AYPAL: Building Asian and Pacific Islander Youth Power

We at Blue Heart will publicly share out exclusive interviews with the leaders of the grassroots organizations our subscribers fund each month. Below is our interview with Joshua and Nikki from AYPAL. As one recent community organizer in San Francisco said to me, “Everyone’s looking to give after the election…if I had money, I would give it to AYPAL”.

On a hot summer day in downtown Oakland, we met up with Joshua Fisher Lee (AYPAL program director) and Nikki Phu (AYPAL youth intern and high school senior) to learn why and how AYPAL does youth-led movement work in the Bay Area and beyond. Political posters, artwork, and timelines covered the walls of their small office; laughter and jokes peppered the air; and a sense of family was clearly present. Despite rising rents and dwindling funding, AYPAL remains a vibrant social and political hub for the Asian and Pacific Islander community. Joshua and Nikki told us about the struggles, what keeps them going, and what they dream of.

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Blue Heart: Nikki, how did you first become involved in AYPAL?

Nikki Phu: My friend brought me to an AYPAL meeting at my school around the time of AYPAL’s annual May Arts Festival. So I jumped into it. I was like “wow this place is so cool” because it was great to meet other people from different schools, all connecting through cultural arts. When I became an intern and started taking AYPAL workshops on power and oppression, capitalism, and ethnic studies, I was like “wow, we are doing some serious stuff”. It really woke me up. I feel like I had all these feelings about my community — I see changes and I notice when things are wrong — but I couldn’t put it into words. AYPAL provided me with a lot of knowledge and power to do that.

One of AYPAL’s principles is youth-adult partnership: instead of adults running this space, they come to us. We do a lot of the planning and they provide us the resources. So, for example, I was teaching about power and oppression — like institutional, internalized, and interpersonal oppressions — and I ran a healing circle. We had them all write down anonymous stories about a time they felt like they were powerless or being oppressed. They said the workshop really helped because there are times when something may happen to you at school or with a boy. They just knew something felt wrong, but they couldn’t really express it. But now they had a chance to be able to tell their stories.

BH: How would you describe AYPAL’s model of leadership development?

Joshua Fisher Lee: The key to our strategy for community transformation is the youth. It’s not just because it’s the right thing to do, because our youth communities are under-resourced or under-represented. But we also feel like youth are the most creative, most courageous, and most hopeful leaders that we have in our communities and that that’s the type of leadership — the leadership that Nikki has — we need to follow.

BH: Can you describe how you build collective leadership at AYPAL?

Nikki: When you go to a workplace with adults, there’s like this type of professionalism where a lot of your personal lives are kept out. And then you know it’s just work. At AYPAL, the youth bring everything into it. There was a specific case recently with our May Arts Festival. For the past 18 years we’ve held our May Arts festival at one place, but last year we wanted to have it at San Antonio park to make a statement about anti-gentrification. Some of our youth weren’t comfortable with the idea of holding it in that space because they have a lot of problems with the area — there had been Asian on Asian violence there.

Joshua: The youth that had the safety concerns pushed us as staff to engage more of the community and make it a safer place. Having it there meant they could heal together and they were able to see it as a place for all of our communities.

BH: When you look around Oakland today, what do you see that other people might not see?

Joshua: My family has been in Chinatown since 1906. Our family has a long history of leadership in this community. Now we are seeing five new projects that will have market rate housing in Chinatown — that’s five or six thousand new people moving into Chinatown that will not be Chinatown residents in the next five or 10 years. That will completely change the last 100 years that my family has been here. These big tech companies are building their offices here and we have lots of folks not from here moving in for jobs. In Oakland, Uber is moving its main headquarters to downtown. We are talking about 2,000 people that are going to work there that will be eating and living around here. It’s the closest and cheapest and most affordable area, arguably because of racism and its historical context. We have to pay attention to that stuff. A lot of the tech companies claim that their services are benefitting people and bringing people closer together. But those jobs aren’t union and workers don’t get benefits. So there are these claims that they are good, but you need to look at the impact. It’s a wild thing.

BH: Can you tell us what that feels like?

Joshua: I can tell you it feels bad; it feels heartbreaking. Chinatown is a space for Asian communities to fight against assimilation and to maintain our cultures. Not just food, but the markets, the way food is sold, the language, the way you cross the street. The way we’ve figured out to live in this country that hasn’t necessarily accepted us is in jeopardy. The place that we have created with the little bit that we’ve been given — with the resiliency we’ve figured out to exist in this society that’s been oppressive to our communities — is being shut out in favor of money. It feels familiar in that way. And then at the end of the day it feels heartbreaking.

Nikki: I hear the language dying and it makes me upset. I have pride for my culture and I really want to hold onto that for when I have kids or when my friends have kids. I want to have a safe space where they can celebrate their culture. The thought of Chinatown not being Chinatown anymore makes me angry.

BH: What are some of the ideas you are putting into action to challenge that change?

Joshua: The developer that is building the Hampton Inn has a few other hotels here in Oakland that are not union and have bad working conditions — we’ve heard this from the workers. We are opposing it because of that and because there is already limited space for youth and seniors, really for everyone. We don’t want a poverty wage hotel and we don’t want a national chain that could possibly lead to increased rents. So with a lot of adult ally support, AYPAL youth trespassed onto the property to hold one of their meetings. What we were doing was technically illegal, but we felt like we have the moral right to use land that is going to be used in a way that will eventually hurt us. That’s our right. They are infringing on our long term rights as people who have been here for generations by increasing the rent. Rent has doubled in Oakland in the past 6 years. This development will obviously contribute to that trend. This is a disaster, basically, for the people that have been in Oakland for a long time and call it home.

Nikki: It felt cool. That was my first experience doing something illegal — well, doing something illegal for the right reasons. I was pumped by it; I was excited. “We’re gonna trespass. We’re gonna make a statement.” The first time it was thrilling. The last time it was sad, because we were going to City Hall to oppose the permitting of the building. We thought it wasn’t going to get built — we had hope on our side, but there was still that uneasiness. And then it was permitted…it sucked. Yea, it sucked.

Joshua: We went in for public comment and we held cultural performances on that land and then in front of City Hall, together with community members and workers, to tell the commission that we didn’t support the building of the hotel. But they passed it. It’s sad because we have something to contribute to their projects. This is something called “resilience-based organizing”. How would you explain resilience-based organizing, Nikki?

Nikki: In traditional organizing, you would go to someone who has power like city officials and wait for them to make the changes that you want to see. But in our experience, a lot of the time there aren’t allies in government for us. So instead of waiting for change to happen we make it happen on our own.

Joshua: So instead of waiting for certain policies and things to change, we use the resilience of our own community to make those changes. Instead of relying on police to provide safety, we find the people who know a lot of other people in the community and ask them to protect us. It’s basically understanding that our community has power. It might look different from signing legislation, but we have power because we live in the communities that we are trying to change.

BH: AYPAL’s model of youth-led organizing seems pretty unique. What do the youth bring to the fight?

Nikki: I think we provide this new way of thinking. I think a lot of government and city officials — they are a lot older and they’re not from Oakland. And because we are young and stuff we are able to tell them straight up “I think this is fucked up. I think this is how it should be. As a youth, this is how we should be using the space.” Youth are a group of people who have been oppressed — people think that because we are young we aren’t powerful, but that’s not true.

Joshua: AYPAL youth are often the only youth at these meetings. It’s not a youth-friendly place — the process can be pretty disempowering. In some ways it’s not even human-friendly, just power-friendly, like traditional power. The hopefulness and creativity of youth brings everyone back to life. I’ve seen adults in that space be pretty shaken up by some of the comments youth have made. Not scared, but emotional because of the truth that’s being spoken. It can also bring out the heart in the adults making the decision — sometimes they don’t follow it, but it does remind them that they have one.

Nikki: I think it’s a really great opportunity, too, because you were saying that it’s not a youth-friendly space. I don’t think we would have realized that we are actually able to go to these city hall meetings and take part in it. The first time I went, I thought “what is going on”. But I knew what I wanted to say and what I needed to say. That is very empowering — to be able to go into a space that you know is not meant for you and show them this community that you have. We are in the back, dancing and stuff, and they are like “what are they doing here”. And then we come up and start talking and they are like “wow, ok”.

BH: So, in your wildest dreams, what does AYPAL look like in 10–15 years?

Nikki: AYPAL has been around for 20 years and we can be here for another 20, but it’s not going to be easy. I hope that every youth that comes into our space feels a little bit more empowered, a little more capable of making a change. I see a lot of youth on social media talking about social justice, but they aren’t going out there to make the difference that they want to see. I hope they can come into a space like AYPAL and teach themselves and heal from a lot of the hurt we’ve experienced. Like what Joshua says: “Youth aren’t the leaders of tomorrow. They are the leaders of today.” I want my generation to get off their butts and their freaking iPhones! I want youth to take their opinions and their passion and do something with their power… And maybe get a new AYPAL office.

Joshua: Yea, that would be good! I’m looking forward to helping AYPAL build towards intergenerational healing. Our focus is youth and will always be youth. But we also want to involve families in this. That’s a big task. Sometimes AYPAL becomes surrogate family. I think that’s good because we want youth to have that space, but at the same time our goal is not to break youth away from their families. We want youth to play a big role in helping families heal. What we learn here is not just about changing Oakland, but about how to navigate and shape your own life to be as big as you dreamed it to be.

BH: What message would you send potential ‘allies’ to your work?

Nikki: Do not make Facebook posts about why you should move to Oakland. All these people be like, “35 reasons why you should move to Oakland. First reason: because rent is so cheap. Second reason: because you can find parking here…” That annoys me so much. You might be just one person moving into a nice building, but recognize that there’s a lot of other people doing the same thing. And instead of just going to that cool, vegan restaurant, come over to that corner spot and eat some chicken feet!

Joshua: A key message is that we love our community and we want to push it forward. In order for allies to contribute they also have to love their community and people. I think sometimes allies love outside of their community more [than their own folks]. If white people want to work on issues around race and racism I think working on it with other white folks is a great way to do that. And also, listening to people of color. I think Blue Heart definitely helps allies listen and hear what’s happening and gives people a direct line that’s not too disruptive to the communities — and that’s key. We need people to know about the issues that we are facing. And we also need people to trust us that we know the best way to figure it out. Then when it comes time for people who love their communities to come together with other people who love their communities, we can do that.