All of us deserve to walk down the street without looking over our shoulders for fear of being attacked – to go to work, drop off our kids at school, get groceries, and gather with friends without fear of being assaulted or worse.
Earlier this year, after several high-profile incidents in which Bay Area Asian elders were attacked on camera, we called on our communities to step up and support our Chinatown and Eastlake communities. Hundreds of people responded to the call, volunteering to take shifts as volunteer ambassadors in Oakland Chinatown and helping to spread the word.
At its core, the volunteer ambassador program was about reimagining what safety could look like for our community. After decades of failed “tough on crime” policies and disinvestment from housing, schools and social services, we wanted to bring people together and grow alternative ways to help people feel safe walking around Chinatown.
Every Monday for three months, volunteers showed up to serve as community ambassadors. Nearly 100 people took shifts to help pickup trash, offer food and water to unhoused folks in the neighborhood, and to build connections with one another and with members of our Chinatown community.
In a video orientation for volunteers, Sakhone Lasaphangthong asks volunteers to understand their role as ambassadors to be “a resource wayfinder, culture keeper and enhancer, environment beautifier, [to] let everyone know they are welcome here. They are cared for here. And everyone, no matter your race, ethnicity or background, can build community together here.”
We asked volunteers to proactively greet people that they saw on the street, to acknowledge them, ask what they need, and make all people feel welcome and belonging in the neighborhood. We asked volunteers to examine their own internal biases as they would be interacting with people from all walks of life. We often carried masks, water, and snacks with us, and passed them around to people who might need them.
People were really happy to see volunteer ambassadors showing up for them. As volunteers returned week after week, people began to recognize them and trust them. It is this trust that builds into safety. This sense of familiarity and connection are what makes a community.
Volunteers also picked up trash and cleaned up graffiti on the streets. Oakland Chinatown, like many Chinatowns across the country, lacks adequate sanitation services, and trash on the sidewalks signals that this is a neighborhood that the City does not care about. Picking up trash was a way for us to directly meet the needs of Chinatown residents. Together, we filled over 120 trash bags and filed 53 SeeClickFix reports to alert the City about needed repairs.
In the long run, reimagining public safety requires transforming our relationships with other communities of color. So much of the violence we’re seeing today is rooted in a long history of white supremacy and xenophobia that pits Asian Americans against other people of color, uses Asians to justify violence against Black and Brown communities, and scapegoats us in times of crisis.
Instead of spreading fear and isolating our community from others, we must choose solidarity and connection. That choice starts with us.
We will be sunsetting our volunteer ambassador program, and we’re excited to support Sakhone and our partners at Family Bridges as they expand their Ambassador Program.
Thank you to all of the volunteers who stepped up to support our communities through a difficult time.
Anyone can help build safety and community in Chinatown. When you’re running errands or hanging out with friends in Chinatown, take time to greet and acknowledge people. Help make our neighborhood a place where everyone feels welcome. Take a free bystander intervention training, and when you see harassment or crisis, make space to understand people’s needs and help to de-escalate situations.
Lisa Ng served as the volunteer coordinator for the Oakland Chinatown Coalition’s community strolling program. She is currently a PhD student of Ethnic Studies at the University of California, Berkeley studying how marginalized peoples use trash in social movements for environmental justice on the global scale.