WORDS BY Yessenia Funes
The Asian Pacific Environmental Network in Oakland, California, is organizing immigrant and refugee communities in the fight for climate justice. The Frontline talks to Executive Director Miya Yoshitani about the relationship Asian American and Pacific Islander communities have to the land.
Throughout the pandemic, at least 700 violent crimes have been inflicted against Asian American and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) in the Bay Area. In January, 84-year-old Vichar Ratanapakdee was killed on his daily morning walk, after he was thrown to the ground and never woke up.
But his death is just one example of this crisis. It’s a complicated one, fueled by framing initiated by former President Donald Trump, who wrongly blamed the Chinese for the COVID-19 pandemic. It should come as no surprise that white supremacy also fuels this hate, pitting communities against one another. The Asian Pacific Environmental Network (APEN), based in Oakland, California, has been supporting Bay Area AAPI communities since the ’90s. Coalition building is at the heart APEN’s work. Supporting clean and safe environments for its AAPI constituents also means building relationships with their Latinx, Indigenous, and Black neighbors.
Welcome to The Frontline, where we’re discussing this crisis and more with APEN Executive Director Miya Yoshitani. I’m Yessenia Funes, climate editor of Atmos. Environmental narratives often exclude AAPI communities despite their being among the most impacted by the climate crisis globally.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
Let’s talk a little bit about you and the work that you do with APEN. How did you get started in advocating for your community, specifically with an environmental lens?
Well, I have been at APEN for a really long time, but I first started at APEN as a youth organizer back in 1996. I had been a student organizer in the early nineties and attended the first National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit in 1991. And that was really the first national meeting of hundreds and hundreds of community-based environmental justice organizations from around the country and also from the Marshall Islands, from U.S. territories like Puerto Rico, and some international folks, as well.
That’s when the idea for APEN was born based on the need in the Asian American immigrant and refugee community—to be able to organize around the same environmental justice agenda. These issues were affecting Asian American communities, too. There’s very little power building and organizing happening in our communities. APEN was really built around that idea that we needed to build community power for the solutions that work for us. That’s how I initially got to APEN as a younger person and have basically been there ever since.
There aren’t very many environmental organizations that focus on the Asian American and Pacific Islander community. Why do you think that is?
That’s right. Generally, in the environmental movement, there is a misconception that people of color across the board don’t care about environmental issues or climate, which is obviously untrue. There’s a history of defining these issues in a way that actually removes the greatest impact on people. That’s historically the way environmental issues have been dealt with—either as technical problems or as problems that have to do with the atmosphere or the outdoors. And that’s core to what the principles of environmental justice are about. That our environment is everywhere: where we live, work, and play.
And that has been doubly true for Asian Americans. Environmental justice is about how people live their everyday lives, the quality of their life, the quality of their health, and access to the things that every family needs—whether it’s housing, education, clean water, clean air, good jobs, and a democratic system that works and we all get to participate in. Those are the things that people care about and the core of what environmental issues should be about. Because that’s not been the case for so long, there are few organizations that actually reach out to the Asian American community about environmental justice.
What you said earlier about refugees and immigrants is important when we consider the impacts of climate change globally. The decennial of Fukushima was just a few days ago. I don’t think there’s enough people talking about the immigration crisis outside of Latin America. There’s so much focus on Latin America, we forget about these other parts of the globe.
There’s a couple of things that you said there that are really true. One is that immigrant and refugee communities have a really strong connection to their homeland. That’s where a lot of these climate impacts are being felt first and worst. People are being displaced because of climate all over the world, but a lot of Asian countries and Pacific islands are seeing massive hurricanes, cyclones, drought, food shortages… and the list kind of goes on. I think Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders have this deep awareness of what’s happening in our homelands and understanding that these impacts are changing the very way of life in the communities where they used to live. It’s a clear connection to those communities.
APEN has been really active in advocating against the Chevron refinery in Richmond, California, which recently spilled 600 gallons of oil into the San Francisco Bay. How’s that going?
The Chevron refinery is one of these outsized huge impacts in the community. That refinery has had a huge impact on not just the health but the overall quality of life of fenceline communities around the refinery, and the Laotian refugee community is one of those. There are also Black, Latinx, Indigenous, and other refugee and immigrant communities that live around the refinery.
Because the refinery serves so much of the tax base in Richmond and has a huge political influence, it has been for decades allowed to pollute indiscriminately. The Laotian community is just one of many Asian immigrant or refugee communities in Richmond, but as a refugee community that arrived in the mid-80s, that first and second generation were highly impacted. They were coming from a decade in Thai refugee camps—dealing with the more traumatic impacts of fleeing a war—and then coming to a refinery in the U.S. that is spewing all of this pollution.
That is why Richmond has one of the highest asthma rates among children. That’s why cancer rates are so high. That’s why there’s pulmonary and lung disease and diabetes and heart disease. That’s hugely influenced by being fenceline communities in neighborhoods that also don’t have access to healthcare or clean healthy food.
“Racism and white supremacy is right in there among these cumulative impacts.”
Are there any other environmental issues outside of Chevron that deserve more attention? I wonder if there are more silent threats that don’t get enough attention.
There are a huge number of issues that interrelate in Richmond. One of the other big issues is housing displacement and gentrification. So the same people who are dealing with the daily health impacts of the refinery also can’t afford to live or stay in their homes. Also, the general economic disinvestment in Richmond. I actually relate the refinery to that, too, because that’s one of the industries that keeps other more sustainable cleaner industries from operating and building and growing in Richmond.
Established communities are being threatened throughout the Bay area—and it relates to climate for a whole bunch of reasons. There are ways we’ve been encouraging sustainable development that creates walkable neighborhoods, renewable energy, and a bunch of features of the climate we need, but that same development is also adding to the gentrification and displacement of the communities that live there today. That’s not just Asian American communities; that’s Black and Latinx communities, as well. We’re building the cities of the future for somebody else, not the communities that actually live there. There’s also the drought and wildfires that have increased the costs of housing and electricity.
An urgent threat is the dramatic rise in violence against Asian American and Pacific Islanders—a 150 percent rise, to be exact. This isn’t exactly an “environmental” issue, but how has APEN been organizing to protect the community, especially elders who may be disproportionately targeted?
Part of what we want to do is reframe these issues as environmental issues. Racial justice is at the heart of how we’re going to solve the climate crisis. We have to address these transformative issues in a way that puts racial justice at the center, or we will fail.
So many of our members, in fact, are elderly and seniors—the same demographic that has been targeted for an increase in violent crime. We want to be careful as an organization rooted side by side with other Black, Indigenous, Latinx, and immigrant and refugee communities because there’s been an increase in violent crime across the board. That’s really important to recognize. Part of community safety is addressing the root causes of increases in violent crime.
We don’t want to conflate that with what many people say is the tension between Black and Asian communities. We’re really trying to lift up the solidarity between our communities—that we’re all being impacted by the economic crisis related to the pandemic. We need our government to respond to the actual needs of people who have been most heavily impacted by both the pandemic and the climate crisis. These things are all inextricably linked. The same people who live next to polluting industries that impact their lungs are the same people who are also fighting for better jobs, need housing stability, and have been most exposed to the pandemic as essential workers, as people who live in multi-generational households.
Racism and white supremacy is right in there among these cumulative impacts. It’s helping fuel these broader impacts that have affected local businesses in Chinatown and helped create this atmosphere of fear. There are multiple things happening at once, so you don’t want to call it just anti-Asian violence. There is that combined with all these other threats and impacts of the different crises that are coming together in this moment.
Definitely. I appreciate you being explicit about the solidarity that exists within BIPOC communities across racial groups. There has certainly been a narrative of trying to demonize Black communities.
That’s one of the things I want to lift up the most. We are acting in solidarity with other communities. That’s part of how we build community safety: by coming together as a community across different races, cultures, and ethnicities. We’re fighting for solutions that are actually going to address some of the root causes of the growth in violence and the economic crisis that all these communities are facing together. We’re not calling for an increase in policing. That has never been the answer. Instead, we want to make sure there is investment in infrastructure, mental health, and community intervention. We could have neighborhood ambassadors, people who are walking around and checking in on local businesses and building relationships with people locally instead of parachuting in with guns blazing, targeting Black communities in the process.
There are ways that we can reprioritize how we are spending local dollars on real community safety. Those are the things that are going to both bring a feeling of security and safety but also a feeling of connectedness and community care to our elders.
I imagine a lot of that is also educational work alongside solidarity building, right? Because the reality is there is a lot of anti-Blackness in our communities—the Asian American community, the Latinx community.
Absolutely. That’s right. It’s so important to have an organization that has standing in the Asian American community to be really loud in saying that we are in solidarity with Black communities and that anti-Blackness in the Asian American community is both real and problematic. That’s something we have to come together to acknowledge and confront it directly. That’s part of how you create real community safety: by trusting in the organizations that have been—for decades—building neighborhood by neighborhood, house by house, block by block. These community-based organizations are really fundamental to creating that connectedness and resiliency that’s needed in moments like these.
Before I let you go, it is still Women’s History Month, and I want to shout out how many inspiring women are on the APEN team doing all sorts of incredible work. How does the power of matriarchy and the wisdom of women shine through the organizing that APEN does?
Like many parts of our movement, incredibly strong brilliant women are at the backbone of the environmental justice movement, too. And that is true inside of APEN, as well. It’s been really important for APEN to have visible women in leadership—from our staff team to our community. We’re making sure that our community membership sees women in leadership and a feminist agenda for the solutions they need. It’s been really important for APEN to not just be a powerful organization in the community but to be a feminist and women-led institution that should be reflected in both the way we do our work and the vision we put forth into the world.