In late March 2021, the murders of 6 Asian American women in Atlanta brought new attention to a disturbing and hateful trend of growing violence against members of the Asian American community, a legacy of the anti-Asian sentiment built and nurtured by white supremacist culture in America. As philanthropy – and many other groups and sectors within the US – came together to decry the hatred, many Asian American and Pacific Islander (AA/PI) individuals within the sector were left to grapple with the impact of a moment that resonated both personally and professionally.
Below, four Asian American members of the philanthropic community – Claudia Leung, Jonny Moy, Jennifer Nguyen, and Cristiana Baik – share their perspectives on the violence, immediate philanthropic response, and hopes for the sector’s commitment to AA/PI communities long-term.
This is part one of two reflections from these four leaders within our membership.
The Immediate Aftermath
Claudia: The first afternoon after the Atlanta killings, I drove myself and two friends—both of whom work at Asian American community organizations—to get our first COVID-19 vaccine shot. What should have been a hopeful, maybe even celebratory occasion, was marred by a familiar sense of dread and fear. The vaccine could extend our lives and protect us from transmission, but how were we supposed to protect our communities from the onslaught of racist violence?
Jennifer: Prior to COVID, I often felt that Asian American women endured a lot of harm that we often held in silence. During COVID, I was personally harassed a few times and convinced myself to feel "thankful" for not having those incidents turn physical. I worked to suppress my feelings because I was conditioned to simply accept the circumstances and to think that things were “not that bad”. COVID and Atlanta changed everything for me. My partner, my sister, and I – all Asian American women – have experienced heightened levels of racism since 2020 – on public transit, on the street, in our neighborhoods. As a result of this, I have significantly altered my behavior and physical movement patterns and my sister decided to move away from New York City entirely. Atlanta is also when my fear melded with anger. I’m exceptionally angry that it took the murder of 6 Asian American women to have this national conversation on the way Asian American women are perceived and treated. Oddly enough, the day after the Atlanta murders, a group of white people came up to me at dinner to tell me they were in solidarity. It was awkward, not because I didn't appreciate it, but I realized there was a complete lack of acknowledgement of Asian American women’s experiences until now. I didn’t know how to deal with being seen and heard, which was telling.
Cristiana: It's telling to me that it took extreme acts of violence (the shootings in Atlanta and the highly visible wave of violence against AA/PI communities), for the mainstream public and philanthropy to "pay attention" to the deeply embedded forms of racism that AA/PI communities have faced for generation. AA/PI communities have been challenged by violence, by structural racism, and by exclusionary acts that violate our diverse communities’ civil rights.
Jonny: It’s been exhausting. The current violence against AA/PI people requires processing through layers of history, data, and personal experience. At times, it also feels like we took one step forward but two steps back when it comes to talking to friends and family about racism. Only 5% of violent incidents against AA/PI individuals in 2020 involved Black perpetrators. However, the videos that went the most viral on my social media feeds featured Black perpetrators. This causes fear and panic, and could lead to increased policing, arrests, racial profiling, or harmful public policies. Any gains we made in joining in solidarity for the Black Lives Matter movement feels erased by calls for increased policing. Personally, I’ve been trying to undo any false narratives that may be taking root among AA/PI friends, family, and churches in private conversations. We can make our neighborhoods safer without perpetuating anti-Black sentiment. Violence can be attributed to racism of course, but it could also be attributed to decades of BIPOC communities being stripped of resources, which can lead to individuals acting out of desperation.
Working Through Crisis
Cristiana: Working remotely has certainly made it challenging to discuss these events. Organic conversations that may come up in the office (in-person) don’t happen remotely—so there’s just less opportunities to empathize and delve into genuine conversations about the tensions, grief and anger we all feel. On one hand, I’m extremely lucky that I currently work at an organization that is grounded in racial justice in an authentic, realized way (more than 70% of our staff our people of color, who also live in the communities we work in). On the other hand, I think one of the challenges we have as a “BIPOC” labeled organization is acknowledging that this is also a socially constructed label and acknowledging that we have many blindspots.. Though “BIPOC” is meant to be empowering, unique distinctions and differences between communities can get lost. Different equity approaches are needed for different communities.
This also extends to the “AA/PI” label—it encompasses many different diasporas and geographic communities within the US. Understanding this is such an important aspect of developing a racial justice lens in the work setting. At my former job (primarily a white-led organization, in a largely white-led sector), a statistic was thrown out by an executive team member that related to the poverty rates within the AA/PI communities: she lifted up during an all staff meeting that AA/PI communities are at par with white communities, in terms of wealth-holding. I found this so grossly misleading, but symptomatic of what often happens when AA/PI data is aggregated as a whole. In general, being specific and mindful of the unique, distinct struggles that different communities are challenged with is a critical aspect of shaping and holding up a strong racial justice lens within an organization.
Claudia: Two days after the shootings, I joined a work call. I didn’t realize how tired I was, and how little time I had given myself to really reflect. As we began our check-ins, I suddenly broke down, to my embarrassment, sobbing in front of my colleagues as well as a consultant I’d never met before. Through my hiccups and tears I explained how hard the past few days had been, and how, despite my emotional state, the work we were doing was still so important to me. My colleagues and the gracious consultant—none of whom are Asian—shared their empathy and offered to let me sit the meeting out. My colleagues allowed me to feel very held and seen in the authenticity of my emotions. They checked in with me throughout the day and the following weekend. As folks who speak openly and from the heart about surviving violence, transformative justice, and healing, I knew that I could trust them. They understood that sharing grief or sadness wasn’t “unprofessional” and wasn’t anything to be ashamed about.
Jennifer: After the shootings, I was in a state of mourning that I still lingers. I remember crying before getting on calls to “get it out of my system” – most the time it worked, but occasionally I would begin tearing up, which was followed by complex feelings of wanting to not take up emotional space at work. I had done so much conditioning of hiding my struggles that I couldn’t figure out how to cope. Then, I thought about how complicit I am as a funder. Although I feel personally supported in the field, as an education funder, I struggle with how Asian American and Pacific Islander students "fit into" the educational equity work. Technically, AA/PI students "do well" in aggregate compared to black and brown students in schools. My institution works with well-intentioned community partners and institutions who have inconsistent approaches to Asian American young people – sometimes Asian Americans are considered “students of color” and sometimes they’re completely excluded from the picture of who should be served. Without widely available disaggregated data sources and more nuanced narratives about Asian Americans, I fear exclusion will dominate. In fact, I often exclude Asian Americans in the narrative of the students we serve and I struggle to be more inclusive of the Asian American student experience. This has been a huge challenge for me professionally and personally. In many ways, in that exclusion, I feel like I am excluding and eliminating my own lived experience as a first-gen, working class, Vietnamese American student.
The Sector’s Response
Claudia: In the immediate aftermath of the Atlanta murders, my organizer friends and I found ourselves joining calls to put together vigils and rallies, being hit up to write articles about the rise in violence, being invited to speak on panels, and giving lessons on Asian American history 101. In the midst of this flurry, we shared with each other our feelings of frustration and burnout. Who were these events for? Why were we rushing to respond? Who was being centered in these responses? A few of us took a step back to take stock, not only to process our own grief, but also to re-center on those who are consistently left out of the narrative around anti-Asian violence: sex workers, low-wage workers, trans and queer folks, and femmes—folks who face ongoing violence and marginalization even within Asian communities.
Jonny: Acknowledging racism and homophobia via corporate sounding statements is the bare minimum. The harder part is committing to long-term, intentional support of AAPI communities. The California Endowment recently announced they will distribute $100 million over 10 years to AAPI organizations. I appreciate the leadership displayed here and making this public encourages other funders to follow. Until we have local, state, and federal budgets that provide the stability and safety our communities need, we need philanthropy to double down on funding across BIPOC communities which are often in close proximity. We need more.
See Part 2 of the blog post for more on the sector response and how philanthropy can do now.
Claudia Leung is Grants Manager at Just Beginnings Collaborative, responsible for co-creating a comprehensive grant making program to support and build a survivor-centered, creative, and responsive movement to end child sexual abuse. She has a diverse background in social justice, grant making, communications, government, and arts and culture experience, with previous roles at California Humanities, the San Francisco Arts Commission, the Oakland Museum of California, Center for Asian American Media, the Korematsu Institute, and the Science Museum of Minnesota. She has an emerging printmaking practice and organizes on Ohlone land in Oakland, California with Asians4BlackLives.
Professionally and personally, Jonny Moy is driven by pursuing equity for marginalized people and communities. At Pacific Foundation Services, Jonny oversees grantmaking administration for four client foundations as a Grants Manager. Prior to Pacific Foundation Services, Jonny worked as a fundraiser for a range of social-purpose organizations dedicated to community development and social justice.
Jennifer Nguyen is the Director of Postsecondary Success at the Stupski Foundation, which is a spenddown foundation serving the San Francisco Bay Area and Hawai'i. Prior to Stupski, Jen was the Director of the Student Center for Academic Achievement (SCAA) and California State University, East Bay. Her career has been dedicated to college access and college persistence initiatives. A resident of the Bay Area, Jen is a native Houstonian and writes about it often at jennifervinguyen.com.
Cristiana Baik is the Director of Development and Communications at the East Bay Community Law Center. She has fundraised in the Bay Area for nearly a decade and has also provided key consultation services to a number of different racial justice focused organizations throughout California. In the past year, Cristiana was part of the Advisory Taskforce for the City of Oakland for the Reimagining Public Safety initiative. She is also a nascent letterpress printer and hopes to create a small press that connects writers and artists of diverse diasporas.