United Asian Services of Wisconsin Names a New Leader
New UASW executive director, Bret
Johnston’s interest in world populations started at a young age. A Louisiana native, Johnston got his first lessons in anthropology from his dad’s “massive
collection of old National Geographic magazines.” When he took his first course in cultural anthropology at City College of New York, is interest grew. From there
Johnston met his wife, a Lao native born in a Thai refugee camp, and went on to study cultural anthropology as a graduate student at UW-Madison. He
developed a strong interest in SE Asian populations, both here and abroad, and focused his studies on Laos and Thailand. After carrying out field research in
both countries and becoming a fluent speaker in Lao and Thai, Johnston moved to Washington D.C. with his wife and young daughter to work as a Research
Training and Evaluation Specialist for Radio Free Asia (RFA), a non-profit that broadcasts news to Asian countries where accurate and timely news is lacking.
“It was very, very politicized,” Johnston said about RFA. “The level of political sensitivity varies hugely from country to country. Where in Cambodia, it is the
number one radio station in the country; in Tibet, China would jam the signal.”
After over a year at RFA, Johnston decided he wanted a job that more directly impacted the people he was working with. This father of two moved back to
Madison with his family and took the job heading up UASW. He has lofty goals for the organization and hopes to transform the nature of services they provide.
“We are trying not to cast ourselves as only a refugee social service agency,” Johnston said. “That’s simply because the number of refugees is going down. We
certainly are still happy to and will support them. For us that will always be our bread and butter.” Yet, according to Johnston, there is much more that can be
“I want to focus our services in three core areas; education, health and cultural maintenance,” Johnston said.
When first founded, UASW (then called the United Refugee Services of Wisconsin) focused its education efforts in very basic areas. They were concerned with
teaching language skills and basic living skills to new refugees. Johnston plans to up the ante. He wants to focus on higher education initiatives for SE Asian
“A lot of refugees, especially males, are not even considering college as an option,” Johnston said. “I want to develop a series of college application
workshops and get folks thinking about college.”
He also wants to encourage parents, many of them first generation citizens, to become stronger advocates for the education of their children. “I want parents
to feel comfortable speaking up for their kids’ education,” he said. “Helping parents feel empowered to be involved in their kids’ education is important.”
Johnston is also on the hunt to “develop some pretty big health initiatives.” “The three biggest health problems in the SE Asian population are hypertension, type
2 diabetes, and gout,” he said. We want to expand our health related programs to address these and other needs.”
Then there is the issue that has long plagued second and third generation populations in the U.S.; a disconnect between their identity as a U.S. citizen and
their cultural identity. “A lot of younger populations face a loss of identity,” Johnston affirmed. “We want to create programs that help younger kids tap into all the
knowledge that the older folks have, while those folks are still here.”
Johnston has laid out some tall orders for himself and the organization he now leads, but he is decidedly committed to forming partnerships and forging
relationships that will build on current services and create new services to address the needs of an ever-changing population.
by Laura Salinger
United Asian Services of Wisconsin Inc. (UASW) is looking for a burst of new energy and new focus, and they
are hoping their new executive director, Bret Johnston, can give it to them. “The board is confident that Mr.
Johnston’s vision, non-profit experience and expertise on our target populations will allow him to do great things for
the organization,” reads an October statement from UASW’s Board of Directors. Johnston took over leadership at
UASW on Oct. 1, 2008 and hopes to maintain existing services, while diversifying UASW’s offerings.
Founded in 1984 by Asian refugees of Lao, Hmong, and Cambodian descent, UASW initially formed to help
with the gamut of resettlement issues facing new refugees, including housing, education, health care,
employment and language. Today, they still provide these services, but as refugee populations dwindle, it has
become crucial for the organization to branch out into other areas of service. As of late, the organization as
struggled to do this. Yet, Johnston is taking over the reins with optimism and youthful energy. He comes well armed
with experience working with SE Asian populations.