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Speaking up for the AAPI community: What's next for activists

Next up: Getting Asian-American history on school lesson plans.
Asian Activism
"The violence we are seeing is accumulation of years of anti-Asian sentiment and the idea of us being perpetual foreigners. However, people are starting to speak up more," said Michelle Tran, an MD/PhD student who helped launch the AAPI Care Fair in New York City.TODAY illustration / AAPI Care Fair/Courtesy Rise
/ Source: TMRW

During Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, TODAY is sharing the community’s history, pain, joy and what’s next for the AAPI movement. We will be publishing personal essays, stories, videos and specials throughout the entire month of May.

In February, Amanda Nguyen turned on her smartphone camera and spoke from the heart about the increasing reports of violent attacks on Asian Americans and asked an important question: Why isn't anyone listening?

"The mainstream media does not spotlight our stories enough. We matter, and racism is killing us," Nguyen, the founder of civil rights organization Rise, said in the video. "Our community is being attacked, and we are dying to be heard."

Nguyen spoke about a Thai American man who was murdered in San Francisco, a Vietnamese grandmother who was assaulted in San Jose, California, and on the same day, a Filipino-American man who was slashed across the face on a subway in Manhattan. The incidents are all part of a wave of violent incidents sweeping the United States, fueled by racist rhetoric around COVID-19.

By the next day, Nguyen's video had gone viral, racking up millions of views. Nguyen received invitations to speak on cable news channels and, most importantly of all, people were stirred to start taking action against anti-Asian discrimination.

"I asked people to speak us into the consciousness of this nation and call on the media to cover the violence. People responded," Nguyen told TMRW. "It has sparked this conversation around #StopAsianHate."

Three months later, on May 20, President Joe Biden signed the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act, which authorizes the Department of Justice to quickly review and expand data collection resources for tracking COVID-19 related hate crimes.

"I believe with every fiber of my being that there are simple core values and beliefs that should bring us together as Americans. One of them is standing together against hate, against racism — the ugly poison that has long haunted and plagued our nation," Biden said before he signed the bill into law.

While this acknowledgement marks an important moment, creating a conversation around racism is just the start, according to activists. Now Nguyen and other activists are engaging in the next steps to bring visibility to the AAPI community and dismantle generations of systemic racism.

Earlier this month, Rise and the nonprofit RunAAPI launched the AAPI Pledge for corporations to denounce violence and commit to uplifting AAPI voices in their organizations. The pledge has been signed by big names, including the NBA and Uber.

"I just want people to understand their voice really matters. When I turned on my camera, I had no idea it would create the moment we are in right now," Nguyen said. "Our voices matter."

Pastor Han Byung-chul of the Korean Central Presbyterian Church of Atlanta isn't used to talking about activism around current events at church, but after the Atlanta-area spa shootings that left eight people dead, including six people of Asian descent, he said it was time for the community to take action.

"I believe the recent hate crimes are a wake up call for all of us," Han told TMRW.

Han recently formed an anti-AAPI hate group with other religious leaders in the area. He's also taking an active role in listening and talking to his congregation of 350 people, who he said are heartbroken by the violence and actively looking for ways to create positive change.

"I believe the beauty of the United States is diversity and there is something we as Asian Americans can contribute to this country. Some of us used to sit back and stay behind the scenes, focusing on survival, children and finding good jobs, but that is not enough," he said.

"I believe the recent hate crimes are a wake up call for all of us."

Pastor Han Byung-chul

Han said he is encouraging his congregation to "extend their role as active contributors in the community" by exploring opportunities to interact with new people.

"There are many layers of what needs to be done to find common ground," he said. "Politicians need to take responsibility to legislate anti-hate crime bills and increase patrols in Asian American neighborhoods to protect businesses. Educators should learn and teach the history of Asian Americans in this country. It has been minimized or neglected. Also, community leaders need to make some opportunities to get together and interact and find something we can do together."

Nguyen also views education as an important next step, not just for adults, but for children. Rise and launched citizen petitions calling on states to incorporate AAPI history as a part of grade school lesson plans.

"This constant erasure leads to the dehumanization of us as a community and makes it easier for people to perpetuate violence against us," she said.

Kenji Jones, a fashion marketer and Michelle Tran, an MD/PhD student, joined forces last month to launch AAPI Care Fair in New York City. They've since handed out more than 8,000 self-defense devices to the most vulnerable members of the community, however, they acknowledge that's just a "Band-Aid" for the problem.

At the AAPI Care Fair earlier this month, they arranged for a holistic offering of services to help reach the Asian American community in the greater New York City area. While self-defense courses were a part of the fair, they also offered health screenings, vaccine slots, a voter registration drive and mental health screenings to support the community.

"In terms of ways to address this wave of hate, I think it will take many steps," Tran said. "The violence we are seeing is accumulation of years of anti-Asian sentiment and the idea of us being perpetual foreigners. However, people are starting to speak up more."

As more people continue to get vaccinated in the U.S. and the country reopens, Nguyen said she wants people to understand the anti-Asian hate they're now paying attention to "isn't just a moment."

"It’s a long process we are just starting to walk. Being anti-racist is a contact sport. You have to consistently educate yourself," she said. "And If you see a racist thing, say something."