“ ‘Go back to your country’—most [Asian American] people have heard that,” says Annie Guo VanDan, executive director of Colorado Asian Culture and Education Network (CACEN). In the past year, with COVID-19 fueling a rise in anti-Asian rhetoric, such incidents have only increased, along with physical attacks, intimidation, and vandalism of local businesses.
It is difficult to put a price tag or budget on the long work necessary to disentangle Colorado’s Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) communities from those xenophobic encounters, as well as generations of racism. But funding for local community organizations is a start. That’s why Kaiser Permanente partnered with Asian Americans Advancing Justice (AAJC) to create grant programs for local AAPI organizations.
In July, they awarded two $100,000 grants to Denver-area groups. First, Asian Pacific Development Center, which provides culturally specific mental and medical health care, language assistance, and crime victim support. CACEN, which hosts cultural events, produces the Colorado Chinese Radio Network with KGNU, and works in partnership with Asian Avenue Magazine.
“There’s been a shift in the way people were thinking about funding, with more becoming available to communities of color,” says Guo VanDan. “For us to get funds specifically to support our Asian community, and be entrusted to use those funds however we think our community needs, I feel like we’re really going to be able to move the needle in a way that we weren’t before.”
CACEN plans to expand its reach beyond the Denver metro area to counties like Boulder, El Paso, and Larimer. Overall, the group wants to strengthen mental health services and advocacy coaching for about 70,000 people.
Over the next two years, they’ll add 10 AAPI mental health providers to their current list of 30, and conduct a needs assessment to determine appropriate support. In partnership with the Denver-based National Asian American Pacific Islander Mental Health Association (NAAPIMHA), CACEN will provide training and consultations for AAPI providers, plus those serving AAPI clients.
“Failure to know who the [client] is, his/her ethnicity, language of choice, historical trauma, place of birth, religious beliefs, beliefs around mental health, traditional healing practices and other factors can greatly increase the likelihood of negative outcomes,” says NAAPIMHA executive director DJ Ida.
Colorado colleges and universities will play an important role in CACEN’s efforts to expand services. They’ll offer groups like the University of Colorado Denver Asian Student Services workshops about the importance of behavioral health and a diverse workforce, eventually leading to a mentorship program with professionals in the field.
Strengthening the voices of various AAPI communities, which make up just over three percent of Colorado’s population, is the second part of CACEN’s grant-funded goals. The group plans to lead a “Stop Asian Hate” campaign—but first, Guo VanDan notes, it could use a rebranding.
“Locally, we’re thinking about something more like ‘We Belong.’ A positive framing around us,” Guo VanDan says. Belonging combats the stereotype that AAPI people are perpetual foreigners, a categorization which provokes comments like, “Go back to your country.” Creating space for belonging also requires allies to do more than simply “not hate.”
In the halls of power, this means government officials hearing and prioritizing more Asian American perspectives, as well. CACEN plans to equip local organizations and businesses as advocates through discussions about how the government works, how to identify needs, and knowing one’s rights. They’ll also disseminate reports to local hubs and run ads in social and local Asian media.
“It took a process for me to recognize the value in advocacy,” says Nga Vương-Sandoval, the Refugee Congress Delegate for Colorado. “There is truth in saying there has been a cultural and generational hesitancy to speak out because it has not been seen in a positive light by the community at large. It’s been met with not only discouragement, but with violence. [But] if we don’t stand up, then it becomes a non-issue like it has been, and people don’t see the severity of what’s going on.”
Thanks to the Bias Motivated Crimes legislation, signed into law in June 2021, criminal offenses in which bias is a clear motive or sub-motive can receive greater punishments. Vương-Sandoval (representing herself as a Vietnamese refugee) testified in favor.
“It would, in a way, respect and honor the victims,” Vương-Sandoval says. She previously worked in a district court writing pre-sentencing investigation reports for criminal cases, during which she noticed few penalties reflected clear biases involved in crimes. This was because prosecutors couldn’t include multiple motives in a case. With the new law, criminal charges can add demographic bias (against race/ethnicity, sex, religion) and therefore bring “enhanced” or longer/more severe sentencing.
Guo VanDan is also looking upstream to the bases of biases, such as school curriculums that rarely include AAPI history and culture. While Colorado has legislation around multicultural education, school districts can decide what courses are offered and what gets covered.
CACEN will materially support efforts to develop AAPI curriculum by compensating professors from University of Colorado Denver and the University of Denver working on the matter. They’ll also provide supplies and compensation for community leaders such as those in the Cherry Creek School District AAPI Parent Task Force.
“What happens is you have these community leaders, parents who are really passionate about an issue, but then they just get burnt out,” says Guo VanDan, who hopes the grant funding would help continued participation.
The grant goals laid out from CACEN are part of the paradigm shift needed in the way we engage with targeted communities, notes Vương-Sandoval. For her, visibility, recognition, and integration of AAPI communities in Colorado begins “when we bring up things such as systemic oppression, or xenophobia, or racism, and it’s not met with defensiveness,” she says. “It’s met with a heightened understanding and a willingness to work towards dismantling those issues.”