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Meet NAPAWF, The Community Organizers Building Power For AAPI Women & Girls



5 min read

Thinx - Periodical - Meet NAPAWF, The Community Organizers Building Power For AAPI Women & Girls

by Toni Brannagan | 05/05/2021

While the reckoning over a drastic increase in hate crimes towards people in the Asian American & Pacific Islander communities has recently caught the nation’s attention, this fight for justice and power has been an ongoing battle. Many AAPI folks have been diligently doing the work to protect and uplift our community for decades. 

That is certainly the case for our Giverise partners at the National Asian Pacific American Women's Forum (NAPAWF). Since 1996, NAPAWF’s mission has been to build a movement for social, political, and structural change for AAPI women and girls through community-based work. Our friend Marissa Graciosa, the President of the National Governing Board at NAPAWF, is here to talk about fighting for justice through an intersectional lens, how she came to community organizing, and you can get involved, too.

Thinx: How did you originally get involved with this work?

Marissa Graciosa: I came to community organizing out of necessity. My parents are immigrants from the Philippines who were recruited to a rural area in Wisconsin that didn't have a pediatrician. I dealt with racism early on as a young person, I was a teenager in high school when I started to experience harassment, specifically from white entitled dudes in my high school. So I did the only thing I knew how to do, which was to build community. I basically started a club of people at my high school who were against racism, but then it became a way for me to find my voice and to actually advocate for my experience and my family. That was my first experience in actually building community and trying to make change. 

Since then, I’ve been an immigrant rights organizer and I used to be the organizing director at Planned Parenthood Federation of America. It's always been really important to me to make sure that I am building community where I am and trying to build power for others who don't have it because of the way things have been built in this country. 

In my experience, Asian people especially are told by society to keep our heads down and then the American dream will be ours... and I've just found that to be bullsh*t. If the murders in Atlanta don't make that starkly clear, I don't know what would. Building community—and maybe even more importantly, building power—has always been the solution I come back to, because we have to. No one can speak on our behalf, we have to speak for ourselves.

Can you tell us more about your work with NAPAWF, and NAPAWF’s mission? 

MG: NAPAWF is an organization that builds power for Asian women and girls, through the lens of reproductive justice. We live at the intersections of many different oppressions — I experience the world differently not only because of my race, but my gender, my class, all of these different things that are at play in the way I experience the world. And because NAPAWF has a very explicit racial justice lens and gender lens, we’re able to address the nuances of how policies affect our lives — we have a different way of approaching them and thinking about how we do work. 

How do NAPAWF’s three core issues (Reproductive Health & Rights, Economic Justice, & Immigration & Racial Justice) intersect for AAPI women & girls? Why is it imperative to tackle all three?

MG: We work directly with people who are affected by federal state and local policies. As an example of how this all intersects, we have a member who is a new immigrant to the United States and she's not eligible for Medicaid because she’s been here less than 5 years. She has a low income and got pregnant — because she didn't have that access, she didn't have the money to pay for prenatal care, she didn't have the care she needed to manage her reproductive health issues, and as a result, she had two miscarriages. How does she actually navigate the system to get the care that she needs? 

In many ways she fell through the cracks, because not only does she have a low income, but because she is a recent arrival to the United States — so that’s an immigration issue, in addition to a lack of access to reproductive health care. All of those things that are in play affect her life. So we can't just say we're an organization that is just working on citizenship, because getting citizenship for her won't necessarily deal with the fact that she continues to have low income, and she doesn’t have access to higher paying jobs, and consequently, health care. 

People's lives are not one dimensional, NAPAWF is an organization that takes into account all the complex layers of identity and tries to understand what is policy that can actually help people who are in these real-life situations.

What work with NAPAWF are you most proud of? 

MG: Just recently, the NAPAWF staff has been working with the White House. It’s one thing for the administration to actually acknowledge hate against Asian Americans, but then also to understand that it's disproportionately affecting women — women and our elders are being targeted. They just announced $49.5 million in community-based services for survivors of domestic violence, and that's a huge win because it could have been that the answer was more police, and that ain’t our thing either! Coming to this with a reproductive justice lens, we're not looking for more policing as a result of what's been happening to the Asian community. 

NAPAWF released polling recently that shows that 1-in-2 AAPI women report being affected by racism in the past two years. Like you said, Atlanta really started a lot of conversations, but racism against AAPI women in this country has often been historically overlooked. Why do you think that is? 

MG: It has everything to do with the model minority myth. I'm so glad that NAPAWF is doing more of that data gathering because I do think our story is often that of Asian American success in this country, of achieving *The American Dream*. 

One, that myth was created in order to pit us against Black folks and create a racial hierarchy with white people at the top. Two, the data doesn't go deep enough to actually tell a full story because we don't disaggregate. It's just not fair to say my parents who came to this country with an MD and other folks who came as refugees or under completely different circumstances—most of them imperial across the board—are the same. Imperialism and colonialism brought us here but we came with different things in our pockets. 

The data often depicts us as a monolith of supposed success, and I think that in some ways our community has allowed ourselves to buy into out of a sense of trying to survive. I know that my parents’ generation kind of bought into it. Like okay, we’ll take that on, just leave us alone. I have so much hope in this new generation of activists and organizers that are willing to say that we're not taking the bribe, and it won't buy our silence. 

On that note, what do you think progress looks like in this space? 

MG: The first thing that comes to mind is that it is a very low bar to say that people should understand and see our humanity. That's not progress to me. So my goals in this, and especially from the tragedy in Atlanta, are not like, oh, we’re gonna humanize Asian American women! Eff that, if you didn't see us as human I'm not dealing with that. 

Progress to me looks like my sisters standing up and telling our stories, and being arm-in-arm with other Asian American and Pacific Islander women, other people of color, and saying this stops here — this is our new narrative, and we won't let this happen to the next generation of women. That’s why NAPAWF is so exciting to me. People who didn’t understand race or see this before, that’s great that they want to do the work, but we’re also going to take charge and stand up. 

What are some other ways folks can get involved, or support AAPI people in their communities?

MG: I’m a community organizer, so my answer is always to link arms with others who have our same values to build collective power. For AAPI women, that could mean you become a member of NAPAWF, or join Asian American and Pacific Islander groups that are organizing to change laws to hold our elected accountable. 

For allies, I've seen people are doing bystander trainings, people are starting to understand our history — educate yourself, but don't just read all the books. Be active, take action so that you can understand this is not a blip. What has been an intense period of spotlight on the Asian American community and Asian American women is actually a part of a long history of what oppression and violence looks like in this community. 

And v-o-t-e! It’s not the end all be all of making change in this country but it's the least we can do. Electoral power and power at the ballot box is one path of many, but a really important route towards getting the change in the world that we want and I would never discount that we need to build power there. 

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

You can learn more about NAPAWF and get involved through their site and Instagram. Keep up with Marissa @marissagraciosa.

Toni Brannagan is a writer and was the former Copy and Content Manager at Thinx.

by Toni Brannagan

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