In response to the rising tide of harassment and violence against persons of Asian American background, more than a dozen concerned citizens from across South Jersey took part in a 60-minute virtual forum on April 18, where a multitude of opinions was offered and solutions for a greater cultural understanding were discussed.
The meeting was helmed by Vandana Nittoor, a co-organizer of Tapestry Community Conversations, South Jersey-based diverse community organization founded on the principles of the Chapter for Compassion. Lori Volpe, mindfulness instructor and trauma specialist, who is a friend of Nittoor, offered a space for reflection and meditation to balance the seriousness of the conversation.
Cherry Hill residents Nina Gao and Xiufang Chen, members of the South Jersey Asian Alliance, joined as panelists and principal points of contact for questions, discussion, as well as to impart their own wisdom through experience.
Gao, who has a 13-year-old son, admitted that one event caused her to cross an invisible line between enduring incidents quietly and finding her public voice.
“The tipping point was the mass shooting in Atlanta. Eight people died, six were Asian American. And the comments we heard about the shooter, where the sheriff said he was having a bad day .. almost trying to normalize the killing,” she mentioned.
“I was thinking, who doesn’t have a bad day? But why is that a justification to go out and kill that many people? Imagine if this perpetrator was non-white, would (the sheriff) make these comments in the same way?”
A crucial question then arose, regarding what people in Cherry Hill and the surrounding areas could do in light of attacks on those of Asian descent due to the fear of the pandemic, and to help people of color feel supported and empowered. Both township residents weighed in with simple, but profound concepts made more difficult by the inability of people to meet face-to-face.
“When I walk around in my neighborhood, I want to expect that my neighbor and I are after the same things. To be friendly, to say ‘hi’ to each other. And be kind to each other. If we see anyone being discriminated against, say something, or do something,” Chen responded.
Added Gao, “Meetings like this are great; seeing people with diverse backgrounds and different races, ethnicities, and it’s a good way to get to know each other. When people know each other on a personal basis, it makes it a lot easier to talk about these concerns and ideas. For my students, I always say to try and learn another language. Go to a cultural event not of your own heritage. Watch a movie, read a book (about another culture).”
When discussing next steps for the panelists, as well as for their neighbors and the community at large, one theme persisted: making a conscious effort to take steps and engage others.
“I would like to invite (all) the ladies to join my own meetings and talk to my group of the Indian community. That would be a good beginning from my point of view. Inviting other communities to my meetings, and going to their meetings and then do more (in person), said Vinita Ganju.
Cherry Hill Township Councilwoman Sangeeta Doshi also joined the conversation, calling for greater cultural interconnection whenever possible.
“If we can continue to be allies for each other, like what we were doing for Black Lives Matter with what happened to George Floyd, where we were out marching with (African American neighbors) hand in hand,” she recalled.
Doshi said it is the older generation’s responsibility to teach their children to start doing the same kind of work towards reconciliation and fostering a sense of unity. She recognized how the current generation has youth on its side, and a greater understanding of the wider world.
“We have seen that it’s tough to be an ally. But that doesn’t mean we stop doing it. These kinds of discussions give people strength. Together we can do it, but we do have to start with the new generation. I encourage everybody not to just stick up for your own community. We should look out for other communities,” Doshi added.