A Comforting Face
Elaine Tso makes it her business to care for Northeast Ohio’s Asian population
Published in 2022 Ohio Super Lawyers magazine on December 30, 2021
As a child, Elaine Tso often sat in doctors’ waiting rooms while her mother acted as a volunteer interpreter between pregnant Asian women and their obstetricians, who were neither female nor Asian. Tso remembers sometimes seeing the women cry.
“When you grow up,” her mother told her, “you need to become a doctor so there is a comforting face that represents this community.”
Tso may have taken a different career path, but she took her mother’s words to heart.
A law professor suggested she volunteer at Asian Services in Action. ASIA is a nonprofit that provides health and social services in native languages to Northeast Ohio’s Asian American and Pacific Islander community, particularly the newly arrived. More than a decade later, Tso is still with the organization. Her volunteering has spanned everything from boots-on-the-ground work to serving as president of the board of directors. In 2019, she became its CEO.
Right after becoming a licensed attorney in 2006, she started out by sorting donations of clothes, toys, tools, kitchen items and more, “because when people come to this country, typically they don’t have anything.” Then the staff got to know her.
“They said, ‘Oh, you’re an attorney? Maybe you can help us with some different kinds of things,’” says Tso, whose practice areas at her eponymous firm, which she opened in 2017, include estate planning and probate.
She soon found herself teaching newly arrived immigrants about tenants’ rights. Some had come from countries where housing is provided by the government. They had no concept of leases or rent, or of the need to make non-cash payments or ask for written receipts.
“It was extremely eye-opening to me,” Tso says.
At the same time, she could identify. Tso was raised in a bilingual home, but as a child, she was shy. Her teachers assumed she couldn’t speak English and placed her in classes for students who spoke English as a second language.
“It’s a challenge for institutions like schools to know how to tell the difference between students who can speak English and those who need extra support,” Tso says. “There wasn’t the infrastructure to identify them when I was young, and I was lost in that system.” It took awhile for them to figure out that the quiet child didn’t need ESL; she was fluent.
People often make assumptions, based on names or appearance, about how well immigrants can communicate, Tso says. That’s why many immigrants become self-employed and why ASIA supports their community’s small businesses with micro-loans.
One issue is especially personal for Tso. For years, many patients from Cleveland’s Asian community would board buses for an eight-hour, overnight ride to New York City’s Chinatown to see a doctor who spoke their language. ASIA applied for federal grants, solicited private donations and, in 2014, opened the International Community Health Center, Cleveland’s first health clinic for Asian Americans. Soon after, they opened a second location in Akron. Patients are served in English, Korean, Vietnamese, Nepali, Burmese, Karen and multiple dialects of Chinese.
The achievement brought Tso back to her mother’s work and words.
“Even though I did not become a medical doctor,” Tso says, “I’m still involved and serving a community that is sometimes overlooked.”
Asian Services In Action by the Numbers
- 55-plus: Number of languages and dialects spoken at the organization
- 80: Percent of the staff that is bilingual or multilingual
- 23,286: Patient visits to International Community Health Center 2014-2019
- Up to $25,000: Micro-loans for Asian-owned small businesses