This interview is part of our latest Women and Leadership special report, which highlights women making significant contributions to the major stories unfolding in the world today. The conversation has been edited and condensed.
Cynthia Choi, 55, is one of the three activists who co-founded Stop AAPI Hate, a coalition that tracks, documents and responds to incidents of hate, violence and discrimination against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in the United States.
Once lockdowns started in March 2020, and the pandemic’s presence became an undeniable reality, you were immediately able to get Stop AAPI Hate up and running. What made you conceive the site?
In early 2020, my co-executive director at Chinese for Affirmative Action and I became deeply concerned there would be a new wave of anti-Asian hate as a result of racist rhetoric coming from elected leaders and hostile U.S.-China relations, and that our community would be scapegoated, harassed, discriminated against and attacked. After discussions with Manjusha Kulkarni at AAPI Equity Alliance and Dr. Russell Jeung at the Asian American Studies Department at San Francisco State University, we decided to establish the coalition.
What goals did you have for Stop AAPI Hate and what have you been able to document?
We set out to understand the nature of the hate, who was being affected and where this was occurring. Between March 2020 and September 2021, more than 10,300 incidents of hate against Asian and Pacific Islanders across the U.S. have been reported on the site. Our most recent national report showed that there is a sustained high number of racist attacks against Asian Americans.
What does Stop AAPI Hate do that’s different from other anti-hate groups?
There are other sites that track hate, but we are the only ones tracking Covid 19-related hate and discrimination against our community, which is why we started at the beginning of the pandemic, when our community was being blamed and attacked.
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How do you track incidents and what do you do with the information you gather?
The numbers are based on self-reported incidents by individuals. We require their names and email as verification, and we do not share their personal identifying information with any third party in our commitment to their privacy.
Other than collecting and reporting cases, how are you responding to the surge of incidents?
We are developing policy solutions and recommendations based on our data and engaging with legislation and policymakers at the local, state and national levels. We are trying to hold the government accountable and to respond to the rise in anti-Asian hate by making investments in violence prevention initiatives and seeing that survivors and victims get support.
Where does your funding come from?
The government, private philanthropists and individuals who feel helpless and have entrusted us with this work.
As an Asian woman activist and the mother of three daughters, ages 12, 21 and 23, what are some personal challenges you’ve encountered?
This experience has been emotional, exhausting, transformative and devastating. I’ve had to speak out before elected officials to be an effective advocate while also raising three children and tending to my mental health and well-being. There were times where it was impossible. Being perceived as too soft and emotional has been hard. If my wanting to build authentic relationships and to start with listening, understanding and showing empathy is perceived as weak, then it speaks to where we are as a society. It’s actually my superpower because it helps me understand what the true obstacles are.
What are some of the obstacles?
The obstacles for me are when there is a reaction to a problem as opposed to really understanding what the root causes are. Because our community has suffered so much and has felt unseen and ignored for too long, there has been a tendency to seek ineffective Band-Aid solutions. That gets in the way of holistic and meaningful solutions that will take time and resources. There are no quick fixes or a single piece of legislation that will address structural racism. We need a holistic approach that addresses the needs of victims and survivors, violence prevention and to invest in our education system.
Your parents immigrated to the United States from Korea in 1966 with no family or community. Did that inform your passion for advocacy?
My worldview was shaped by observing how my parents struggled as non-English-speaking immigrants who faced racism and encountered barriers. At my core, I truly believe in the promise and potential of America where everyone has the right to live with dignity and respect.
As a community, what are you trying to present to the world?
That we are resilient and not easily deterred.
What advice can you offer the next generation of women who are looking to make a difference?
Really understand the history behind whatever issue you’re passionate about. That should inform and shape you, but should also give you the position to create new paths. Seize the reins. Trust your instincts. No one is going to tell you that you’re ready to lead. That’s something you’re going to have to recognize in yourself.