This episode of Solidarity Is This is dedicated to Allison Brown – a visionary and bridge builder, and now, an ancestor guiding the path towards justice and liberation. Allison’s writing can be found here.
Centering and Uplifting Asian American Communities
Bo Thao-Urabe (the executive and network director of the Coalition of Asian American Leaders) joins Deepa Iyer to share how Asian American communities are supporting each other and building their solidarity muscle in Minnesota, one year after the murder of George Floyd.
LEARN MORE ABOUT the Coalition of Asian American Leaders
Coalition of Asian American Leaders (CAAL) is a social justice network of leaders with a mission to harness their collective power to improve the lives of community by connecting, learning, and acting together.
What does it mean for us to have complex unity within the community? A lot of our work here is really about centering on that experience, but also doing work that has great ambition in shared liberation.
Deepa Iyer: Hello, everyone. Welcome to the May 2021 episode of Solidarity Is This. I’m your host, Deepa Iyer. I’m so grateful to everyone who’s been subscribing and listening to the podcast. As you may know, I took a year’s hiatus from it because of the pandemic but it’s good to be back and to be in conversation with visionaries, weavers, and frontline responders who practice meaningful solidarity. This season of Solidarity Is This is dedicated to my friend, Allison Brown whose commitment to education justice and whose ability to create community remain a legacy for so many of us to follow.
This month on Solidarity Is This, I’m in conversation with Bo Thao-Urabe, the executive and network director of the Coalition of Asian American Leaders in Minnesota. Bo is a Hmong American woman with deep roots in social change. She has led local and national nonprofits and catalyzed philanthropic efforts that support Asian-American and Pacific Islander organizations. She also founded RedGreen Rivers, a company that promotes the livelihood of Southeast Asian female artisans.
Bo and I taped this podcast as the trial of Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd was unfolding. In our conversation, we talk about how Asian Americans in Minnesota responded last May and what’s been happening since to strengthen commonalities and connections between Black and Asian communities. We also consider the effects of growing anti-Asian hate that’s been targeting Asian-Americans and that’s ranged from verbal harassment and refusals of service at restaurants to mass violence including the shootings in Atlanta where Asian-American women were targeted and in Indianapolis where Sikh American workers were targeted. We acknowledged the deep trauma experienced by Asian-Americans in this time and the complex nature of identifying solutions that don’t further harm Black and Brown communities. Finally, Bo and I discussed the heavy burdens that are born by women of color leading organizations in this moment and the importance of cultivating social change ecosystems that include roles for elders to provide their wisdom and guidance.
After listening to the podcast, I invite you to engage with a new project called Solidarity Stories. It’s the result of a collaboration with members of the national table on Asian-American leaders on COVID-19 racism, including Becky Belcore of NAKASEC, Greg Cendana of the People’s Collective for Justice and Liberation and Kitty Hu, Shelby House, and me from the Building Movement Project. Solidarity Stories provides a toolkit with video clips and case studies featuring Asian-American and Pacific Islander community leaders who honestly and candidly share their own experiences and lessons with solidarity practice. You can learn more at www.solidaritystories.org. Now onto the podcast with Bo Thao-Urabe. Welcome to the podcast, Bo.
Bo Thao-Urabe: Thanks for having me.
Deepa Iyer: You and I have known each other for some time, Bo, and we have encountered each other in so many different spaces and work together. I wanted to know if you could share how you became involved in Asian-American community building work.
Bo Thao-Urabe: I think my journey is a lot like a lot of people’s and that it really comes from a lived experience. I came to this country as a refugee child with my family and so by the time I was in second grade, I already spoke more English than my parents and they took me to every appointment that they had which meant that I was exposed to a lot from their employers to the welfare office, to all kinds of spaces. And I think in that journey at a certain age, I started to recognize that these systems were not set up for people like me and like my parents and like my community.
And so when I was young, I used to be angry about that. But as I started to learn and come into contact with the world in bigger ways, I started to realize, well, what can I do about it, right? What is my purpose? But I think as I started to do work that was building across, I started to realize that I could have a different vision of the world and that I could participate. And rather than responding to just the systems as they were, how did I want to be building the world that I want? So that’s how I got into the work.
Deepa Iyer:Yeah. It’s extremely personal. So when you think about that work of community building reaching across, rebuilding systems, can you share how the Coalition of Asian-American leaders has been doing that in Minnesota? And what are some of the ways in which you all have been responding as well as building?
Bo Thao-Urabe: I think in Minnesota like almost every place where Asian-Americans are, there’s a lack of actually recognition of the diversity within the community. So overall, there’s an assumed universal success. I would say our work was really to think about, well, what does that mean for us to have complex unity within the community? So a lot of our work here is really about centering on that experience, but also doing our work that has great ambition in shared liberation. And so we do a lot of work in building solidarity across whether it’s issue-based or identity-based, communities and groups in order to change systems that might include things like policy, but it is also including things like how we do leadership building, for example, or how we think about investments.
Deepa Iyer: I also want to lift up a phrase that you said but I think is really apt which is complex unity. I think that’s a really brilliant phrase to describe the Asian-American and Pacific Islander communities because there is so much diversity and it is very, like you said, complex and nuanced. I want to talk more about the solidarity aspects, and I remember last summer when George Floyd was murdered and you all released a statement that was very clear, as you said, unapologetically clear, about shared liberation and I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about why that statement was so important to put out.
Bo Thao-Urabe: Yeah. I think we want it to be really clear about where we stood in moments of tragedy because I think it’s in those moments where we are often used against each other, where we are told that our sufferings are so different and that we can’t be in support of each other because the pain that our community feels is more than the pain of another community, and we want it to be clear and say, that’s not true. And we can’t take away each other’s struggles but we can definitely stand in solidarity, and with clarity that anti-Blackness and anti-Asian violence are tied in the same system of racism, colonialism, patriarchy, all of those things, right? So pre the killing of George Floyd, there had been an incident here where an agent, elderly woman was jump kicked in the face and it was really difficult to watch, right? Just like all the violence that we’re seeing now.
So then there was a lot of anti-Blackness and things like that that were going on and we said, first, we should acknowledge that lateral oppression and violence happens because all of us were not taught about each other. We were taught by systems that raised us, right? And so we have no deep relationships. We happen to live in proximity to each other, in poor neighborhoods, for example, but it’s poverty, the divestments that have been practiced for centuries in these neighborhoods that caused our communities to feel they have to fight for the scraps, right? And when you’re just trying to survive, you forget that what you’re fighting is for your future. You end up fighting over the bowl of rice that is set in front of you because you are so hungry.
So when the killing of George Floyd happened, and then we also saw an Asian officer and a Hmong American officer at the site, seeing how he was protecting that system that takes Black lives, we were not trying to protect him because he looked like us. We were appalled that yet again, another Black life could be taken by police.
Deepa Iyer: And I thought that that statement was really powerful because it was very clear about the shared liberation. And how has that work continued over the past year?
Bo Thao-Urabe: I will be honest and say the muscles for solidarity here are pretty fragile, right, and weak and that is because communities have been kept in this perpetual cycle of scraping from the bottom. And so oftentimes they have seen each other as the enemy. And so I think since last year, I feel there’ve been more movement and conversations to really focus on our own communities which means what are the things we have to do in our own community in order to be in solidarity with Black leaders and Black communities. And at the same time, how do we use our time, energy and resources to enable what Black leaders are demanding because that kind of reimagination and reshaping of systems is beneficial for us too. So I think that there’s been a lot of internal education to say or more political consciousness building.
Deepa Iyer: I appreciate that honesty, Bo, because I don’t think that solidarity practice is automatic. Can you share a little bit about what our communities need right now in order to feel safe, in order to feel seen?
Bo Thao-Urabe: Well, I think, one, they still need validation, that what they are saying is true and whether it is understood or accepted or any of that feels really less important than that. People let them tell their stories that they hear what’s happening. People feel if they tell what’s happened to them, it won’t be believed, right? So they almost question, well, who cares, right? Who cares about this that this is happening to me? And there’s also a shame about it because Asian-Americans are… Certainly me, my mom, when I was bullied in school by people who are calling me chink, who were calling me, asking if our family ate dogs and push me in the hallways. Well, she said, “Just keep your head down, walk on the other side, do your work. You’re going to be fine,” and actually we’re not fine.
The second thing is they want somebody to acknowledge that that’s wrong, right? And to me, I am so sad when I talk to community members because when something happens to them, they don’t believe their colleagues and their friends even will come to them and say, “Do you need help?” or “That was wrong.” And then that means that they certainly don’t believe that systems are going to provide things like victim services are going to do anything about protecting them.
Deepa Iyer: So we just talked about what communities need. What about local organizations? What do they need? Because I keep thinking about the groups in Atlanta, for example, who were responding to the mass violence there. What are the needs that we should pay attention to when it comes to organizations that are on the front lines of anti-Asian hate?
Bo Thao-Urabe: Well, I think organizations need support, right? And acknowledgement that they play an important role. Even as we have created the discrimination helpline here, it’s not where people are calling first. They’re calling us first, right? Only that the data that we have are not seen as valid, it’s considered anecdotal, not worthy of being used to make policy and investment decisions on. And so to me, that is a huge hurdle in terms of how we validate information that comes from the community in order to make systemic policy and investment decisions that will result in creating more safety for communities.
The other role is to actually invest in community groups, to provide victim services and support. I can’t tell you about the mental health issues that people are carrying around. I mean, people that felt safe in their neighborhood now feel like, wow, I used to feel like I could just go for a walk and now I feel I have to carry a mace where I have to go with somebody.
Deepa Iyer: A group of people.
Bo Thao-Urabe: And then I would say the third thing that we really believe in is that we can’t police racism away, and that means that it is going to be reliant on communities to keep each other safe and we need investments in our solidarity work. That solidarity is not just a word that we use and then we hope that communities can do with each other. It is worthy of investments in itself.
Deepa Iyer: Obviously, this is all happening on top of a pandemic. So can you share a little bit about what it’s like to be, as you said, on the front lines of anti-Asian hate, working on solidarity, doing advocacy and at the same time being a woman who’s a leader, who’s a working mother?
Bo Thao-Urabe: It just has exacerbated everything that women were already trying to balance in their lives, right? So we often talk about the second and third shifts of unpaid labor that women carry, and in this time, it’s magnified by a hundred. And so as a woman, I think about how women often are the caretakers of their families and the communities, and we saw women doing everything. They had to be the ones to say things weren’t working and then at the same time, I definitely feel that way that I ended up having to take care of my staff, having to take care of my community, having to take care of my organization. All of a sudden I was getting requests left and right-
Deepa Iyer: And your daughter, right?
Bo Thao-Urabe: Yeah. And my daughter. To attend every table because all of a sudden the people who had decision-making power realize that, oh, we actually don’t know anything about this community so let’s now create a seat at the table. I was expected to be everywhere, right? And so you had to figure out, okay, what do we do? How important is it that I attend this? And could we really attend things that we were not attending before? And what kind of consequences does that have for a community? So I definitely stretched myself really, really thin and I felt it, and I’m still paying for it.
Deepa Iyer: I hear you. I do. Also having a child at home and working and at the Building Movement Project we did a report on how people of color led organizations, are responding to the pandemic and systemic racism. And so much of what you said shows up in that report, Bo, around the longstanding needs of communities of color. It’s not going to transform immediately. It’s going to be much longer for limited English proficient folks, working class communities, communities of color. But then we also had this finding from women executive directors, the pandemic and the current climate was taking a significant toll on them and they felt that they were burned out, traumatized, just unable to do everything that was needed to keep the organization afloat.
Bo Thao-Urabe: As I think about the future of the work and what else we can be doing, I really do think that what we show in our work and what we know to be true is that women take care of communities. They take care of their families whether that be their family or that be their organizational family or community families, that it’s really important to think about, how can we do things differently in terms of supporting communal caretaking? There’s no acknowledgement for that, right? So people will tell me constantly, “Just take a day off,” and I’m, “What are you talking about?” Right? I will just get more worried about the people that I care about. And so there was no acknowledgement that there is a different way to do this, right? That communal caretaking is actually a womanist kind of leadership that needs to be centered and needs to be supported and things like that.
I think the other thing is that we all need long sabbaticals after this, but part of it is, it’s not that I want to leave but I can understand why there are so much transition because you can’t sustain this. So I expect that there’s a rush of transitions in leadership because people just have to say, “You know what? I can’t do this,” and instead of trying to say, “We want to support people having rested,” I don’t think we get enough of that. And then I would just also say that I’ve been thinking a lot about how I would want my transition to happen.
Actually, funders ask me all the time, right? What is your leadership transition plan and have you thought about it? And they want to give me these frameworks for how to transition and I go, I was really fortunate that I grew up in a community where I was surrounded by elders all the time. In this country, we think about aging as getting old but we don’t think about eldership and we don’t think about how do we actually create a more sustainable way for transitions that embrace eldership because our movements need it.
Deepa Iyer: We need people playing that role of being guides and, like you say, documenting, remembering information, passing it on and sharing their guidance and wisdom. That’s great. There needs to be space for all of us to grow and learn together. Bo, this has been a fantastic conversation where we talked about almost everything.
Bo Thao-Urabe: Everything.
Deepa Iyer: Right?
Bo Thao-Urabe: Yes.
Deepa Iyer: So, thank you for your graciousness in terms of all the time that you spent with me and really appreciate you. Take care of your heart.
Bo Thao-Urabe: Thank you. I appreciate that.
Deepa Iyer: Thank you everyone for listening. As you can tell, we covered a lot of ground in that conversation and if you’re looking to reflect a little bit more, I wanted to offer some prompts.
First, if you’re Asian-American, please know that we see you. How are you taking care of yourself as you absorb the individual and collective trauma that we are all bearing witness to in our communities right now? And if you’re not Asian-American, how can you play a role to be a co-conspirator to ensure that Asian-Americans can live with safety and dignity? Next, how can we hold two truths simultaneously? Many Asian-American organizers like Bo are reminding us that we must not resort to solutions that increase law enforcement in the wake of anti-Asian violence. How do we acknowledge the realities facing our communities while also acknowledging that the solutions we might want are not immediately available to us? And finally, what can we learn from the experiments in solidarity practice?
I invite you to check out solidaritystories.org to learn about solidarity at Mauna Kea and Fort Sill, from the LA uprisings to post 9/11 America. The Solidarity Stories, as I’ve been able to work on them, have given me so much comfort and inspiration during this challenging year, and I hope that you’ll take comfort from them too. With that, I want to thank you for being part of the Solidarity Is This community. Till next time. Be well and be kind to yourself and to your ecosystem. Thank you for listening.
Listen for the following themes:
- What are the roots of anti-Asian racism that we are bearing witness to now? Read Mae Ngae’s Racism Has Always Been Part of the Asian Experience in The Atlantic here.
- Bo mentions that many Asian American community members feel as if their neighbors and friends would not come to aid them if they were hurt. How can we play a role to be a co-conspirator with communities targeted by racism, ensuring all people can live with safety and dignity?
Check out CAAL’s list of steps you can take to combat anti-Asian racism: https://caalmn.org/asians-mns-alliance-4-justice/take-action-against-anti-asian-racism/
Attend a bystander intervention training: https://www.advancingjustice-chicago.org/what-we-do/bystander-intervention-trainings/
- What does it mean to have ‘complex unity’ in the Asian American and Pacific Islander communities which contain many diverse histories and experiences? How can we organize around commonalities without erasing or flattening the diversity among our communities and their lived experiences?
- Bo says that “we can’t police away racism –and that means that it is going to be reliant on communities to keep each other safe.” How do we protect our communities without resorting to solutions that increase the presence and power of law enforcement or the carceral state?
Read abolitionist Mariame Kaba’s essay “Yes, We Literally Mean Abolish the Police” and her book We Do This Till We Free Us, available at Haymarket Books.
- Bo explains that solidarity is a muscle that needs to be strengthened through practice. How are Asian and Black communities building together?
Listen to the People’s Collective for Justice and Liberation’s session with the Movement for Black Lives here.
- As we attempt to create sustainable movements, how can we recognize the center the wisdom and the experiences of elders and women? How can we tangibly support and care for one another to heal trauma and burnout?
Read BMP’s report, On The Frontlines about how people-of-color led organizations are navigating the pandemic and responding to the calls for racial justice and solidarity.
- What can we learn from histories and experiments in solidarity practice?
Check out BMP/SolidarityIs’ new collaboration with the Solidarity Working Group of the National Asian American Leaders Table (including Can’t Stop Won’t Stop Consulting, NAKASEC, and Allie Yee) called Solidarity Stories. At www.solidaritystories.org, you’ll find a series of solidarity case studies, short video clips, and a toolkit. Solidarity Stories take us from the Filipino farmworker struggle to the LA Uprising to post 9/11 America to Mauna Kea. They show us the links between the incarceration of Japanese Americans and the detention of immigrants today, between the migration experiences of Indo-Caribbeans and the shared struggle with Black communities now. They call us into action for co-liberation with Black communities. They reveal the challenges of solidarity practice. They inspire us to find the connections and commonalities, to deepen our capacity, and to remember that #WeChooseSolidarity every single time.