Two Queens lawmakers champion initiative to combat gender-based violence in Asian American and Pacific Islander communities

State Senator John Liu speaks about the continued attacks against the Asian American community. (Photo courtesy of AAF)

As communities mark the one-year anniversary of the Atlanta spa shootings that killed eight people — including six Asian American women — on Wednesday, March 16, two Queens lawmakers are championing a $64.5 million AAPI Equity Budget. The initiative will combat gender-based violence to make Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) communities safer for women and other vulnerable residents.

The initiative is championed by Senator John Liu (D-Bayside) Assembly members Zohran Mamdani (D-Astoria) and Yuh-Line Niou (D-Manhattan) in light of rising anti-Asian attacks that have sparked protests, fear and calls for funding and resources to protect AAPI communities in New York City. 

Little has happened this past year following the horrifying killings in Atlanta to set the minds of Asian Americans at ease. The AAPI community continues to endure attacks on an almost daily basis, and we now look to new solutions to combat the nonstop racial and gender-based violence with initiatives like the AAPI Equity Budget,” Liu said. “By supporting our state’s intricate network of community-based organizations, we aim to empower those who are best suited to aid our struggling community during these perilous times.”

Before he was an Assembly member, Mamdani reflected on his time as a housing counselor at Chhaya, where he saw how working-class, immigrant Asian American families were faced with the violence of capitalism — eviction, foreclosure and hunger.

“It’s been one year since we lost eight people to horrific violence in Atlanta — a tragedy not only fueled by racism, but discrimination against body workers. We must fight for true belonging and safety for all our people, which requires dignity for all workers,” Mamdani said. “We have to fund those doing the work on the front lines as well as legislate with a clear recognition of the needs of Asian Americans across our state.”

According to Niou, the $2.5 million included in the AAPI Equity Budget for programs dealing with gender-based violence is a start, but more must be done to ensure terrible acts of mass murder like the Atlanta spa shootings never happen again. 

“One year ago, the AAPI community was devastated by another in the growing list of acts of anti-Asian violence, resulting in the deaths of eight people — six of them women of Asian descent,” Niou said. “Since then, we have seen our communities respond to anti-Asian hate and the rising tide of violence against sex workers, but we have not done nearly enough to protect these vulnerable groups from attack.” 

In February, AAPI groups in New York City announced the formation of the AAPI Equity Coalition to call for the historic funding for the community-sourced AAPI Equity Budget. 

The investment would represent the most significant action to date in the United States to address the horrific surge in AAPI hate crimes, the disproportionate impacts of COVID-19, and the historic underfunding of AAPI communities. Funding will go toward programs and services ranging from support for AAPI community organizations to AAPI curriculum designed for students in pre-K through 12th grade. 

The allocation would also create an AAPI State Commission, which would serve to advise the governor’s office on the needs of the AAPI community and examine critical issues like language access among state agencies, departments and commissions.

The Coalition for Asian American Children and Families (CACF) and its members and partners are urging New York state’s lawmakers to renew their commitment to passing the budget. 

“In the year since the Atlanta tragedy, we’ve witnessed increased incidents of hate specifically targeting Asian-presenting women in our communities as well as a growing sense of fear amongst our community’s most vulnerable members,” said Anita Gundanna and Vanessa Leung, co-executive directors of CACF. “We must focus on supporting the life-affirming community-based services that are working every day to combat gender-based violence and to create safe and healthy communities.”

The AAPI community includes the East, Southeast, South, Central Asian and Indo-Caribbean diaspora populations of New York, as well as Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander populations of New York. AAPI New Yorkers comprise 11% of the state’s total population and are the fastest growing racial/ethnic group and voting population in the city, state and nation, according to the coalition.  

“Our unified coalition believes that anti-Asian racism is a concern of ALL communities, and we believe the only solutions to the complex challenges we are facing today will involve sustained solidarity and a commitment to investing in communities of color, which must be led by our state leadership — the governor, the state Senate and the state Assembly,” the coalition said. 

Over the past two years, the COVID-19 pandemic and the surge in anti-Asian violence have left a devastating impact on the AAPI community by exacerbating systemic inequities that were facing AAPI communities even prior to the pandemic. 

Jeehae Fischer, the executive director of the Korean American Family Service Center (KAFSC) in Flushing, said immigrants and New Yorkers with limited English proficiency are particularly vulnerable during this time of increased gender-based violence. 

With the help of the budget, Fischer said more than 50 AAPI community-based organizations across New York State will be resourced and equipped to provide culturally responsive and language accessible services that are vital to understanding the growing needs of AAPIs during this challenging time. 

 “During an extraordinarily challenging year marked by a spike in anti-Asian racism and violence, KAFSC has responded a 300% increase in calls to our 24-hour bilingual hotline as we continue to see a concerning growth in the number of gender-based and domestic violence in the most vulnerable community and community members,” Fischer said. “This financial commitment demonstrates the equitable representation of the diverse AAPI community and supports immigrant-led and serving organizations that provide critical support to AAPI survivors and their children during this painful time.” 

The impact of KAFSC and the work of other community-based organizations can be seen in Sarah’s story. Sarah, a pseudonym, was stuck in a cycle of domestic violence and abuse at home. She was trapped in an environment where she felt like she had no power, was stripped of a voice, and lacked a sense of identity. But one day, she learned about the Korean American Family Service Center’s 24-hour hotline while listening to the local Korean radio. Sarah dialed the number seeking refuge, and that was when KAFSC’s 24-hour hotline became a lifeline. From there, she was connected to one of KAFSC’s bilingual counselors to receive proper treatment and care.

Sarah received KAFSC’s wraparound services including culturally affirming counseling services and the Transitional Housing Program and even gained occupational skills through the Economic Empowerment Program. She found a safe home at KAFSC, where she feels at Chin-Jung, a Korean phrase meaning, “A home where mother is.”

“Sarah is physically, mentally and emotionally stronger, and is leading a healthy and independent life. The passage of the AAPI Equity Budget would allow our CBOs to assist countless other Sarahs throughout the city and equip them with the tools they need to be safe and successful,” KAFSC said in a statement. 

Robina Niaz, founder and executive director of Turning Point for Women and Families, said community-based organizations have had to step in to provide critical resources, in-language information and culturally responsive support to marginalized community members who are often excluded from or siloed from mainstream sources of public support. 

Despite its size, the vast South Asian Muslim community is one of the least resourced when it comes to professional social services, Niaz said. 

“A patchwork of mosques, faith-based organizations and volunteer-based entities provide services that often lack professional grounding. In the case of domestic violence prevention, the lack of resources can be devastating to women and their children, perhaps even deadly,” Niaz said. “The passage of the Equity Budget would make it possible for us to expand on the essential services we provide to survivors and meet the growing needs of the South Asian Muslim community.”