A few years ago, the Asian Pacific Environmental Network (APEN), a Bay Area environmental justice organization focusing on Asian immigrant and refugee communities, set aside 20 percent of staff time to address emergency situations.
That paid off when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Network staff launched an information campaign, calling members to disseminate accurate information and ascertain community needs.
APEN’s rich history in Richmond and Oakland enabled its fast — and trusted — response to the pandemic, demonstrating the importance of community organizations during crises. The network works primarily with low-income and working class Asian American immigrants and refugees, where trust and solidarity is not a given.
“The longer we have these kinds of community organizations around, the more trust is built,” said campaign and organizing director Alvina Wong. “There’s a level of reliability and accountability to our community members that you might not have if you’re in an organization that hasn’t been around as long.”
APEN was founded out of conversations at the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit in 1991. In Richmond, organizers advocate for investment in public infrastructure and climate resilience, and in Oakland, the focus is on housing and protections for tenants. Between the two cities, APEN is in regular contact with 250 to 300 families.
The network is also advocating for state-level policies like a California Green New Deal and an end to public subsidies for fossil fuel companies. It is also in contact with over 20,000 voters throughout California.
A growing network
Senior Richmond community organizer Torm Nompraseurt joined APEN in 1995, 20 years after leaving Laos amid war and political oppression. He has watched the network grow from about five staff to nearly 30, at the same time the Laotian population grew from about nine families to 15,000 individuals in western Contra Costa County, mostly concentrated in Richmond.
Nompraseurt credited APEN’s longevity to its ability to recruit and train new members. For instance, at the network’s annual APEN Academy, staff teach young people about systemic oppression and facilitating a just transition, which APEN defines as “a vision and framework for moving toward a world where everyone has the resources they need to live full, dignified lives.”
When it comes to community organizing, Nompraseurt said people’s cultural backgrounds are harder to overcome than a language barrier.
“There’s a different process here. … (In Laos,) you would not dare to tell the mayor or the governor what to do because your head would be cut off or you would be in jail for the rest of your life.”Torm Nompraseurt
“There’s a different process here — you have to take up the issue, identify the decision maker, organize yourself,” he said. “(In Laos,) you would not dare to tell the mayor or the governor what to do because your head would be cut off or you would be in jail for the rest of your life.”
Organizing across the diverse groups who identify as Asian Americans also has its challenges, Wong said, with organizing in such a way being easier for younger generations born in America.
“When (Asian Americans) can come together, see each other’s struggles, recognize the similarities and make a commitment to each other’s challenges, we have a lot more to gain,” she said.
The problems Asian communities face break down differently by city. In Richmond, there are more than 300 chemical companies, with Chevron being the largest. APEN members living near these facilities have high rates of asthma and respiratory conditions, dangerous pre-existing conditions to have during the COVID-19 pandemic, Nompraseurt said.
Advocating for environmental justice
Before the pandemic, Nompraseurt attended most funeral services hosted by the community. Most, he said, had died of cancer as opposed to other causes. He also lost his niece to COVID-19 and a 17-year-old relative to cancer.
“I’m not going to say it’s because of the pollution,” he said, referring to the cancer deaths in his community. “But if it’s not the pollution, then what is it?”
Now, he’s advocating for environmental justice initiatives, like lower caps on the amount of pollution companies can emit. But he is also keeping an eye on local housing policies and vaccine distribution, issues that also affect Richmond residents.
In Oakland, the focus is on tenant protections, as well as making sure low-income Chinese immigrants have access to information about their tenant rights and access to legal services when those rights are violated, Wong said.
Wong and APEN are also trying to improve housing affordability and promote equitable development, as well as explore land trust and community ownership options. She said such options make sense as tenants are often more familiar with the buildings they live in than are the landlords.
“Tenants who are living there every day know the ins and outs of their buildings and can make better decisions about their homes,” Wong said.
Kenneth Tang, APEN’s Oakland housing lead organizer, is helping lead the effort to pass the Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act (TOPA) in Oakland next year. TOPA would give tenants the first opportunity to buy the home they’re living in when a landlord goes to sell it, as well as the opportunity to match a third party’s offer if the landlord didn’t accept the tenants’ initial offer.
TOPA also would give tenants the chance to assign their rights to an organization like a land trust or nonprofit housing developer if they cannot or do not want to purchase the building on their own.
In Oakland’s Chinatown, Tang said he’s worked with multiple tenants who said their building had recently been purchased by someone else, and had the policy been passed earlier, they would have been interested in buying the building themselves. Many have had family living in the buildings for almost 20 years.
Pandemic heightened needs
The pandemic has put some forms of advocacy on hold as APEN staff scramble to meet the community’s needs. Tang said the pandemic has made weaknesses in the current economic system clear, citing the increase in billionaires’ wealth during the pandemic while millions of Americans have lost their jobs.
In addition to calling members, APEN launched a mutual aid fund during the pandemic, ultimately awarding $120,000 to community applicants. The network also helped advocate for eviction moratoriums, which Oakland and Richmond passed.
The pandemic has also impacted how APEN hosts meetings, which created opportunities to build a sense of community. Before, meetings were held in person in community spaces or the homes of APEN members.
Getting older residents on Zoom isn’t always easy, said Nompraseurt, but once they’re connected, they’re often elated to see the friends and family members they miss seeing in person.
“Our elders just pray the vaccine is coming soon and everyone gets the vaccine and the government can allow us to meet in person sometime next year, sometime soon,” he said.
Nompraseurt urged other communities in the Bay Area and California to reach out to APEN to coordinate environmental justice advocacy.
“In this country, democracy is sometimes painful, sometimes there is suffering, but at least we have a process,” he said. “We need to believe in ourselves, and we need to be consistent and persistent.”