On Community Engagement: A Conversation with RadAzns TC

Guest Post by Bao Phi

RadAZNs TC (TC standing for Twin Cities) is a Minnesota Asian American activist group that conducted a series of door knocking campaigns in low income communities with Asian residents to talk about police brutality, anti-Blackness, and discrimination. Though many members of RadAZNs TC had been activists in myriad groups and causes for quite some time, many of them came together through movements and actions related to the shooting of Jamar Clark, a 24-year-old African American man who was shot and killed by Minneapolis police on November 15, 2015, in North Side Minneapolis.

Below is an interview I conducted with several members who were involved in the door knocking campaign -- Eunha Jeong Wood, Txoov Vaaj (Chong Vang), MK Nguyen, and contributions by Linda Her.

First, tell me a little bit about RadAZNs TC. When did you come together? Do you have a mission?

RadAZNs TC slowly came out in the new year of 2016 after collective members have realized that our movement could not only just focus on #BlackLivesMatter as #APIs4BlackLives, but with the idea and values that we need to push, foster, nurture, and advance our own Asian American movement as well. Our collective is made up of members from various background, occupations, and lived experiences. We do not have an "official" mission yet. From my own experience, I would have to say that our mission includes educating our Asian American communities by phone-banking, door-knocking, and holding community events; creating safe spaces for ourselves and our communities to participate in healing and self-care; and seeking frameworks that can be used to liberate not only ourselves, but our communities as well.

We came together somewhat organically. Our group formed through our connections via direct action and educational and media work centered around decolonizing our history and reclaiming our radical political narrative and legacy/genealogy/lineage. This work includes but is not limited to participating in direct actions, presenting at conferences, making videos, writing articles, building the ethnic studies movement, and eating a lot of good food together.

What inspired you to do the door knocking campaign?

The call for self-determination means we need to assert our own narrative. We cannot rely on corporate, mainstream media to do this of their own volition. We wanted to talk with folks directly to learn their real opinions, level of engagement or disengagement, and personal experiences.

When the issues of Jamar Clark's death, police brutality, and #BlackLivesMatter came up, we knew instantly that we needed to do some community organizing on that issue, especially going door-to-door and having some critical conversations with local Asian American community members about how they felt in regard to Jamar Clark, police brutality, and #BlackLivesMatter. A few days before the North Minneapolis door-knocking event, Eunha and I (Txoov Vaaj) were invited to speak at KFAI about our experiences as #APIs4BlackLives members. During this talk-show, I was asked if I knew how the Asian American community, particularly, the Hmong community was going to react to #BlackLivesMatter. I can vividly remember the remarks that the host made in Hmong (but for the sake of making this easier, I am going to write this in English). He said, "I already know what they are going to say. They're gonna say, ‘these damn Black folks, we [Hmong people] don't like any of them.'" It was not surprising that the host, who was Hmong himself, made this comment. It's not surprising that anyone who has not had any form of community relationship building and community organizing would make such remarks. As a result of that experience at the talk-show, I was even more determined to prove the host wrong, because through my experiences in the 2012 election, community conversations are not only powerful, but it is also very liberating. If I see the talk-show host again, I'm gonna slap the article RadAZNs TC wrote in his face so he can confront his own ignorance.

Can you give us specifics -- did you set up a grid, go in pairs, how did you deal with language fluency, etc?

Linda (Her) and Txoov Vaj were the primary organizers and trainers for the door knock. RadAZNs TC had coalition members who were a part of Asian American Organizing Project (AAOP -- a grassroots community and cultural organizing platform led by youth and young Asian Minnesotans) that we were able to use their data tool and resource, Voter Activation Network (VAN). We had targeted Asian Americans in North Minneapolis, Ward 5, since the shooting of Jamar Clark happened in MPLS Ward 5 -- Precinct 4.

Usually door-knockers are sent out by themselves, but because Linda and I had recognize that majority of the volunteers were new to door-knocking, so we sent them out in pairs. Furthermore, we also recognized that the majority of the residents in MPLS ward 5 were gonna be Hmong with a handful of Vietnamese, Chinese, Filipinos, and Lao residents, we had pair a Hmong person with every non-Hmong person.

In terms of language fluency, there is gonna always be problems. First of all, most Hmong folks who paired up with non-Hmong folks were not proficient in Hmong. Although the door knockers could carry small conversations, they had a harder time articulating words such as community, police abuse, and #BlackLivesMatter. It was also the same case for some of our volunteers who spoke Vietnamese and Tagalog. Fortunately, we had some folks in the room who were experienced in Hmong, Vietnamese, and Tagalog and were able to fill in those minute language gaps. Honestly, language is always going to be a barrier for Asian Americans when we are doing community organizing, however, AAOP, who is a partner of #APIs4BlackLives, is working on a program that will teach, build, and strengthen the political language proficiency in Asian American activists and organizers who want to do work in their community.

What were the biggest surprises, talking to community members?

Once folks realized that we just wanted to chat and learn their perspective, they were very open to talking, and many seemed to appreciate the opportunity to be heard and had a lot to say once they began discussing the topics, especially non-English-speaking elders. This was not surprising as much as we found it to be gratifying, to be a part of creating the time and space to hear from people who rarely to never have agency in our community.

We went in knowing that community organizing in the Asian American community will bring a different narrative to the issues happening at the time. Something interesting did occur while door-knocking: it seems that Asian residents were reluctant to talk about their experiences, but when we hit the nail on something, there was a pivotal point where residents actually started talking more and more about their experiences with police abuse in North Minneapolis.

Why did you choose Frogtown (West Saint Paul) and North side? Was there a difference in responses in the two areas?

The first door knock in North side Minneapolis was in response to the murder of Jamar Clark and the 4th Precinct Occupation. We wanted to both learn what Asian community members had to say and get insight into how to increase their engagement in events and issues happening in their neighborhood.. In Frogtown, MK Nguyen wanted have conversations with local Asian American community members about their hopes and dreams for their family as well as police abuse. Then, in East St. Paul, our member Kong Pha wanted to be in conversations with his community members in regards to hopes and dreams, fair wage, and police abuse.

I would not say that there was a difference in response in the three areas, but I would say that our method of survey questions and field work had changed drastically. In the first door-knock, we were not sure of what the best questions for this kind of door-knocking should be. After our data committee had analyzed the data, we came up with a better approach for formatting the survey questions to allow for better capturing and coding of the responses.

I really like your approach -- that you went into the community asking questions rather than having an agenda. How was that decided? Did you feel this was strategically effective? How so?

The few of us in the room who had experience in community organizing brought up the idea and the collective who were present at the time decided to move forth with it. It was not until the second door-knock that we really dug into the intersection of community and cultural organizing. In this conversation, we felt that it was critical to challenge ourselves to interact and build relationships directly with our community in a different framework away from traditional methods of community organizing.

In a traditional method of community organizing, we would have a candidate or an issue that would push volunteers to go knock at the door. When traditional door-knockers talk to residents, residents are treated as banking vessels were information was dumped onto them. After the residents were filled, residents were left to simmer and to internalize the information. After that, the door-knocker leaves, promises to keep the resident in the loop, and never returns again until the next election cycle to beg for a vote, support, or donation.

Most traditional community organizers avoid spaces where there is a language barrier, which is problematic when you have spaces such as North Minneapolis, Frogtown, and Eastside St. Paul where Asian populations are diverse and very concentrated in the area they live in. When traditional community organizers avoid spaces like this, it disenfranchises a whole community's voice, participation, and contribution. RadAZNs TC identifies the problem, which is the language barrier, and sends volunteers who speak those specific languages to target those households along with folks who do not speak that language. Just because Asian Americans cannot communicate in English, it does not mean that they do not care about #BlackLivesMatter, police abuse, or have hopes and dreams. Secondly, we do not dump information onto community members and treat them as empty vessels. In reverse, we allow community members to dump information on us and we take that information, internalize it, and turn it into knowledge that we can later go back and exchange with community members. Lastly, we are not there at the doors 1 day out of 365 days a year to get their vote, support, or donation. If traditional community organizing and cultural organizing came together and had a baby, this is what it would look like. We go out as often as we can to intentionally interact and build that relationship with our community.

One thing that I keep coming back to in your reportback is how many community members at first said they did not encounter police brutality, but then after conversation, many of them in fact had experienced police brutality -- they just called it something else. What does this teach us about vocabulary and language, even among leftist activists?

Especially among leftist activists, we have so much passion we often think that it has to be communicated in the strongest terminology possible, yet this tendency can create an unnecessary ideological distance and inhibit some solidarity and inclusiveness. And it is an element that repeatedly surfaces during conversations about how we can increase political and social engagement within varying Asian communities on issues that directly affect them. Language is culture, and if we use rhetoric or vocabulary that people don't relate to, then we will not be able to connect on important issues relevant to them, to all of us.

It was a matter of overcoming the language barrier across all Asian communities, and then, overcoming that language and cultural nuance within our own specific Asian community. I can recall an experience I had in Hmong at the door when I ask the resident about their experiences with police abuse. They were unsure about what it meant, so they made a comment about not ever experiencing anything related to that. I had to take a step back and recollect myself before clarifying the question. When I clarified the question, I gave some examples of what police abuse is along with asking residents if they felt that they were being treated by the police unfairly. What this teaches me is that there will always be a cultural nuance that is shifting in my own community that I need to be more aware of. Furthermore, it teaches me that even my own language and culture is fluid that vocabulary definitions and meanings will change from time period to time period and location to location. After learning this, I try to be more aware of language nuances and not to organize in the traditional method of simply "copy, paste, and translate," but having a more critical and contextual method of communicating whether as myself speaking Hmong or training volunteers who speak a different language.

You can read the reportback on the North side door knocking action here:

Bao Phi is a Vietnam born, South Minneapolis raised writer, community organizer, and dad.

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