On a chilly morning in mid-April, scores of Asian elders lined up outside a senior center in Flushing in Queens, New York, to pick up free alarms that they can clip onto their wrists. Within 20 minutes, all 200 alarms had been scooped up.
In the past two weeks, the nonprofit Asians in America has raised more than $13,000 online to supply 3,500 personal safety alarms to seniors in the city. Organizers work with the social services group Chinese-American Planning Council to distribute them at senior centers it operates, as well as local grocery stores and businesses that elders frequent.
“One of the things that make victims targets is looking like a victim,” founder Will Lex Ham told NBC Asian America. “Our elders have been scared all year. They’ve been afraid to walk out their doors.”
The wristlets retail for roughly $15 each, Ham said, but the group buys them wholesale from China for about $4. Screeching loud but visually inconspicuous, he said, the alarms are easier to use and more effective at fending off assailants than tools like pepper spray and pocket knives.
After the Atlanta-area spa shootings in March — in which a white man is accused of killing eight people, including six women of Asian descent — many Asian American activists have shifted their focus from raising awareness to concrete actions.
“We went from complete invisibility to hypervisibility,” Ham said. “Now we’re wondering: How much time do we have in the spotlight, and what do we do with this time? How much longer are we going to say, ‘Stop Asian hate. Please see us?’”
The surge in anti-Asian violence during the Covid-19 pandemic has taken an immense psychological toll on Asian American and Pacific Islanders, one-third of whom say they fear someone might threaten or physically attack them, according to a new report from the Pew Research Center.
Yet for months, law enforcement and elected officials have been slow to recognize racial motivation in attacks targeting Asians and funnel critical resources to local organizations in Asian enclaves. (The Senate passed legislation last month directing the Department of Justice to review and establish reporting guidelines for hate crimes.) As fear mounts amid institutional inaction, Asian Americans across the country are crowdfunding public safety and mutual aid efforts to protect the most vulnerable members of their community.
In Anaheim, California, race car driver Samantha Tan organized a weekend auto show and raised more than $33,000 for Hate Is a Virus, a nonprofit that provides mental health and public safety resources to Asian Americans. GoFundMe campaigns for hate crime victims, such as one for a 61-year-old Asian immigrant in Harlem, New York, who was beaten into a coma, have collectively pulled in millions of dollars in a matter of days.
Maddy Park, a dentist based in Brooklyn, New York, created the platform Cafe Maddy Cab in early April to cover cab rides for vulnerable Asian New Yorkers, including women, seniors and LGBTQ people. She initially intended to pay for the initiative herself until donations began flooding in on social media. Since the project launched, Park has raised nearly $140,000 and reimbursed more than 2,000 fares worth about $58,000.
Park said an alarming number of people who requested rides reported being assaulted or harassed on the subway. Some said they could no longer take public transportation because of the trauma they experienced.
“It’s very eye-opening to literally hear some of these accounts,” she said.
A week ago, Lyft donated $10,000 worth of ride codes that Park is reserving for seniors. The project has expanded to San Francisco and will soon be in Los Angeles, too. But donations are struggling to catch up with ride requests, she said, and at the current rate, the remaining funds will likely run out in the next week.
In some ways, she said, the overwhelming response to her service is also an indictment of local officials who have failed to make public transit safer. People may feel less dread commuting alone, she said, if the city installed security cameras on platforms to capture footage of attacks.
“I feel very lucky to be able to carry this out, but I don’t think this should have been something a 28-year-old has to pick up on to protect the city,” Park said, adding that she has never felt more terrified to take the subway in 10 years of living in New York.
On the creative side, some Asian Americans with large social media presences pivoted their platforms to support established social services organizations.
In the aftermath of the Atlanta shooting, With Warm Welcome, a group that produces podcasts, digital programming and tasting events to amplify Asian American food culture, launched a bake sale fundraiser to raise money for Apex for Youth, a nonprofit that provides mentorship programs for Asian American children from families with low income.
“With everything that’s happening right now, I think it’s first and foremost about education and raising awareness,” said founder Arnold Byun. “I think that starts at the most basic level with children. If we can prepare them early on and expose them to the world, we can make an impact.”
The bake sale, which was initially planned for Women's History Month in March, featured boxes of distinct sweets, from toasted almond cookies to ube buns, made by 18 female Asian American pastry chefs. In New York and Los Angeles, Byun said, the boxes sold out in 48 hours, raising more than $5,000 for Apex for Youth. The group is planning a sale in Chicago on May 29 and Boston in June.
In light of a recent spike in hate crimes against the Asian American community, Byun said he considered ending With Warm Welcome's podcast because he didn’t feel like the work was impactful.
“What’s transpired has allowed me to see more clearly than before that people actually follow what we do and are excited about what we put out into the world,” he said. “So I want to continue to amplify and humanize Asian voices in the culinary community.”