Growing up in Long Island, the love and care I received from my teachers, friends, and neighbors from all walks of life made me feel like an integral part of a diverse community, nurturing an open-minded conscientiousness and deep desire to help those with whom I felt so closely intertwined. During the pandemic, a time when I witnessed countless people suffering, this same love encouraged me to sow seeds of service into all in need. I founded LILAC, Long Island Laboring Against COVID-19, a youth-led COVID-19 relief organization dedicated to uplifting all who have been affected by the pandemic. Even with my efforts to do good in the diverse, forward-thinking place I’ve always called home, I was met with another pandemic, one deeply rooted in the garden of America: Prejudice.
During a LILAC donation of meals and Personal Protective Equipment to Mount Sinai South Nassau, a COVID-19 hospital in Oceanside, Long Island, I was flipped off and verbally assaulted by a couple who were walking by while I was in the middle of an interview with a news station. After months of giving everything I had to support my community, I couldn’t believe what was happening. At that moment, everything around me froze. I felt a surge of fear and adrenaline thundering through my body. Was there more the couple had to say? Would they be back, or was it a one-time thing? Should I leave? While I attempted to carry on with our donation, I was shaken to my very core. It felt as if I spent the rest of the day recovering from a winding blow – breathless, trembling, tense, and faint – all while I was doing my best to tend to those who I considered almost family. However, as shocked as I was in that moment, I rationalized that the pandemic was acting as a catalyst for rising hate crimes against the Asian American and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) community.
Racist immigration policies, such as the National Origins Formula, a system of immigration quotas that restricted immigration from the eastern hemisphere, systematically excluded Asians as recently as 1965 until the Hart–Celler Act repealed the de facto discrimination. Considering all this, it can be concluded that targeted discrimination against Asian Americans is not new. America’s increasingly antagonistic relationship with China and the inflammatory political comments about the “China virus” only served to worsen discrimination against the AAPI community.
As I experienced first-hand, it seems as if nowhere is safe. According to a study conducted by California State University that examined hate crimes in sixteen of America’s largest cities, hate crimes in 2020 decreased overall by 7%, while AAPI hate crimes rose by nearly 150%. Stop AAPI Hate, a nonprofit organization that tracks incidents of hate and discrimination against AAPI populations in the United States, reports 9,081 instances of hate crimes from March 19, 2020, to June 30, 2021, with an increase from 6,603 to 9,081 during just three months between April and June 2021. This is an alarming spike in recent months as tensions rise during the pandemic, especially with conspiracy theories, scapegoating, and more targeting of the AAPI communities. In addition, AAPI hate incidents reported by women make up 63.3% of all reports, an often-unheard-of statistic which brings to light how AAPI women suffer on the intersection of race and gender. Harassment, threats, violence, microaggressions, and even the anticipation of being mistreated lead to racial trauma akin to PTSD, creating compounding anxiety and hypervigilance, the sum of which leads to immense psychological harm.
Though I don’t know what motivated the couple to harass me, the experience led me down a path of reflection, questioning my place in my community. Was this truly a place where I belonged, a place I could call my home? As a young Asian-American girl, I was only beginning to recognize that Long Island’s long history of inequality ran deep. UCLA’s Civil Rights Project labeled Long Island as “one of the most segregated and fragmented suburban rings in the country.” The juxtaposition of affluent Dix Hills sitting atop working-class Wyandanch, which former New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo called “one of the most economically distressed communities on Long Island,” shows a stark contrast which is quite literally, Black and White. Even elsewhere in Long Island, a judge recently ruled in a federal lawsuit that Garden City had broken the Fair Housing Act by discriminating against minorities. While I loved my community, the subtle nuance of well-meaning hypocrisy, which acknowledges oppression at face value, but makes little actual sacrifices that would change the status quo, showed Long Island had a ways to go if it was to be truly called a home for all.
My experience of racial harassment, and the research which shortly followed, galvanized me to lead the charge with a socially engaged local youth movement to build solidarity with BIPOC communities in Long Island. I realized that, for change to truly happen for the AAPI community, we must not only uproot the weeds of Anti-Asian hate, but actively cultivate groves of solidarity, compassion, and action with other disenfranchised POC and earnest allies, looking back on our collective history to build forward a brighter future. In the vein of activist and writer Grace Lee Boggs, whose Chinese name, 玉平 (Yu Ping), means “Jade Peace,” I strove to unify my community with a peace that transcends color, creed, or class. I utilized LILAC’s platform to fight food insecurity, provided the PPE needs of my disproportionately affected BIPOC neighbors, and I realized it was incumbent on us youth to work towards a more attentive and conscious Long Island. In partnership with political and cultural leaders, LILAC organized a “Love, Unity, and Action” Anti-Asian Hate Rally in Syosset, joined by County Executive Laura Curran, Senators John Liu and Jim Gaughran, Congresswoman Grace Meng, and Director of Nassau County Office of Asian-American Affairs, Farrah Mozawalla, to demand effective legislation to fight hate crimes and violence. I continued to find avenues for making my voice heard–and matter–as a panelist in several discussions and roundtables on race with elected officials like Senator John Brook and Nassau County Legislature Minority Leader Kevan Abrahams. And, in a joint meeting discussing AAPI issues with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, I advocated for my community and the importance of including female AAPI history in our educational curricula.
Though AAPI hate and violence is a national issue, I decided I could begin by tackling it in my community. In doing so, I saw first-hand how interconnected systems of oppression were, and how they affected all minority groups. Whether we know it or not, everyone in society is assigned multiple identities, with corresponding hierarchies between dominant and non-dominant groups. With race, the majority can bestow benefits to members they deem “normal,” or limit opportunities to members that fall into “other” categories. In the United States, this expresses itself as all non-white people being categorized as “other” and experiencing oppression in the form of limitations, disadvantages, or disapproval, even suffering abuse from individuals, institutions, or culturally. This oppression, a combination of prejudice and institutional power, creates a system that regularly discriminates and disenfranchises the minority. In a concrete way, when one of us is hurt, all of us are, and likewise, by lifting my fellow POC, I was not only working for a better future for them, but for us all.
This mindset was pivotally important in our work, especially in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd, when LILAC led racial reconciliation initiatives in solidarity with our Black brothers and sisters. During a tender time of mourning and reflection, we held space for and supported Black Lives, promoting unity and action across boundaries. We partnered with BIPOC businesses and nonprofits, connecting the predominantly-POC South Shore with the majority-white North Shore with community events alongside Senator Kevin Thomas, Legislators Kevan Abrahams and Debra Mulé. LILAC’s ThankYou & WeCare Arts Initiative created and donated over 200 framed artworks boosting morale, with special BLM and Anti-Asian hate inspired artworks now displayed in government buildings, nursing homes, and offices, including a fifteen-painting exhibit in the Theodore Roosevelt Executive and Legislative Building. These artworks were created by the community, for the community, and are a testament to what can sprout from actively cultivating a united coalition of young, civically minded, and diverse Long Island.
Even during the darkest of times, in a broiling pandemic, I had a taste of what a beautiful place our community could be. I want to fight for that future for all communities, and I want you there too. The amazing thing is that, despite those insistent voices of hate, people from different races, religions, and regions can truly live and work together, and better yet, they can blossom. The capacity for us to connect and flourish despite our differences, or perhaps even, because of our differences, is not an oddity. In fact, it’s the way nature was created. Though monocultures wilt and quickly catch disease, a garden flourishes when all plants are taken into consideration, and by nurturing a permaculture of regenerative community resilience, planting seeds of hope, I believe that change will bloom, even in my own backyard.
Sabrina is from New York and is the youngest global winner of the 2021 Poems to Solve the Climate Crisis Challenge. She spoke out against climate injustice and performed her poetry in the 2021 UN Climate Change Conference (COP26). She received the Civic Expression Award and nine national medals from the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards. She’s a commended winner of the Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award, first place winner of the Barbara Mandigo Kelly Peace Poetry Award, recipient of the Poetry Society of Virginia’s Jenkins Prize, and nominee for the 2021 Pushcart Prize in Poetry. She is recognized by the Adroit Prizes in Poetry and Prose and the Bennington College Young Writers Awards. Her work has been published in the Best Teen Writing, Raleigh Review, West Trestle Review, Counterclock, Blue Marble Review, Polyphony Lit, among others.