Tea with the People, The Podcast: Episode 3

photo credit: APIENC

In response to the pandemic and the resurgence of anti-Asian racism, APIENC, an organization that builds queer and transgender Asian and Pacific Islander power, set up phone trees and virtual healing circles to check in with its most vulnerable members. We speak with Sammie Ablaza Wills, director of APIENC, about their approach to unlearning oppression and relearning abundance, and why it’s so much better (and sustainable) to do the work with your friends.

Resources & Links

  • COVID-19 Updates: We actually closed our first phase of the phone tree to focus more on community events, discussions, and a community support/mutual aid network that launched at the beginning of July. We are connecting community members directly with resources and support as needed, with a focus on trans folks, non-binary folks, and elders. 
  • Pivots to support Black Lives: Since the surge in uprisings to support Black lives and resistance, we’ve also shifted a lot of our programming to educate and engage our members in how to show up in this moment. We have a weekly talking circles on identifying our role in this moment.
  • People can follow us online on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter: @APIENC
  • Website: https://apienc.org/
  • APIENC is coordinating mutual aid for trans and queer API people to ask for and offer resources and support. We’re supporting our own people with PPE, grocery/meal deliveries, and emotional support check-in phone calls, and have already received numerous requests for support. Can you support us in getting these resources to our community? Donate at apienc.org/donate

Transcript

JEANELLE AUSTIN

Welcome to Tea with the People, the podcast. This is a series of conversations with innovative leaders who participate in our democracy by responding to racial injustices and inequities in the time of COVID-19. I’m Jeanelle Austin, the founder of Racial Agency Initiative.

JUSTINE LEE

And I’m Justine Lee, the co-creator of Make America Dinner Again. We engage leaders who work creatively to activate and support their communities. Through this podcast, we hope to inspire others to do the same.

JEANELLE 

In this episode, we’ll be speaking to Sammie Wills or Sammie Ablaza Wills, Director of Asian Pacific Islander Equality Northern California. Here’s how they describe their organization: In working with the LGBTQI community, API Equality Northern California states that they exist to, quote, amplify our voices and increase visibility of our communities. We inspire and train leaders, establish intergenerational connections, and document and disseminate our histories, unquote. During COVID-19, they are responding by building deeper community care networks, activating a phone tree to reach their most vulnerable community members, and holding healing events to support their people as they move through grief and fear.

Welcome Sammie. Thank you for being here.

SAMMIE ABLAZA WILLS 

Thank you for having me. 

JEANELLE 

Just to kind of kick off with a warm up question: I’m just curious to know is it sunny today in sunny California?

SAMMIE

Oh my gosh, it is extraordinarily sunny today. We’ve been I think in the thick of a pre-summer heatwave and so my, my apartment has no air conditioning as many places in the Bay Area don’t, and I am burning up.

JEANELLE 

Oh, no, that’s not okay. Are you, like, on first floor, second floor, third floor, like, 

SAMMIE

Oh, I am on the top floor. Third floor. 10 degrees hotter up here.

JEANELLE 

Yes, I, I’ve been in a situation before when I lived in Pasadena, California. I was on the third floor and I got all the heat from the sun.

SAMMIE

Oh no.

JEANELLE 

It is the worst. I feel sorry for you.

JUSTINE 

Have you tried, something I will sometimes do is just open the fridge or freezer door and just get a blast of cold air that way. 

SAMMIE

Oh, I definitely do that in dire, dire circumstances, I am fully in front of the fridge.

JEANELLE 

Oh, you know what you could do though, like when I was a kid, we… Because our house didn’t have air conditioning growing up. And so my brother and I would take our bedsheets and put them in the freezer. So that way…

JUSTINE 

Yes, I’ve heard about this.

SAMMIE

Oh that’s so smart.

JEANELLE 

Yes. So you get these like cold, crisp bedsheets and it’s just, it’s perfect for hot weather, especially humid weather as well. So…

JEANELLE 

I feel like we could spend the whole time actually talking about how to care in the sun. But we’re here for even more interesting conversations than that. So just to kind of get a little bit more background and context for the work that you all have been doing during COVID-19, we’re curious to know what inspired the phone tree and healing events that you guys set up to respond to the pandemic?

SAMMIE

Yeah, absolutely.

APIENC, and you know, we lovingly call our organization APIENC. We were established back in 2004, with the name API Equality Northern California. And in the 16 years since then we’ve gone through many, many iterations of our work. I think, doing work and experimenting and then reflecting on its impact has, has been a big part of our organization and many social justice movements. And so nowadays, we’re just going by APIENC, and it kind of just better reflects who we are and what we do. 

And as an organization, one of the core things that we focus on is building strong relationships that transform our values and heal from our traumas. And we know that as an organization of majority transgender and non-binary young people and elders, there’s so many ways that we’ve just been denied access to real human connection and validation, affirmation, and tenderness with one another. Even before COVID-19 hit the United States, many people were already living in social isolation, or were estranged from families and communities that should be places of support for our people. And so when the shelter-in-place was first announced across California, it was a big moment for our members to say, “Wow. As people who are already experiencing isolation and oppression, this is something that’s going to hit us even harder. We need to find ways to stay connected, and to stay in communication with one another so we can identify what’s happening right now. So we can meet people’s material needs. So we can process the anti-Asian racism that’s happening because of the Coronavirus and because of all the racist framing around it.”

So based on the connections that we had in the community, and on our ethos really as an organization, members started organizing a phone tree, especially to check in with the most vulnerable members of our community like elders, youth, low income folks, that might not have access to Zoom technology or the Internet, or might not just be versed in those things. Establishing a phone tree was really a way to stay connected with people and also hear what their needs are. We’ve been able to deliver groceries to folks, connect and re-engage with people, invite them to social events happening, and just stay connected to make sure that our community as a whole is doing okay. And then on top of that …

JEANELLE 

Beautiful. 

SAMMIE

Laughs. Yeah, you know, I think…it really, it really has been a beautiful thing to witness how people want to show up for one another in this moment. I think it’s really scary when, when people realize they’re in the middle of a crisis, there’s so many stages of grief and stress that people can go through. And I think having a phone tree has been one way for people to reclaim agency over their lives and their connection during such an uncertain time. 

And so, in concert with that, we’ve also been wanting to provide just different community gatherings, whether it’s workshops, or just small get-togethers or one-on-ones, where people can also just process and heal with all of the things happening in the world right now. Some of those things, really, namely, being like anti-Asian racism that’s being perpetuated at the federal level, to just the grief and loss of work, or of certainty, or of people’s loved ones, or just the different emotions that come up when we were, we thought we had some level of stability in life. And I think a crisis reminds us that a lot of that stability is incredibly conditional as people who are oppressed, oppressed in this current society. And so our healing events are also ways to, to make space for people to be in those feelings and to know that they’re not alone, as so many things are coming up for them.

JEANELLE 

Thank you. Thank you so much. And thank you for educating us on your acronym and how to pronounce it. So it’s APIENC.

SAMMIE

APIENC, Yeah,

JUSTINE 

I feel like you gave us an idea of the people you’re serving during this time. I’m curious to hear more about, you know, why they’re important to you, and if there are any examples that stand out to you over the past few months – folks you’ve supported and reached out to through the phone tree, or the healing events. Is there a story that you think really captures the power of your work?

SAMMIE

Yeah.

The members of APIENC are primarily, as I mentioned, trans and non-binary young people and some elders in our community. And to make it very simple, these people are important to me because these people are me. I, growing up, you know, I grew up in a very low-income, no-income household. My mom’s an immigrant from the Philippines and I just didn’t have a lot of stability in my own life and I definitely didn’t have communities that affirmed every single part of who I was as a young person, as a trans person, as a queer person as a Filipino person. Not a lot of spaces held room for all of that, all of those multitudes. And I think what APIENC tries to do in every single event, rally, action, campaign we put on, is creates space for belonging for people. And I think that our base is important to me and our base is important to one another because there’s so much mirrored lived, lived experiences where we can really see in one another the pain that’s happened in our life, the hurt and the trauma, and we can work to mend those things. The work of unlearning oppression and relearning abundance and interdependence is collective work. There are elements of it that are individual, but there are many elements that can be done together. And I think as someone who has been greatly helped by community that chooses to see me for all of who I am, I also feel it’s my responsibility to continue that work, because there’s so many other folks who were in similar situations as me or in more dire situations than me, who I think really need and really get a lot out of being in a community that wants to see all of them.

The work of unlearning oppression and relearning abundance and interdependence is collective work.

And I think one really solid example happened super recently, just in, just in this past week we held an event that was all about moving through grief and sustaining community. And this event was specifically for trans and gender non-conforming Asian and Pacific Islanders. And one of the beautiful things about this moment is that, you know, normally we would be doing our work just in the Bay Area, but because of the moment that we’re in, because everything’s online, we were able to invite people from all around the country to participate in this event. And it was a two hour event where people walked through different activities and saw different presentations about grief, and almost at every point along the way my fellow trans, non-binary API folks were able to share stories about how they were resilient, or how they were calling on ancestral wisdom, or how they wanted to cultivate better boundaries, or really dig into communities. At every step of the way people shared vulnerably, people cried, people held one another, the best that they could virtually, and I think that the safety created by that space allowed people to let out parts of themselves that they were keeping inside for a very long time. And I know that that was only possible because we had a space that was intentionally created to hold the nuance of who people were without judgment and without shame. And I think when we’re able to do that we’re able to really unlock not just, like, our full human potential, but the deep and the dark and the dirty things that we need to work on as people. We’re able to let those things out and invite other people into working on those things with us.

JUSTINE 

Yeah, that’s amazing. Thanks, Sammy. You’ve been sharing so much of what’s been, what’s been working and what’s been fueling you and your community. I’m curious if you’ve come across any challenges, and if you have, how you’ve navigated them?

SAMMIE

Absolutely.

I think the moment of COVID-19 exacerbates all the challenges that already exist within our society and within our community. So, the folks who had minimal access to housing and employment before, have even less access to stable housing and employment now. People who are already dealing with depression and anxiety and other mental health traumas are only experiencing those worse now. And I think one of the challenges that we face in this community and in this work is that no one organization can do everything. And when we have a population that is at the intersection of so many different experiences, it’s really, really hard to just meet everyone where they have the need. You know, we want governments to, responding to the needs of our community rapidly, and well, and in a culturally competent way. But the reality is that that’s not happening. We don’t have governments that are acting quickly and able to do so with all of the competency needed to address the diverse backgrounds within the API community and diverse gender experiences that encompass all trans and gender non-conforming and queer people. And so I think what we’re seeing, unfortunately, is how the inequalities that were already present are only worse. And that makes it really hard to connect with people sometimes when their basic needs are being threatened and they don’t have the privilege to receive a stimulus check. Or they don’t have the privilege to have a full time job that’ll let them work remotely, or they don’t have the privilege to have Internet on every day, or they don’t live in an affirming home that they can just talk about being queer and trans and out around the different people they live around. I think all of those challenges are just kind of compounded as we’re trying to get in touch with people and see what they’re up to and pull them into a community. Some people just simply have so many dire needs in this moment that that’s really, really challenging.

JEANELLE 

Sammie, your, your words are just drops of knowledge like left and right and I… And so I’m from, like, the black church tradition and the poetry lounge tradition. And so I’m here wanting to snap and be like “You better preach that!” But for the sake of the recording, I’ve muted myself, so we can actually hear you drop knowledge.

SAMMIE

(Laughing). Well thank you though, that is so sweet.

JEANELLE 

Well, I want to go back to this point that you made about the intersectionalities of various issues that, that people are facing and that you’re trying to address what you can. And I’m curious to know specifically about the intersection of race with the work that you’re doing and how you feel that it’s addressing the challenge of race in the United States. If you want to speak more locally to your context, that’s fine, too. But also just recognizing especially we can look at the news today, and yesterday, and the day before, and the week before, and that, that that race is a deeply national problem. And we work at it in our local spaces, but it does impact the national narrative. So I’m curious how you all are coming at that angle, because you’ve mentioned it a couple times. 

SAMMIE

Yeah. Hmm.

Our organization was founded with the understanding that People of Color in this country and for us specifically, Asian and Pacific Islander people, are subject to racism and xenophobia, and all of the things that happen because of colonization and imperialism and the ongoing effects of all of those things. And for us, the challenge doesn’t just lie in race alone. The onus of the challenge is racism. You know, it’s like it is beautiful. I think when we’re in APIENC and  when we’re in our spaces, and we get to have a diversity of Asian and Pacific Islander experiences, and people are there with a lot of genuine curiosity, it’s beautiful to see so many people, bring their cultures, bring their language, bring their understandings of tradition and change, and be able to resonate about certain things and have difference about other things. It is a beautiful thing to be able to be in, in exchange, but white supremacy has made race a problem by dictating that some people are better than others. And I think this is one of those moments where a lot of Asian American and Pacific Islander people are realizing, and for some for the first time, for others in a different way, some people never forgot that Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders are only conditionally accepted in this country. The logic of racism still determines that Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders are less-than and I think this moment, has really, really shined light on the fact that for many Asian American folks, and in this case particularly East Asian or East Asian-appearing people are still seen as perpetual foreigners in the United States. They’re seen in this moment as disease carriers, or as the virus themselves. And I think for APIENC what we really understand is that the logic of racism forces people or tricks people into thinking that racism is the individual act of racism, right? Like when, unfortunately, when we’ve had people in our community experience things like getting coughed at, or getting spit on, or people moving when they’re in a public space because they’re scared of an Asian person now. And those acts are racist. But the racism that we’re focused on dismantling doesn’t stop there. It also means stopping the institutional racism 

The logic of racism still determines that Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders are less-than and I think this moment, has really, really shined light on the fact that for many Asian American folks, and in this case particularly East Asian or East Asian-appearing people are still seen as perpetual foreigners in the United States.

JEANELLE 

Yes. 

Sammie Ablaza Wills  21:43  

…that perpetuates the myth, myth of the model minority in schools and in our media. It means perpetuate, it means stopping how the model minority myth and perpetual foreigner syndrome and all of these different anti-Asian things are treated at the federal level and on an ideological level…

JEANELLE 

Come on, yes!

SAMMIE

And I think for us…

JEANELLE 

Sorry, Black church.

SAMMIE

(Laughing) You know, it’s real, I think like we have to address not only the racism that happens against Asian American and Pacific Islander people, but we also need to understand racism as a system of power, because it is also the duty of Asian American and Pacific Islander people to be in solidarity with other People of Color, especially Black and Indigenous folks in this country, because the country was created based on the oppression of Black and Indigenous people, and the country was fed by the imperialism and colonization of Asian and Pacific Islander and African places. And so I think there’s just like a constant way that as APIENC, as people would, as people at this intersection of being trans and queer and API, we have to understand our own place within this country, we have to understand the history of how we got here, and we have to know that just because there might be individual acts of racism, or prejudice, or harassment between People of Color, and those things do need to be addressed, that the actual thing to focus on is the broader systemic, ideological and institutional racism that makes people of color fight for scraps anyways. 

…we also need to understand racism as a system of power, because it is also the duty of Asian American and Pacific Islander people to be in solidarity with other People of Color, especially Black and Indigenous folks in this country…

JEANELLE 

Come on now. Come on. So okay, so this, I mean, but, but what you just said, is a lot. It’s a lot of work.

SAMMIE

That’s true.

JEANELLE 

(Laughing). Like, let’s not kid ourselves, people go into burn out doing this very work. So how do you stay motivated? What keeps you motivated, especially during this pandemic with all the things you just listed of new reiterations, new iterations and forms of the very same racism being manifested in, especially in Asian Pacific Islander communities. What, what keeps you going?

SAMMIE

Mm hmm.

Yeah. It is a trying, trying time. That is no joke. People are experiencing heartache and grief. People are getting re-traumatized. People are watching the ground kind of, like, slip out from underneath them. And the thing that keeps me motivated in this time is remembering the power of what we can change, and the agency that we can claim when we are working in community with one another. And I think that’s why, you know, I started by saying that APIENC is really based in relationship, and our ethos is in community and in relationship. And that’s not because it just, like, makes us feel good, and it’s like good to party. Those relationships are what sustain us when it gets difficult. And not all of that work is easy. Sometimes the work of being in relationship means saying the hard thing, or being vulnerable in a hard way, or asking your people to do better with you. But I think that by being in relationship, we’re creating societies in which no one person has to do everything. And we’re creating ecosystems within movements where no one organization has to do everything. Where there is a place for everyone to do something. And there is no opportunity for one person to do everything. By having those relationships we can cultivate space for abundance, and we can also cultivate space for joy and for laughter. And I think that sometimes in crisis, or just generally, people are hella attached to the struggle, you know, they’re like, “If I’m not suffering I’m not doing enough.” And that is not a sustainable mindset. That’s, that’s a mindset of martyrdom. That’s a mindset of scarcity and of individualism. 

JEANELLE 

Amen.

SAMMIE

I think what we’re trying to cultivate as, as motivation, you know, is actually saying, it’s much more beautiful to do this with your homies, you know, like, it is much more beautiful to do this with your friends and with your community. It also means you get to do it for much longer and in a way that feeds your soul rather than starves it.

JEANELLE 

Thank you. I felt like that answer fed my soul just now. 

JUSTINE 

Same. Same, that was so nice.

Yeah, that leads nicely to my next question, which is: What are you hoping you know, as a result of hosting the phone tree, the healing events and all the work you’ve, you’ve done with APIENC over the years, what are you hoping changes about how people engage government in Northern California or more broadly? And what are you hoping changes about society as a whole? Actually, I think it can be, can be really blown out.

SAMMIE

From this incredibly difficult moment, there are really two things that I hope come out. And the first thing is that I hope people are able to re-ground and recalibrate what they see as essential to them. So many things in our society that people might have previously thought were essential, have, have, have shown that they’re not as essential, right? The things that are essential in our societies and communities are things like health and healthcare workers. They’re the food and people who get us the food. They’re the emotional labor and household labor that allow us to live in our homes, keep them clean, and keep them safe and healthy. And I think now is an opportunity for people to really imagine for themselves: What is essential to me? Is it my connections? Is it my home? Is it my community and my family? The way that I am with myself, right? I think this is a moment for people to really interrogate and get clear on what is essential for them, and what is essential for our societies. And those are the things that we should be investing our money, and our time, and our energy into, right?

And the second thing that I hope people get out of this moment: It’s based on a quote from one of my favorite organizations. This organization is called Movement Generation. And one of the tenants of their work as an ecological justice organization, is the idea that if we’re not prepared to govern, we’re not prepared to win. And in this moment, we’re seeing a lot of amazing community initiatives like the mutual aid networks that are popping up, the different distribution centers where people are filling gaps in food and healthcare. We’re seeing the different ways that communities are providing for one another in a way that practices deep democracy. And I do not mean democracy like, a senator got elected and then misused a bunch of money. I mean, like, real, local decision-making power over the things that have impact on people’s lives directly. And I hope that this is a moment where people get to practice local governance, and get some practice saying, “This is where I think our pooled resources should go. This is what I think we should do as a close knit pod of seven people. This is what we should do as a household.” I hope that people get more versed in being able to make decisions collectively, and know their neighbors, and know their neighborhoods, and know their teachers, and know the other parents around them, and the other Trans and Queer people doing this work. But this is an opportunity to practice what it really looks like to have self-determination and agency, and to enact those things, despite or in light of what the government is saying is appropriate and responsible. That people will make the decision about what’s appropriate and responsible for their pods in the community and the most vulnerable people around them.

I hope that people get more versed in being able to make decisions collectively, and know their neighbors, and know their neighborhoods, and know their teachers, and know the other parents around them, and the other Trans and Queer people doing this work.

JUSTINE 

Thank you. I’m curious to know what, what help do you need right now, and if, if money is off the table because we could all use additional funding. And how can people follow you and APIENC as you continue to do the work you do?

SAMMIE

Absolutely.

There are so many ways to help organizations like APIENC and APIENC right now. I think one of them is just sharing and getting educated about the issues that trans and queer Asians and Pacific Islanders face. And, you know, people can follow us online on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter at APIENC which is @A-P-I-E-N-C. But I think there’s also ways that we’re asking for people who are part of our community, to come be part of our community and be responsible with us for the well being of everyone in our community. And there’s a role for everyone to play. You know, sometimes people can directly do grocery drop off. Sometimes people can donate groceries. Other people can make calls to check in on community members. Other people can facilitate workshops to make sure that other folks are doing okay and have community space to process. There are so many ways to to lend skills to this organization. 

And if you’re not a part of this community, if you’re not a trans, queer, Asian and Pacific Islander person, I think that this is a really important moment for everyone in every community to really interrogate how they are practicing solidarity as a verb. Solidarity is not just a thing that happens once, and it’s done and it’s over. Solidarity is something to practice, and reflect on and practice again. And I think I really would hope that everyone, including myself, takes the time to think about how they’re in active solidarity with communities that are not their own. Whether that is uplifting the campaign that local communities are lifting up, donating resources, doing readings, getting educated, attending the 7000 webinars that are happening in this moment about the injustice and the joy, you know? This is a, this is a moment where you can attend events online that would have never previously happened. I have recently got to attend an event where there was five panelists across three different continents. That is such a gift.

JEANELLE 

Wow. 

SAMMIE

You know, this is a moment where we can learn with one another on how to do better and then practice and experiment. You know? Like, people are very excited about experimenting with sourdough bread and pickling. And that is dope, keep that energy and apply it to more things, you know, like, you don’t have to stop making bread, you can make bread while you watch a webinar. Bread takes a long time to make. This is a perfect way to fill the time. You know?

JEANELLE 

(Laughing). Yes

SAMMIE

Just kind of like make, you know, make it part of a practice, make it a part of a ritual to figure out how to be in solidarity with trans and queer API people, and with many, many other folks who need folks who are ready, and educated, and not defensive to come and support that work. 

JEANELLE  

Right. And let’s be honest, like, this is the best time to do it too because, like, everything is being given away for free, like, all this information and knowledge…

SAMMIE

Right.

JEANELLE 

People are dropping for free because they care about all of us being stuck in this pandemic together. So it’s a perfect time to access information.

SAMMIE

It’s true. There’s, there’s an abundance of information out there. There’s an abundance of recorded streams and books that have been made free online, and all of these amazing presentations, and videos, and podcasts just like this one. I think now’s the time for people to, for people to really interrogate and recommit to the things that they want to commit to to make the society better for every single person.

JEANELLE 

Yes, Sammie, you have, you have given us so much. I’m so amazed. You’ve dropped so much knowledge in short bit of time. Thank you, thank you so much. I, but I, If I may, if I may, I would like to squeeze one more word of wisdom out of you as a parting gift to our listeners. So if you just have one word of wisdom that if, if someone wasn’t listening to anything you said, but they’re listening in this moment, right now, what word of wisdom would you give?

SAMMIE

Mmmm. Mmmhmm. Ah, let’s see.

JEANELLE 

And they should have been listening. So let me say that.

SAMMIE

True, that’s true. I think if I just had one thing to say to people, I would say that, you know, oftentimes, Western thought and Western ideology say that the smallest unit is one, right? One is the smallest thing. An individual is the smallest, smallest unit by which we can measure something, a system. But I think in a lot of other communities across the world and a lot of other societies and cultures, the smallest unit isn’t one, it is the relationship between two things. And so this is a moment where I really, really hope that people take the time to invest in their relationship, because the smallest things that we have in our society is not just you. And it is not just I, it is the connection that we have, that we’re able to grow, cultivate change and use for the betterment of people. And so this is really a time where we can push ourselves to talk with our friends and our family and our loved ones, to get into the vulnerable conversations about asking for help, and offering help and moving through our fears and vulnerabilities. And now is as critical time as ever, to be working on our relationships because these are the things that are going to be taking us forward. Social change, every movement that has succeeded throughout history, every change that’s been made in the world has been because relationship have allowed for things to happen.

JEANELLE 

Mm. Thank you.

JUSTINE 

Thank you, Sammie. And thank you for joining us today and for sharing your insights. Really appreciate you being here.

SAMMIE

Yeah, it’s been such a joy to speak with you all. Thanks for having me.

JUSTINE 

Of course. This has been Tea with the People, the podcast.

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