I want to share a story about APEN’s first campaign

by | May 28, 2024

Thirty years ago, APEN was created as a response to a call from the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit to build an Asian immigrant and refugee presence in the environmental justice movement. Those of us who participated in the Summit and became co-founders of APEN knew the highest priority was how to do the work: 

In every community we organized with, we would start by listening, learning, and building trust in the community, not by swooping in and telling people we knew what was best for them.

For three decades, APEN’s transformative grassroots organizing has always followed that approach — from our beginnings in Richmond to Oakland and, most recently, Los Angeles. When we celebrate APEN’s 30th anniversary this year, we’re celebrating a legacy of deep organizing rooted in the day-to-day realities, hopes and dreams of California’s working-class Asian immigrant and refugee families.

In the 1990’s, when APEN decided to launch our first organizing project in Richmond, California, our first order of business was to spend time in the community and pay attention to the day-to-day lives of our community there. Where did people live, work, play, and pray? 

One of the first things we found was that many people were fishing in the most polluted waters around the Bay, then taking their catch home where seafood would be prepared in its own juices — creating even higher levels of dioxin exposure. These were refugee families who had practiced subsistence fishing in their homelands, but in the Bay these practices were putting their health at risk.

A group of people stand around a table with flyers on it. In the background is a big decorative fish.

APEN organizer Torm Nompraseurt educating community members about safe fishing in 1996.

We knew that to keep people healthy and safe, we were going to have to pursue multiple organizing strategies, meeting people where they were at and lifting up their leadership all along the way.

We did educational trainings in the community, working with seniors, women, and young people, some of whom were gang members. When we found out that one of the places people in the community gathered was at English classes, we held ESL classes where people could learn to cook the fish safely, reducing the toxins, while practicing their English. We targeted the Environmental Protection Agency regionally and nationally to change their policies. Throughout, we were committed to building relationships that respected the power of the community to speak for themselves. 

So much has happened since then. APEN has taken on some of the biggest corporations in the world, helped to found coalitions around California and across the country, and expanded from Richmond to Oakland and now Los Angeles. Through it all, APEN has stayed committed to the values of listening, learning, and following the leadership of the frontlines.

I am thrilled at what APEN has become. But we have so much more work to do, and it’s going to take all of us to get there: organizing, volunteering, talking to your friends and neighbors, and yes, donating. This movement is only possible because people like you and I put our time, energy, and resources into it. That’s why I am asking for your support today.

To sustain this work for decades to come, APEN needs our continued support. 

Please consider investing in grassroots organizing by becoming an APEN monthly donor today.

– Peggy Saika, APEN Co-Founder

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.