A new initiative in Guilford County has launched a multimedia project to counter a rise in attacks and harassment of Asian-Americans. According to a Pew Research Center survey, about three in ten Asian adults say they have been subjected to slurs or jokes because of their race or ethnicity. That's higher than any other demographic group. But organizers of the project say more knowledge leads to more empathy.
Turn a stranger into a neighbor through stories to combat violence — that's the idea behind Pan-Asian Voices and Experiences of North Carolina, or PAVE NC. The Greensboro-based initiative has started posting weekly profiles — photos and videos of Asian-American and Pacific Islander residents who share their experiences about living in the South.
PAVE co-founder Christie Soper says the harassment is nothing new.
“What's been happening in the country, while it has escalated, has been happening to Asian-Americans for many, many, many decades,” she says. “And what we're seeing now is that ramping of things that we've all experienced in some form or fashion.”
Soper says the idea to do something started with some initial conversations back in March. She had previously done anti-racism training and has experience in diversity and cultural awareness efforts.
It was a simple conversation, with no firm plans. Then, exactly a week later, a gunman in Atlanta killed eight people, including six Asian women. Soper says at that point it got personal. Many of the attacks have targeted elderly women, which made her concerned for her mother.
“I'm having to call her and have that conversation of, hey, please be really mindful when you're going to your doctor's appointments or when you're out and about, given what's happening right now," she says.
Just over 5 percent of Guilford County residents identify as Asian-Americans or Pacific Islanders, according to census figures. That works out to more than 27,000 people, larger than the total population of Kernersville.
Within that group is great diversity, the PAVE organizers say. Their own stories defy stereotypes. Soper is half-Korean but can trace her father's Guilford County roots back to the 1700s.
Co-founder Tina Firesheets is Korean but was raised on a Cherokee reservation through adoption.
“I grew up in the South. I grew up in western North Carolina,” she says. “And my mother was the only other Asian person I knew until I was 18 years old. And I'm often the only Asian in a room or a meeting or in an event.”
Firesheets learned early on what it was like to face stereotyping.
“Throughout my life, it was assumed that I was either Chinese or Japanese, and it was assumed maybe that I was this or that — good in math or what have you,” she says. “And for me, I just want people to know that we are not just Japanese or Chinese. Not all of us are good in math. We each have our individual stories and our individual successes and failures.”
PAVE NC is their means of confronting those misconceptions. Firesheets says it's an all-volunteer group that uses writing, photography, videography, and social media to share the stories of local Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders with the broader community.
“Any time you can bring people together to talk across differences, I do strongly believe that perspectives can change,” she says. “And once you have an awareness of another person's journey and another person's story, I can't help but to think that you're more open and you're less likely to make judgments and to act in ways that you might not otherwise if you didn't know. “
One of the first profiles in their series is Sona Isharani, a Greensboro dentist whose family is from India. Her husband is Steven Hatcher, whose mother is Korean. In this clip made for the project, Isharani talks about the cultural coming-together at their wedding.
“We had all of his mom and mom's sister all in traditional Korean dresses — the hanboks — and then my side was mostly in saris and I wore a sari but then we also had a Korean preacher there,” she says. “We had all of our American friends in American outfits if they didn't want to wear Indian. So that was our wedding and that was the start of our life together.”
The PAVE NC project launched this month to coincide with Asian-American Pacific Islander Heritage Month. The project is focused on the Triad, but they hope to take the effort statewide.