The headlines are horrifying:
Just as alarming as the nature of the incidents is their frequency: Since March 19, 2020, Stop AAPI Hate, a nonprofit hate crime tracker, received reports of more than 6,603 incidents against the Asian-American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community. Hate crimes in major cities have increased by 150 percent over the past year.
Around the country activists have risen up to take a stand against racist rhetoric and violence. And one group in Oakland, California, has taken a particularly unique approach to protecting the AAPI community: Compassion in Oakland is an all-volunteer group that offers company or assistance to any Asian-American elders while they are out in public, both through a chaperone service that can be requested by phone, and via weekend patrols.
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The group came to be when Jacob Azevedeo, a 26-year-old Bay Area resident of Hispanic descent, watched media coverage of an 84-year-old grandfather being shoved to his death in Northern California, back in February. Aghast, he put out a call on social media offering to chaperone anyone in Oakland’s Chinatown neighborhood so that they would feel safer. Inspired by Azevedo’s act of compassion, hundreds of others reached out to join him.
With momentum building, Azevedo was joined by four other Bay Area residents—Katrina Ramos, Jessica Owyoung, Derek Ko, and Darren Lee—to start organizing and mobilizing to found Compassion in Oakland.
“It’s really become part of a bigger movement and it’s been so heartwarming having the support from the community, especially during this time,” says Ramos.
On the streets of Oakland
Now the five leaders, alongside about 570 rotating volunteers, spend every weekend on the streets of Oakland’s Chinatown, following the CDC’s Covid safety guidelines while looking out for and approaching any Asian-American elders who may be in need of assistance, whether it’s with crossing the street or picking up groceries or getting to their bus stop.
Since mid-February, the group has responded to just over 100 in-the-moment and pre-scheduled chaperone requests, from residents of all ages. While they await official 501c3 status, they’re currently operating as a nonprofit organization with fiscal sponsorship, which allows them to take donations for costs like personal safety devices for the community, as well as advertisements in local Asian media and translation services—not to mention volunteers’ T-shirts, masks, hand sanitizer, education and training materials, and more.
They’re also working on developing an app that would allow people to request their services and streamline the expansion of their programs to other cities; they’re now in San Gabriel Valley, outside of L.A., and will be launching in San Francisco within the next few weeks.
Co-founder Ramos says that in addition to physically chaperoning community members, the group is spreading the word about their work and the issue of surging AAPI attacks.
“From Friday to Sunday we are out in Chinatown walking around, doing community outreach, reaching out to business owners and community members, really creating that trust and brand awareness in the community so that people feel comfortable calling our phone number and requesting a chaperone to accompany them wherever they need to go,” Ramos says.
“I chaperoned someone in her 20s who called us the day after the Atlanta shooting. I think our presence and our mission statement is so clear that people who are feeling unsafe know they have a place to go,” says CIO volunteer leader Tiff Lin.
The founders recognize that it’s not natural or easy for AAPI elders to rely on the help of strangers; with the increase in hate crimes, Ramos says, Asian elders are understandably hesitant to make themselves vulnerable to someone they don’t know.
“When I think about my own grandmother, she’s not going to stop and ask for help from strangers; she’d be like thank you, I got this, and keep walking,” says Lin. “But over time, what I notice as we go out every weekend is more head nods, more smiles, more I see you, thank you versus who are you?”
The City of Brotherly Love could use some compassion
Asian Americans make up approximately 7 percent of Philadelphia’s total population, and our city saw an appalling 200 percent increase in hate crimes against Asian Americans from 2019 to 2020; this doesn’t factor in the incidents that likely went unreported.
Establishing a Compassion in Oakland-esque service for our Asian-American elders could have a meaningful impact in reducing that number and uniting the city with its Asian-American communities. The volunteer aspect of the service allows anyone to be able to give their support; and those who are chosen would also invariably get to connect more deeply with Asian-American business owners while spreading the word about the service in Philly.
Other groups in Philly are responding to the needs of the Asian-American community in different ways. For example, as The Citizen previously reported, Asian Arts Initiative and Lok House are collaborating on “Picture Pals,” a way to connect seniors with community members through art. There is the work of SEAMAAC, which supports Philly’s diverse array of ethnic groups with education, healthcare, community development, food, and Covid-19 support. There is also the work of groups like Vietlead, which works with youth to address issues the Southeast Asian communities here are facing; CAGP, which works to improve the quality of lives of Cambodian-Americans in Philly through direct services and advocacy; and more.
Beyond the protection and networking, Compassion in Oakland is also working to fuel a mindset shift: Showing Asian-American elders that they aren’t being left to fend for themselves could help break down barriers between minority groups, paving the way for solidarity and unity over division.
“What’s been amazing has been the reception from the Chinatown community,” Ramos says. “People are really thankful that we’re there, people are open to speaking with us and that’s been really great.”
“When I go around seeing merchants and talking to them, they approach us with respect, approach us with gratitude, some even offer free drinks,” says Lin.
Don’t forget the bigger picture
Anti-Asian violence is rooted in America’s history, from the Chinese Exclusion Acts of the 1880s that banned Asian immigrants from coming to the U.S. to the fabrication of the Model Minority Myth as a means to create tension between minority groups and internalize oppression against each other, upholding white supremacy in the process.
And while organizations like Compassion in Oakland do much, perhaps the only way to truly protect not only Asian Americans but also other minority groups in America from violence is to unlearn the narratives passed down to us from past generations. Recognizing how we inflict oppression onto others is step one; becoming more deeply educated is a lifelong step two.
“The reality is that a lot of nonprofits exist because the problems our communities are facing exist,” says Dương Nghệ Lý, co-founder of the grassroots nonprofit Vietlead, which is based in Philadelphia and Camden. Echoing a common refrain among nonprofit leaders, he says, “We have to make it so that we are not needed anymore. If we keep existing, it just means that problems are still there, and things will not change in the long run.”
The work of groups like Compassion in Oakland can’t be the only means of tackling a generational issue.
“It takes a lot to change people’s mentality or understanding of what’s going on, but I think we need to think beyond individual approaches and solutions and look more at how can we push back against structural violence that has been plaguing not just the Asian community but also other communities, [like] Black, Indigenous, and other communities of color.” says Lý.
“It only takes one, two, three people to start a movement. If you see something wrong, do something about it or find support and help them through it,” says Lin. “Say that you’re not alone in this, that we’re not alone in this. The more movements that are based on genuine care and support for the people, the more we can see a brighter future for our planet, to be in the right relationship with community, with the land, and with each other.”
The Citizen is one of 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push towards economic justice. Follow the project on Twitter @BrokeInPhilly.
William Keo is a 17-year-old junior at Academy at Palumbo. He is one of four inaugural fellows of Citizen Teen, a journalism mentorship program funded by the Solutions Journalism Network to amplify the voices of youth from the School District of Philadelphia.Header photo by Kasey Nghia Pham