The Asian Pacific Fund (APF) held a virtual annual API Summit to highlight how the API (Asian Pacific Islander) community was responding to the devastating impact of the pandemic. Frontline organizations shared stories on the rise in xenophobia, access to healthcare, and recovery and rebuilding efforts.
NBC’s Raj Mathai moderated the conference which was sponsored by Comcast/NBC Bay Area.
The API community has been hit hard, said Mathai, kicking off the summit with a reminder that the pandemic affected physical and mental health, and also cost us jobs, while the harassment of Asian Americans has grown exponentially. Yet the most important response, he urged, was to remember the need to control the narrative of our story.
APF President Audrey Yamamoto was excited to report that the COVID response fund had collected over $500k in support of many API non-profits that have made “significant pivots to be able to meet the needs of our clients.” These organizations have countered the impact of COVID-19 on the community by creating food delivery programs, new food pantries, and building new websites to collect data and improve service, while reimagining their services for remote delivery.
Yamamoto also reported that the historic “Give in May Campaign” fundraiser which honors API Heritage month, raised over 165k to distribute over 92 organizations across the country.
She cautioned participants about the unprecedented dangers they face as a community. The “unemployment rate for Asians is rising six fold – a faster rate than any other ethnic group”. In California the API death rate is also significantly higher than the general population, and harassment and racial discrimination is causing an added threat to mental health. But Yamamoto remained hopeful, adding “we will find ways to step up and come together just as we are today to make sure that our most vulnerable get the support they need to be able to survive and thrive.”
Keynote speaker Maulik Pancholy an Asian American actor, author and LGBTQ activist, described his experience growing up brown and bullied. “It was not exactly the easiest thing for me to be brown where I was growing up. If it was challenging being brown, you can also imagine how hard it was for me to realize that I was also gay.”
Pancholy is best known for playing Jonathan on 30 Rock & Baljeet on Phineas & Ferb and recently published an award winning book The Best At It.
He shared his gratitude for family role models who engaged in service and philanthropy and taught him to become a louder advocate for his community. Today he lends his name to organizations and nonprofits that address issues about Asian American identity and being LGBTQ.
In 2014, Pancholy was appointed by President Obama to the President’s Advisory Commission to examine the wide prevalence of bullying and hate towards AAPI kids. This led to the creation of the first ever AAPI (Asian American Pacific Islander) Anti-Bullying task force in the White House.
Pancholy was also instrumental in creating the Act To Change initiative to end bullying for all youth including AAPI, Sikh, Muslim, LGBTQIA+ and immigrant youth. It’s now a grass-roots non-profit that documents stories and provides support via social media and has recently launched a series of webinars called “Covid Convos”.Pancholy hoped that the healing power of sharing painful stories and celebratory power of sharing successes would empower young people “to tell the authentic story of who they are.”
A panel representing Bay Area grassroots nonprofits discussed what Sherry Hirota – (CEO of Asian Health Services) called a perfect storm of immigrant bashing(Public Charge), COVID-19 and Anti-Asian attacks.
Hirota reported that after the lockdown, AHS health clinics pivoted to telemedicine by purchasing laptops, mobile phones and data coverage. Their rapid response and radical transformation helped clinics return to 80% of normal visit volumes. Going forward, their solutions include telehealth, remote monitoring equipment and televised education and outreach.
According to Hirota, the AAPI community has a higher fatality rate than the average because they lack access to diagnostic tests and/or are more likely to die if infected. She believes there is a need for culturally appropriate and linguistically accessible public health testing and tracing, adding that, “We will not be victims, we need our own narrative.”
Since the outbreak, Chinese for Affirmative Action (CAA) has received over 1800 reports of hate directed at Asians (40% from CA with 40% – 19% from the Bay Area), says CAA Co-Executive Director Cynthia Choi. “We need to build solidarity within our community and across our communities to fight racism and structural inequalities.”
Choi plans to fight racial discrimination and harassment with in languages resources, countering misinformation and propaganda that are primary drivers of hate, holding the government accountable for enforcing civil rights policies and challenging any policies that harm API communities.
She believes that this is the time “to speak up, organize and prepare for the onslaught of Anti-Asian violence,” and to stand in solidarity with the black community, the LatinX, and Native American community, essential frontline workers, and people dying in prisons and detention. “When we begin to do this, we will see real change and begin to heal our country,” said Choi.
Sarita Kohli, the President & CEO of Asian Americans for Community Involvement (AACI), highlighted an underreported aspect of this pandemic – the increase in domestic violence for women sheltering in place with their abuser. Kohli reported an increasing need for monetary support and use of SafeChat by clients. AACI has expanded staffing for this program.
The summit also featured a fireside chat with Debbie Chang President & CEO of Blue Shield of California Foundation, who drew attention to the many issues being amplified by this pandemic. – inequities in how communities experience health, the vicious cycle of domestic violence, and the connections between economic inequality and poor health.
“The pandemic is making visible tangible forces that have been at work in our communities and systems for generations,” said Chang.
The Blue Shield California Foundation is working on policy changes like paid leave for domestic workers and essential workers, and increasing outreach to immigrant communities.
Chang is hopeful that solutions will be found in innovations sparked by this crisis, for example, SafeChat, “We need to keep looking for opportunities like that,” she added.
David Chiu, California State Assembly Member (AD17) and California API Legislative Caucus Chair, concluded the summit with a caveat.
“There is a lot to celebrate in the API community in the national and state political arena,” he said, but “2020 has shown us that we are still foreigners. We are still viewed as the others.”
However, the API Caucus is working with the Newsom administration to publicize resources for those experiencing discrimination. They advocated for the first immigrant relief fund for Californians who cannot get unemployment assistance because of their immigration status.
Asian American legislators also are pushing for more funding to support efforts like Stop AAPI Hate, research the disparate impact of Covid-19, advocate for a racial bias taskforce, and bring together law enforcement, civil rights communities, and non-profits to coordinate efforts to address discrimination.
“This moment has to be a wakeup call for our community. Corona virus has laid bare the challenges we have before us,” said Chiu.
He believes that the biggest challenge we face as a community “is how fractured we are.” But to build power as a community, Chiu believes, “We need to bring our voices together to speak as one.”
“I look forward to see us all rise together.”
Anjana Nagarajan-Butaney is a Bay Area resident with experience in educational non-profits, community building, networking and content development and was Community Director for an online platform. She is interested in how to strengthen communities by building connections to politics, science & technology, gender equality and public education.
Edited by Meera Kymal, contributing editor at India Currents