance. Well, you know what happened to me. But what happened to my brothers?  Well, they all became doctors - surgeons in fact.  We were able to accomplish what we did because there were people who looked beyond our differences in appearance and the accents some of us had and our difficult to pronounce names.  Our community and our country invested in us.  A pretty good investment, I think!  That is why we are grateful to this country and perhaps why we have all chosen careers to serve others.

So what is the answer to racism and intolerance?  How can we be a society with more people like the ones who helped my family?  Well, I certainly do not have the answers to those questions, and it would be difficult to solve in the short time we have together.  But what I will say is we each can and must fight for inclusion and diversity and part of that is being willing to talk about it.  We can face racism and intolerance head-on rather than leaving it in the shadows as just an ugly part of history. We need to confront our own conscious and unconscious biases.  We need to recognize what we have done right and what we have done wrong, as individuals and as a nation.

I am proud to serve at the NTSB and I am an unapologetic patriot.  I believe in giving back to the nation that gave my family so much when we arrived as impoverished immigrants who spoke no English many years ago.  But although I love this country, I do not think it is perfect.  No country is perfect, and we can always improve.  We have to face our past mistakes as a nation, in order to move forward as an even better one.  This is a nation where we can speak out, so it is a nation where we must speak out.

I know I have spoken about some dark things, but that does not mean I do not have hope.  I am an optimist.  I am an optimist because I see all of you here. I know it is very cliché, but I am an optimist because of what I hear from kids.  Children are naturally tolerant and inclusive. I know you have seen it yourself.  My own son, when he was about five years old, had a project to learn about comparing and contrasting.  They chose partners and compared their appearances.  My kid picked his best friend in kindergarten (whom I will call Sam) and this is what he wrote: “We are the same because we are the same size and have big smiles.  We are different because Sam has curly hair and I have straight hair and mine is longer.”  That was it.  That was all he wrote.  I should tell you: Sam is African-American and my kid is half Asian.  When my son later asked me, perhaps because he got comments about the project, "Mama what color am I and what color is Sam?”  I was stalling for a good answer about race and color, so I replied with a question back, "Well, what color do you think you are and what color do you think he is?”  He thought for a bit and said, “I think everyone is the same, we’re all just some kind of beige."  I'm still not sure I could give a better answer than that.

Because of NTSB’s detailed investigations, it may seem that our work is largely technical and mechanical, but like you, my 400 colleagues at the NTSB and I never forget that the true purpose of our work is to serve people.  In order to serve people in the best way that we can, we also need to confront racism and talk openly about diversity and inclusion.  In this way, those of us who have experienced racism can help others understand what it feels like.  We should not be afraid of saying the word “racism” just as we should not be afraid of acknowledging racism in our history and in our current lives.  I talked earlier about facing our past mistakes while still having a great love of our nation.  Thomas Jefferson exemplifies a life of greatness that was still filled with terrible mistakes, the worst being defending slavery and owning slaves.  Although he made many mistakes, and we need to acknowledge them, there are still things we can learn something from Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson’s thoughts about good government are certainly something we can aspire to and perhaps something he himself wished he had accomplished better in his personal life. Jefferson said:

"The care of human life and happiness…is the first and only legitimate object of good government." 

I agree.  Protecting human life and happiness - that is what we do at both the FTC and the NTSB.

When I have time, I love to take my lunch and eat outside at the Enid Haupt Garden in front of the Smithsonian Castle.  Perhaps some of you walk there when you have time, too.  I see federal employees of every gender, race, and age talking and having lunch together under the trees.  I sometimes catch a snippet of conversation where one is telling another about their kids or grandkids or a vacation.  I love that these people walking together do not look anything alike and may not come from the same background, but a mutual interest in a field, whether that is transportation or trade or health or education, has brought them together.  It has made them colleagues, and, in some cases, it has made them friends.  It has made them feel a bond with each other.  When I see that, I feel a lot of hope.

Maya Angelou famously said, “I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

Thank you for your work every day to protect all of us as consumers, thank you for initiating conversations to help people feel that diversity and tolerance are important to our work and our nation, and thank you for inviting me to speak today.