Not Your Token Asian

Meet The Organizers Who Serve (& Have Been Serving) Asian American Communities

These activists are doing the essential on-the-ground work in Asian American communities.

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After a gunman killed eight people, including six Asian American women, at three Atlanta massage parlors in March — on the heels of a year that has already seen increased hate crimes toward AAPI people — organizations such as Red Canary Song, which supports Asian migrant massage workers and sex workers, saw an influx of donations and attention.
But long before this highly publicized mass shooting, Asian American activists have been doing on-the-ground work on issues that their communities face. Whether it’s destigmatizing massage work and sex work by unwinding dangerous narratives, helping laborers such as nail technicians get a fair wage and safer working conditions, fighting food insecurity by opening community fridges, or challenging the stereotypes and stigmas that Asian Americans have faced since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, these organizers are committed to serving vulnerable people in ways that actually help and don’t compromise the safety and wellbeing of non-Asian minority groups. While politicians have responded to the increase in violence against Asian Americans with bills that prioritize increased policing, which many community members say are counterproductive, Asian American organizers are engaging in mutual aid, advocacy, donating money and supplies, and connecting workers with the resources they need. Ahead, we spoke with several people who are doing the hard work of attending to Asian Americans: what they do, how their activism connects to other parts of themselves, and what helps them stay grounded amid traumatizing news reports.
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Photographed by Jingyu Lin

Senti Sojwal, co-founder at Asian American Feminist Collective, reproductive justice advocate, writer

How does your work with the Asian American Feminist Collective respond to this moment, when we have seen so much hate and violence against Asian American people?
We always say that we are friends first before anything else that we do together. It's a system of care and support and love that I have really appreciated. 
A lot of our initiatives and the conversations we lead are focused on contextualizing anti-Asian violence within a long history of anti-Asian violence in the United States, and also highlighting the very specific racialized and gendered violence that's faced by Asian women and how that has to do with pervasive stereotypes about us as sexually available to white men. There was so much history and context that provided the backdrop for the Atlanta shooting that has to do with race, gender, colonialism, anti-sex work sentiments, and misogyny. Another thing that we have been trying to do is push back against a narrative coming from the state that the solution to anti-Asian violence is more policing. We are actively trying to highlight community-oriented responses to safety that center the work that has already been done that does not create more violence.
Why do you believe it’s important to help destigmatize sex work?
That the Atlanta killer’s victims were "temptations" that had to be eliminated is a narrative that's intertwined with cultural representations of Asian women as well as dominant ideals of purity. There are narratives from "anti-trafficking groups" that seek to close down places like massage businesses because they claim that sex addiction drives men to buy sex. It's very clear from the conversations we see in mainstream culture that we'd rather eradicate massage businesses than actually regard the workers there as worthy of rights, dignity, and belonging.
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We believe that sex work is work, and sex workers deserve rights and protection under the law especially in eliminating police as a solution to this problem, which is really harmful to our communities who are oftentimes victims of surveillance, violence, and attacks at the hands of police. Asian migrant massage workers are already policed by officers who raid their workplaces or pose undercover as customers in order to arrest them, including sometimes having sex with them under false pretenses.
How do your creative work and advocacy work tie into each other?
So much of my work at AAFC has been about relationship-building in a way that's authentic and not tokenizing. I think all of those things have informed the values that I want to take into every other sphere of my life.
Learn more about and donate to the Asian American Feminist Collective here.


We always say that we are friends first before anything else that we do together.

senti sojwal, co-founder at asian american feminist collective

Tiffany Diane Tso, co-founder at Asian American Feminist Collective, freelance journalist

How does your work with the Asian American Feminist Collective respond to this moment, when we have seen so much hate and violence against Asian American people?
What we have had to do lately is a lot of pretty basic political education. There has been a lot of heightened attention on Asian American issues lately, and a lot of people are coming to us looking for some Asian American history and more context. We've also been responding to the mainstream response, which has been to call for increased policing and hate crime legislation. So we've been providing alternatives to those ‘solutions,’ which we know are not actually solutions, but are just adding guns and violence to our neighborhoods.
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Why do you believe it’s important to help destigmatize sex work?
I think it's always important to work on this issue, and not just now. These businesses had been experiencing violence already [in the form of] state-sanctioned violence under the guise of anti-trafficking. I also think it's important to point out that Asian women, specifically, experience the stigmatization of sex work regardless of whether or not they actually engage in sex work.
How do your creative work and advocacy work tie into each other?
I started out wanting to be a writer, so I went to school for journalism and that was my path. But the root of my desire [to do] journalism has always been to tell the truth and bring about some sort of justice in the world. I have a really tough time sometimes since there's the idea of journalistic objectivity where you're not supposed to be a part of the story or report on things that matter to you. But then, at the same time, I've seen models where it's worked out. I have been finding myself trying to navigate both worlds in my own way, and not necessarily trying to follow a script. But I think that doing this work and meeting different people and making different connections has shown me that it is possible to live outside the bounds.
Learn more about and donate to the Asian American Feminist Collective here.


The root of my desire [to do] journalism has always been to tell the truth and bring about some sort of justice in the world.

tiffany diane tso, CO-FOUNDER AT ASIAN AMERICAN FEMINIST COLLECTIVE
Photographed by Jingyu Lin

Tahia Islam, activist and organizer of Jackson Heights Community Fridge

Can you tell me about your work with Jackson Heights Community Fridge? What was the drive behind the idea for it?
The community fridge is the only one in Jackson Heights, which was an epicenter of the coronavirus crisis. We're a working class and immigrant neighborhood. While a lot of people either fled the city or started working from home, it was my neighbors — my parents — who were still going into work every single day. I was born and raised in the area, and so were a lot of people on the organizing team, or they have recently moved here and have been building a strong community. So I'm just one part of a much larger collective, and while I'm one of the founding organizers, it's the team that puts in all the work.
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Community fridges are one way to tackle food insecurity as a mutual aid project, where it's all about solidarity with one another and not charity. We fill it for each other. We clean it for each other. We shop for each other. As a lot of our folks lost their jobs, food scarcity and inequity [became] extremely rampant in my neighborhood. Our people are struggling and there wasn't comprehensive food justice legislation to support our neighbors, especially our undocumented neighbors. The community response has been extremely positive. We've gotten tons of donations. We changed the fridge to an industrial one, so that it can be more sustainable. We made a sign on it that says ‘free food’ in multiple languages. 
How do you believe your work is responding to this moment?
I think that one way to address hate crimes against Asian Americans is building solidarity between each other. We're all, in many ways, fighting a common enemy of being exploited. It’s important for society to distinguish that Asian Americans are not a monolith and face distinct issues; the model minority myth was a creation and it hurts us and only separates us from our solidarity with others.
For example, Bangladeshis are one of the fastest-growing immigrant and voting blocs in NYC. So are Nepalis and Burmese [people]. But our communities are some of the poorest Asian groups in the U.S. We face the same housing, health, and food crises that a lot of our Black and Latinx neighbors face. How do we build solidarity between these struggles meant to divide us from one another?
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How do you stay grounded and protect your mental health?
I like taking long walks around my neighborhood to see the different street vendors, farmer’s markets, and kids playing. Those things bring me joy. I'm also a big plant person. I think that having living beings in our NYC apartments brings us a little bit closer and grounded to the earth. And I read a lot of political [content], so sometimes reading fiction to break that up is really important. Also, eating with friends. I love to show my friends all the beautiful food in Queens, to walk around with them and eat locally, so that we can support our local businesses.
Learn more about and donate to the Jackson Heights Community Fridge here.

I think that one way to address hate crimes against Asian Americans is building solidarity between each other. We're all, in many ways, fighting a common enemy of being exploited.

tahia islam, organizer of jackson heights community fridge
Photographed by Jingyu Lin

Wu, organizer with Red Canary Song, BDSM professional

How did you become involved with Red Canary Song and the issues that the organization advocates for?
I met a co-founder of Red Canary Song, Kate Zen, at a Decrim New York meeting. I was taken by her immediately. I had never seen another Asian person speak about sex work in the way that she spoke about it. In Texas, where I lived before, I had never met another Asian sex worker; the provider landscape there is incredibly white. So it was phenomenal and eye-opening for me.
They understand what it means to be perceived in this way. They understand the culture that my parents grew up in. They understand that very thin line, that very difficult line, of the culture as a whole not accepting me, but how at the time I can only do what I am doing because I am influenced by the culture.
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How did you become a professional dominatrix?
I was held up at gunpoint with some friends when I was 18. And it wasn't the first time that I have been the victim of violence involving a gun. That was a watershed moment of, ‘Violence can literally happen at any time. I could've died, but I didn't,’ so I've always felt like an incredibly lucky person. So that allowed me to feel that if I'm not going to have control over the violence that is inflicted on me, I might as well find situations in which I can control it.
It's literally such a range. Sometimes I go in and I feel so good. I feel like I could crawl into bed and just dream the happiest dreams, and I could die happy. A lot of the time it is healing and empowering, and a lot of the time it's just a slog, but I feel like I know that it's the job for me because I'm so interested in all of it. Even when it's a slog, it's worth it. Even when it's a nightmare, it's worth it. I'm still interested in getting into the trenches with it. I'm still in love with it after five years.
How do you stay grounded and protect your mental health?
Something that has been really, really useful to me is us mourning with each other. That has been doing wonders for my mental health. Just knowing that there are people organizing, because when the shootings happened I was so in shock. But then we began to plan this vigil, and getting to hear other people find vocabularies for things that I didn't even realize I was dealing with was so cathartic. 
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Learn more about and donate to Red Canary Song here.


We have become people who often hold grief for the community or in reaction to these tragedies that happen with massage workers, because it's just so commonplace that massage workers face so much violence.

yves, organizer with red canary song

Yves, organizer with Red Canary Song, death doula

How do being a death doula and the work you do with Red Canary Song tie into each other?
I’ve thought a lot about what it means for people to die well. And when you're talking about people who do really vulnerable work like sex workers, or if you're a drug user or anybody who's criminalized, people don't often get to plan their death. These are not things that are available to them. I think about my friends who are incarcerated and what is available to them. So I wanted to seek out this training to put knowledge back into the community around death planning, advanced directives, and legacy work. 
What does being part of Red Canary Song mean to you?
We do mutual aid work. We also do outreach work and we support sex workers and massage workers. And we're doing hands-on work and advocacy for things like decriminalization of sex work, which is policy work. We hold our history very close, and we were formed in reaction to the death of Yang Song. We have become people who often hold grief for the community or in reaction to these tragedies that happen with massage workers, because it's just so commonplace that massage workers face so much violence and sometimes that violence results in death. 
As a sex worker and a survivor of violence yourself, why do you believe it's important to help destigmatize sex work?
I’m a survivor of interpersonal and sexual violence and a sex worker — and I often think of these things as partially being connected. Part of the reason that sex workers, specifically trans people and people of color, face violence is because of the stigmatization around the work and around the people who do it. You don't have the option of going to seek help and safety [because] you're doing work that can get you arrested and imprisoned. There are certain times in my life when I was subjected to violence when I was seeing a client. And I couldn't do anything about it, because what was I going to do?
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Learn more about and donate to Red Canary Song here.
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Asian Americans have been uniquely scrutinized in this pandemic year: Our elders are being targeted, our small businesses are closing, and geopolitical games between America and other Asian countries have threatened the safety and wellbeing of the diaspora. These events cast light on a fact about our Asian Americanness that’s rarely reckoned with: Within our overarching identity group are separate, isolated communities that rarely interact. Our fragmentation is our weakness. This year’s Not Your Token Asian interrogates who among us benefit at the expense of others, and how part of demanding justice for ourselves means demanding justice for each other.

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