Xenophobic violence against Asian Americans continues to surge across the United States.
A group tracking anti-Asian discrimination says there have been more than 2,800 attacks since the pandemic began last March. Nearly half of those attacks have occurred in California, where recent violence against seniors in Chinatown, Oakland, has created fear and tension.
One group is trying to change that. Compassion in Oakland has recruited a team of hundreds of volunteers to accompany seniors as they walk through the neighborhood.
Jess Owyoung, a Bay Area native and fourth-generation Chinese American, was devastated when she started hearing about the attacks.
Seeing an elderly person who looks like her grandparents and knowing the decades of sacrifices they made to live in the U.S., only to fear for their lives, is heartbreaking, she says. At their age, these Asian American seniors should be resting and feeling safe in their community, she says.
Owyoung helped establish Compassion in Oakland when co-founder Jacob Azevedo's online post asking for patrols and chaperones went viral after a 91-year-old Asian senior was shoved to the ground in Chinatown. The man had to be hospitalized with serious injuries.
Growing up, Owyoung says racism against Asian Americans wasn’t addressed in her inner circles. No one was encouraging her to stand up and speak out, she says, which is why when she saw Azevedo’s post, she felt strongly compelled to act.
“I can also do something. I have a voice. I live here,” she recalls thinking.
A lot of people felt the same way as Owyoung. As of Friday morning, she says 700 people of all races and backgrounds have volunteered to work with Compassion in Oakland.
When folks sign up, they’ll get an assignment based on their availability. Then, walking in pods with usually at least one chaperone who speaks either Cantonese or Mandarin, volunteers assist seniors, chat with folks on the street and spread the word about the program, she explains.
One senior told Compassion in Oakland organizers that as a corner street vendor, she’s often a victim of robberies, Owyoung says. When the police are called, they often tell her to fill out a minor crime report online, which is hard with her limited English and computer knowledge.
Compassion in Oakland volunteers also lend a hand to elderly Chinatown residents like the corner street vendor who may struggle with online forms and computer operations. The team makes translation services accessible, too.
Attacks across the country against Asian Americans are being pinned to the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic, and also the racist rhetoric used by former President Donald Trump. While anti-Asian racism is unfortunately nothing new, Owyoung says this time, the assaults have become a “great crossroads” for Asian Americans to open up the conversation about racism.
She says she believes recent violence has sparked many people — including herself — to now grapple with what it means to be Asian American.
“We kind of were just scooting by, to be honest, and we didn't have to be faced with those questions,” she says. “And now that we're facing real blatant racism that a lot of Asians are thinking about, what does that mean?”
This segment aired on February 26, 2021.