CAAAV – Organizing Asian Communities
This case is based on an interview with Sasha Wijeyeratne, Executive Director, on June 10, 2020.
CAAAV is based in Manhattan’s Chinatown in Community District 3. CD 3 is one of the most dense and diverse districts in New York City in terms of cultures, religions, incomes, and languages. It shares a rich history of immigration trends that shaped the whole city: from successive waves immigration into overcrowded tenements, to urban renewal and slum clearance, and finally neighborhood decline and subsequent gentrification. Rapidly rising rents and residential and commercial gentrification in the area are a displacement threat to low income residents and businesses that cater to their needs. Before the pandemic, about a third of the residents lived below poverty level. Today, the area is a dense, mixed-use neighborhood featuring tenement-style apartment buildings with commercial on the ground floor and towers-in-the-park type private and public housing along the East River.
In 2012, storm surge from Superstorm Sandy flooded much of the neighborhood and disabled utilities for days on end. Senior and disabled residents in high rise buildings were stranded in their apartments for weeks without heat and electricity. After the storm, the City began the East Side Coastal Resiliency Project, which aims to protect the neighborhood from future flooding through an extensive reconstruction of the East River Park. Community groups, NYCHA tenants’ associations, and residents of the Lower East Side have been organizing for more community participation in the process, as well as to fight displacement through gentrification.
CAAAV Organizing Asian Communities
CAAAV is a pan-Asian community-based organization that works to build the power of low-income Asian immigrants and refugees in New York City. CAAAV develops leadership in Asian communities to impact the policies and institutions that affect their lives and to participate in a broader movement for racial and economic justice (https://caaav.org/). CAAAV currently has three chapters organizing working-class Asian immigrants in Chinatown and Western Queens Public Housing for racial, gender, and economic justice (https://caaav.org/our-work/programs ). It works with rent stabilized Chinese immigrants primarily in Chinatown, and primarily Chinese, Bangladeshi and Korean tenants in public housing in western Queens.
Founded in 1986 as the Committee Against Anti-Asian Violence, CAAAV has been organizing for justice in New York City for over 30 years. Its work originally came out of a response to rising anti-Asian violence across the country, including the murder of Vincent Chin in 1982. As it publicized these cases, CAAAV developed a deeper analysis of the root causes of violence: that it was part of the legacy of systemic and institutional racism; that as a result of systemic and institutional racism, immigrants and refugees were kept in poverty and forced to work in poor conditions; that women’s work has always remained invisible in and outside of the home; that LGBTQ folks bore the brunt of being marginalized to maintain the silence of others; and that the struggles our communities face in the United States are directly related to US policies abroad. CAAAV’s work then shifted to reflect this analysis, and engaged in anti-police brutality campaigns, participated in anti-war demonstrations, protested unfair working conditions, and developed community-based projects rooted in oppressed communities which focused on building the consciousness and leadership of our members.
Mission and Organizing Model
“CAAAV works to build grassroots community power across diverse poor and working class Asian immigrant communities in New York City. CAAAV’s mission is to organize against displacement, fight gentrification, and build the power of working class people in Chinatown so that we can determine the future of our homes and neighborhood”.
Its community organizing models is based on 5 pillars:
Base-building: CAAAV utilizes street outreach, door knocking, and regular new member meetings to build the base of community members involved in its campaigns. Base-building activities are tailored to the specific communities and campaigns they are working on.
Leadership Development: CAAAV is led by its membership —Asian immigrants and refugees. Therefore, a central component of its approach is developing members to make leadership decisions, influence key stakeholders, and ally themselves with coalition partners.
Direct Action Campaigns: All of CAAAV’s campaigns include a direct action component, bringing community members to the street to make their voices heard against a specific target (e.g. a city agency, politician, corporations, etc.)
Alliance Building: All of CAAAV’s major campaigns take place within the context of a broader network of organizations working in support of the issue. Alliance work may include groups that bring different strengths and abilities to the table (e.g. organizing vs. research vs. community planning vs. design & marketing) or groups that represent different community-based constituencies working to influence policy regionally and/or nationally.
Organizational Development: From fundraising, coordinating volunteers, to database management, this is often the most invisible part of organizing work, yet crucial for successful organizing.
CAAAV is a membership organization with a base of over 300 individuals, and a support base of over 3,000 people throughout NYC.
CAAAV’s membership is open to any working-class Asian folks in the neighborhoods that we work in, in western Queens and in Chinatown, and specifically anybody living in a rent stabilized apartment in Chinatown. By and large, our membership is almost entirely Chinese immigrants in rent stabilized apartments in Chinatown that are the last holdouts of affordable housing in the neighborhood, and in Queens, it's also Chinese, Korean and Bangladeshi folks living in public housing, primarily in the Queensbridge Houses. We have started to expand a little bit into the Woodside and Ravenswood and Astoria Houses, but that's on pause because we can't do in-person outreach anymore. Other requirements are to live in those places and be an Asian tenant.
Probably 300 to 400 community residents participate in CAAAV’s activities every couple of months. Folks don't always come every month, but we have membership meetings within both bases that range from two to three hundred people. We don't have a very accurate breakdown of gender, but women are definitely the majority.
CAAAV has a board of directors, primarily made up of professionals. Its primary purpose is fundraising. Programmatic decisions are made by staff and by members.
CAAAV rents its space on the first floor of a multi-family residential building in Chinatown.
We used to be across the street, and we got gentrified out, and the space that used to be our office is now a cat cafe. I do not remember the details, but I believe that our offices are part of a bigger complex. It was very hard to find space in Chinatown. Our lease we recently renewed and that's a multiyear lease. We were looking around, yet we are entirely priced out of literally any other office building in the area.
All of our meetings, all of our Chinatown tenant unions meetings are in our office with the exception of very large, like Lunar New Year celebrations. But all of our weekly member leadership meetings and monthly general membership meetings happen within our space. Our Queen's team actually meets in Queens. The space is available, but it's just a little bit of a hike for folks in the Queensbridge Houses to get to Chinatown.
Folks and women come in both for support. We get a lot of walk-ins; we have office hours and we get walk-ins from folks needing translation support, dealing with a landlord who's harassing them, any number of reasons, all the things that come up in a tenant organization. So that's one way member leaders in particular or longtime members will often drop in when they're passing by just to say hi and often drop in with food. We don't ask for that. It happens all the time. I think the primary use of the space beyond the sort of support for informal hanging out is through our member leader and membership meetings.
Coalitions and partner organizations
CAAAV is part of Housing Justice for All, a statewide coalition. Locally it is part of a coalition with GOLES and TUFF-LES tenants united fighting for the Lower East Side. It is also part of the Justice for All Coalition, not to be mistaken with Housing Justice for All that is based in Queens and in public housing. At the national level, CAAAV is part of the Right to the City coalition, part of National CAPACD, which is a working class Asian national coalition and one of the core members of Grassroots Asians Rising, a coalition of grassroots Asian organizations across the country. CAAAAV is not officially part of but has started to work more closely with People's Action around the public housing organizing.
When, how and why did you join the organization?
I joined in October of 2018 as the director. I think this is probably the most interesting. I've been in different Asian and Asian-American organizations. I've really respected and felt a deep kinship with CAAAV for a long time because CAAAV has played such a critical role over many years organizing working class Asian immigrants around a really specific political line. CAAAV has always been really clear about our politics and about being a left organization while remaining really grassroots. And I think that combination is actually pretty rare. I think often we do one or the other, and it's because it's incredibly hard to do both as we are experiencing on a day to day.
I really respected and felt a deep kinship with CAAAV for a long time, and when CAAAV’s previous ED, reached out to me about applying, I was pretty adamant that I wouldn't because I had just moved back to L.A. I grew up around L.A. I was pretty determined to stay in L.A. for the rest of my life, and budged ever so slightly because it was CAAAV and then began to talk to folks at CAAAV and get a sense of what the organization needed next. And almost despite myself, got looped around, and I got really pulled into the excitement of building this kind of both left and grassroots organization. And I have absolutely no regrets. It's been great.
I think we're a grassroots organization because CAAAV organizes. We call ourselves a grassroots organization and a mass-based organization, meaning that our goal is to organize as many working-class Asian folks and people as possible who live in the neighborhoods where we organize. The neighborhood limitation is really about capacity and not about values. We would love to organize working class Asian folks all over the city, and we have a staff of nine and that is not going to happen, but I think that's what makes us grassroots, that we're committed to organizing working class Asian immigrants specific to the neighborhoods we're in and that we don't have a political litmus test for people to join. We're clear about our politics, but we also understand that part of our role is to move people. We're trying to bring in as many people in the communities that we're in as possible and organizing with CAAAV is part of the process of transformation for folks, both staff and members.
Another thing that makes us grassroots is that we imperfectly try to have a practice of both member leadership in a real way, that no leaders make real decisions about campaigns and about CAAAV, and also as much as possible, try to have a practice of democratic decision making within our membership. So, for many of our campaigns, we will actually put them up to a vote in our full membership meeting. Or if that doesn't make sense either because of timing, that only happens once a month or other reasons we'll do it in our member leadership body. And it's not perfect. Staff that does decision making is still definitely held disproportionately by staff but we're constantly in the process of trying to shift that. I think that's another characteristic of a grassroots organization, that members and community members actually make decisions about the real political direction of the organization.
Foundation and Evolution of CAAAV
CAAAV was formed in 1986 by Asian-American women who were concerned and wanted to fight back against the rise of anti-Asian hate violence, and that very quickly became both sort of individual hate violence, for instance, Vincent Chin's murder, as well as police violence against Asian-American people and Asian-American youth, and CAAAV has often connected those two individual acts of violence to broader systemic root causes of violence.
CAAAV has had many different iterations and there are many other organizations that have grown out of CAAAV. So, I think one of the ways to understand CAAAV’s trajectory has been really starting off around individual hate violence and realizing that, that you just can't create the kind of structural change you need to stop hate violence if you're only dealing with individual acts. I think that was one shift. CAAAV also used to be more of an activist home, like any Asian-American in New York City or any Asian person in New York City could come through and be part of CAAAV, and it was really a political home, but not necessarily grassroots. I think that's been a shift, that even though it makes the politics more complicated, our commitment now is to really be a mass membership organization, and that's definitely a shift over time. I think the beginning of that shift was with the Lyft driver’s coalition, which is now the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, and that has remained as a thread and have consistently since then but I think especially with the creation of the Chinatown Tenants Union, which turned 15 years old this year.
Grassroots women are who have powered CAAAV always. CAAAV was founded by a group of really fierce Asian women who understood that the political project that was CAAAV and that is CAAAV was needed, and then pretty consistently, many of our member leaders have been grassroots women, many of our staff have been grassroots women. Most of CAAAV’S work has always been powered by both grassroots women and folks who maybe don't come from the grassroots of CAAAV but are committed to the project. The work has changed, as I was explaining before but CAAAV has always being led by women and queer and nonconforming people as far as I know, and again, staff and grassroots members leadership.
CAAAV maintains accountability to its constituency primarily through community meetings. I think as a political organization, organizers will share their political views and their assessment of campaigns or what's needed in the moment, and we make decisions with a number of leaders in particular. Those are folks that meet every week and go through a lot of political development as part of CAAAV and with CAAAV, and it is the highest level of engagement with the organization, and that is often the primary campaign decision making space, even if organizers and staff can strategize behind the scenes as well. But that's probably the primary way. It is very rare, and I don't know when the last time was that we made a big campaign decision without there being a formal decision from our member leadership body. The other way is through general member meetings where both present on the work that we're doing and on decisions that leaders have made and then also put things up for decision making then.
CAAAV’s broad overall mission is to build an Asian immigrant left, and what that looks like right now is that we organized working class Asian immigrants against gentrification and around issues of housing, that is, rent stabilized Chinese immigrants primarily in Chinatown and primarily Chinese, Bangladeshi and Korean tenants in public housing in western Queens.
Core parts of our current strategy is to grow the number of organized working-class Asian immigrant tenants; to interrupt capital, that means to interrupt the sort of project of the real estate industry and developers to gentrify our neighborhoods, to make them places that middle class and wealthy white families and people want to live in instead of the folks who've been there, the working class Asian and other people of color who've been there for a very long time. Another is that we really focus on structural change often, but not always through policy. So, in the last year we've pulled back from doing work that's primarily about language justice as opposed to language justice as it connects to gentrification because we decided that particularly in public housing, some of the root cause issues were really around funding and disinvestment. And that language and access was a symptom of that, but not actually the primary cause.
Achievements and Challenges
Some major breakthroughs in the last year: We were part of the coalition that stopped Amazon from moving their headquarters into Queens. That was a major achievement. We were part of the statewide coalition that won the rent law fight last year. That was also a massive win, a decade in the making. And then along with GOLES and TUFF-LES, we filed a lawsuit that halted the development of two mega towers in the Two Bridges neighborhood. These are accomplishments from just last year, a wild year of victories, it is very rare to have that many big wins all at once.
In the past, some of the major victories have been fighting to keep people in their homes and winning building fights against landlords. We also worked to bring a lot of light to police killings that would have otherwise gone unnoticed. This includes both showing up in solidarity with black communities and black organizers and also doing that with Asian people who've been killed by police. Probably the most well-known case from that is Yong Xin Huang , who is a young Asian person who was murdered by police.
The youth program is now Mekong, another organization, but I think that project had some really big wins, including producing a film about the experiences of Southeast Asian refugees and food insecurity. There were also some big wins from what was then the Lyft Service Coalition, now the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, concerning rights for primarily South Asian taxi workers. Similarly, there was a domestic workers project called Domestic Workers United that became different organizations, but I think the legacy has led to the National Domestic Workers Alliance.
The bigger challenge is trying to balance both CAAAV’s legacy as a political organization that has a left organization legacy instead of current commitment and being a grassroots membership organization. It's a constant work in progress and one that's really generative.
Relatedly, I think funding and sustainability is a constant challenge, both because of the political work that we do and because we have a commitment to making decisions with membership, which means that I actually can't tell you as an individual what our work will be twelve months from now, even for the sake of a grant, because things change when there's an actual weekly monthly decision making process.
Organizer and member burnout is always a challenge. The work is hard. The work is long. That work is exhausting. There are folks who have been at CAAAV for over 15 years and that's a really long time to sustain this kind of work.
Then in general, language access and language justice are always a struggle. Members speak primarily three different languages, Mandarin, Korean and Bangla, but we also have members who speak Cantonese, Fujianese, Taishanese, and so, it's possible to have a meeting happening with five to ten languages flying around the room all at once, and it's really hard to get things done fast when you translate all of that. It creates real roadblocks in having members be part of a coalition and bigger decision-making bodies. I think we often get stuck there, where our main coalition reps are often staff, even though we'd prefer for them to be members, but it is a hard situation to have. It's hard to commit to a weekly coalition call in which there's constant translation struggles, and we do it, we were actually much better at it before this moment (COVID), as it's much easier to do in person than to do over Zoom. This current version created a roadblock that we have not been able to troubleshoot yet. Zoom is hard anyway. Zoom in five languages is a nightmare. I think those are some of the biggest challenges.
Citywide Planning and Climate Change Activities
I think the most recent fights have been in a long-term fight to rezone the Two Bridges neighborhood, and a very long-term project of the Chinatown Working Group to actually rezone the entire neighborhood. We focused on the Two Bridges piece first because the most imminent threats were those two luxury towers that are no longer being developed, and we hope that remains true. But that's probably the primary way that we've engaged in city planning: trying to create a community plan and then actually get it passed through all of the incredibly tedious and cumbersome mechanisms that exist for city planning and through the city itself. I think also the fight around Amazon in some ways was about city planning, though less directly.
Part of what we were saying in that fight was that communities should get to decide who moves in and out of their neighborhoods and there shouldn't be a massive development dropped into the middle of our existing community without not just community say, but without real decision making from community members.
In the past, I think we've been part of different fights around park space, around waterfront space, and not exactly city planning, but we did a lot of emergency response after Hurricane Sandy, and I think it was very clear that the reason that disaster was so bad was because of the failure of city planning, specifically when it comes to working class neighborhoods of color.
I wasn't around when Sandy happened, but my understanding is that Sandy highlighted the inability of city planning and the city government to actually keep our communities safe. I think we doubled down our commitment to real city-led and city-decided community planning, knowing that if we don't decide, we get left vulnerable to gentrification to natural disasters, to everything else, and there's a limit to how much you can advocate to get considered. You actually have to be able to make decisions.
Visions for the future
We had really clear plans and visions for the future four months ago, and I think we're just not sure what the impact of this pandemic will be, especially in Chinatown. We anticipate that for folks that are in public housing, the fights remain similar.
One vision is fully funded public housing across the entire state. That's a big commitment and fight that we've been in for many years, and that is even more important now in the context of this pandemic because NYCHA isn't being sanitized and that's incredibly dangerous. Tenants have stories of water pouring through their roof every time it rains in the place they're supposed to be safely sheltering in place. You can't really shelter in place in a flooded apartment. So, the things that we always knew we needed and have been saying we needed, it's very clear that the lack of full funding is why NYCHA has become such a death trap in this pandemic, and the vision for a fully funded public housing remains the same.
Similarly, I think in Chinatown, we are still sort of doing an assessment of the neighborhood. I think it will become clearer as things start opening up to see who is able to open up and who is not and how that will impact the neighborhood. We are anticipating and trying to prepare to fight massive land grabs There's a lot of fear that small landlords and small businesses will go under and will get bought out by massive mega developers and corporations, and I think we're still trying to build our forces to be able to fight that with all the challenges of remote organizing.
Our broader vision for the neighborhood is still the Chinatown Working Group plan - that neighborhoods should get to decide their own future and get to do their own planning.
Broadly, our vision is that gentrification stops in New York City and that there is such a powerful, organized, large mass group of both working class Asian immigrants through our base and through other people of color and other communities in the city, that we're actually strong enough to keep our neighborhoods and stop real estate from pushing us out.
Regarding key factors for long term sustainability, one is funding perpetual struggle. Another is the continued political development of our members, which is often really hard to make time for in the midst of so many big fights; that we’re constantly developing ourselves as an organization at all levels to be politically sharp and strategic in order to make sure that we're always fighting the right fights or that if we're not, that we're able to assess that and pivot.
I think another is that at least CAAAV within the neighborhoods we're in we are actually in some ways fighting against gentrification; it is the fight to actually keep our base, that as folks get pushed out it becomes harder to have a mass membership organization in neighborhoods that are being gentrified when that base is getting pushed to all kinds of places and corners of the city or even the state. That's another real challenge, it is gentrification.
We just went through a strategy development process, which was our strategic plan, and the board gave input based on their vantage point and also their connection to other movements. Most of our board, almost all of our board is actually folks who've been involved in other grassroots or other political organizations in the city, either have been or currently are. So, we lean on the board for knowledge and input a lot, but the board is clear that they don't make day to day programming. Decisions of their primary purpose is to actually fundraise and sustain the organization, and because of that, the board is primarily professional, although with maybe one exception, our folks are all Currently or have been connected to grassroots organizing in the city.
Lessons from CAAAV
I think one is the importance of organizing in and with working class communities. That is the kind of baseline for so many of the fights for justice that we're in. It's really hard to win victories at scale without an organized working-class base.
Another is the struggle of being a clear politically left organization and being committed to that grassroots working class base is worth it, and it is needed and similarly, you won't win at scale without the combination of those things.
I think that our movements are going to need to be multilingual. That feels like a clear lesson, even if it's really hard. And as much as it is a struggle and as much as we do it imperfectly, that it's actually really important to have a commitment to member decision making while holding back their political line, the interplay between those two is really important.
Last lesson, which I think has been true for CAAAV for a long time and became particularly poignant last year, is actually fighting for what we want, not fighting for the compromise. We think we have a grounded assessment of what is possible to win and fight for it. I think especially in the Amazon fight, we got that that happened three weeks after I started, and I had folks tell me, “You just started, are you really trying to lose this hard this early?” Because our demand was that Amazon wouldn't come. Not like getting a good community benefits agreement, not building one building of affordable housing. It was like staying out. One lesson from that fight is that our assessment was that our forces were strong enough to actually win the thing we actually wanted, and that I think if we had asked for less, we would have gotten less and Amazon would be here and we'd have a really pretty community benefits agreement that we've seen a thousand times does not actually help and still causes gentrification and we would be losing ground. So that's another key lesson: have a ground assessment, but actually fight for the biggest win you can possibly have.
Maybe just one last piece that may be less public since we developed a strategy and then the entire world changed. But I think another key lesson has been that it's actually really important to have a strategy to know what you're trying to win, to know what your path is to get there, even if it's just a guess. It doesn't have to be sure but to be very clear about what you're trying to win, to have your best guess as to how you got there and to be willing to reevaluate that all of the time, every three months, six months, to be able to actually to be constantly reassessing that strategy and to not get stuck in campaigns that actually aren't the best bet, to not get stuck in a theory of change that no longer works but to be constantly developing and redeveloping and reassessing strategy.