My first day at APEN in 1996

by | May 8, 2024

Right now, young people across the country are taking over streets and campuses in solidarity with Gaza, demanding accountability and justice. Once again, young people are leading the fight for a future where all communities are healthy, safe and resilient. 

I am so grateful for their leadership and courage. It reminds me of a key moment in APEN’s early years, and how youth organizing was such an essential part of APEN’s origins and our approach to building community power.

Unlike other young people starting a new job, my first day as an APEN organizer in the summer of ‘96 was not spent arranging my desk or figuring out how to use the fax machine. Instead, I drove a 15-passenger van full of anxious high school students into the coastal redwoods for their first-ever organizing retreat.

Only one generation removed from subsistence farming in mountain villages in Laos, these young women from a refugee community in Richmond, CA had grown up in the shadow of the Chevron refinery, navigating gang violence, anti-immigrant hysteria, and urban poverty. But their biggest fear at the moment was being driven through a forest of giant trees that were blocking out the sun.

Several young women stand holding signs

AYA leaders at a celebration in 2000

Eight weeks later, they stood on the stage of a community center auditorium, proud graduates of APEN’s Asian Youth Advocates summer organizing program, being cheered and encouraged by their families. They had learned so much that they were able to share back with their friends and neighbors, magnifying their community’s day-to-day reality and vision for the future.

The event program was interpreted simultaneously in five languages, but the message could not have been clearer. We have faced so many collective hardships, but our young people are powerful, and committed to building a better future.

I was lucky enough to experience these moments over and over again in my time at APEN, first  as an organizer and then as Executive Director from 2013 to 2021. The moments, sometimes loud and sometimes very quiet, when the fire of collective action is lit within us, driving us to stand up for the people, places, and communities we love. 

It is so beautiful, gratifying and inspiring to see the many seeds APEN has planted growing and flourishing in the world. A new generation of Asian environmental justice leaders are being trained across the state, and APEN’s critical neighborhood organizing is taking root in Los Angeles. Countless coalitions, networks and alliances anchored by APEN are winning transformative policy in California and beyond.

Thirty years later, APEN’s grassroots organizing, deeply rooted in community vision, is more essential than ever. And right now, APEN needs our support. 

We need your support to raise $30,000 to celebrate 30 years of grassroots organizing for environmental justice. Please join me in donating today.

It’s APEN’s birthday! We’re hosting a festive night market in Downtown Oakland on July 20, and we’d love to see you there.

Click here to save your spot.