Amanda Nguyen has been speaking out on civil rights issues for the better part of a decade, but she didn't expect a recent Instagram video to go viral and spark national conversation about anti-Asian racism in the U.S.
On February 5, Nguyen posted a video on Instagram calling on national media outlets to better cover the recent wave of anti-Asian violence targeting elderly residents from the San Francisco Bay Area to New York City. She'd tried in vain to find reporting on incidents, including ones involving 84-year-old Vicha Ratanapakdee, who died from injuries after he was pushed to the sidewalk, and Noel Quintana, 61, who was slashed in the face during a subway confrontation in New York.
"I decided, 'You know what? If we are getting locked out of mainstream media, I'm going to turn to social media, and I'm going to have a call to action for mainstream media outlets to uplift Asian stories," Nguyen tells CNBC Make It.
The message took off. The video racked up millions of views and response posts across Instagram, Twitter and TikTok. She's spoken about the issue on news outlets like NBC, ABC and CNN; and on February 8, CBS News senior White House correspondent Weijia Jiang asked White House press secretary Jen Psaki whether President Joe Biden had seen videos, such as Nguyen's, regarding the attacks.
In the past month, the millennial activist has helped share the work of Stop AAPI Hate, a national coalition documenting and addressing anti-Asian discrimination during the pandemic and its efforts to support Asian American communities.
The Harvard graduate has worked in the activism space since 2013, when she became a survivor of rape during her time in college. Following her experience with what she felt was a broken criminal justice system, she helped draft the first-ever Sexual Assault Survivors' Bill of Rights, which established consistent rules and procedures at the federal level for prosecuting sexual assault crimes. Twenty-one states have since adopted similar legislation, and Nguyen is working with lawmakers to get legislation passed in all 50 states.
Nguyen went on to become the founder and CEO of Rise, a national civil rights nonprofit, which has helped pass 33 laws and created civil rights protections for more than 60 million survivors of sexual assault through its passage of state-by-state bills.
Nguyen, 29, recently spoke with CNBC Make It about her latest advocacy work around racial justice for Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders during the pandemic and beyond.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Did you expect your message on anti-Asian racism to go viral?
No, absolutely not. In fact, I thought I would lose followers, because every other time I posted about race, I did. And I just thought to myself, 'You know what, I don't care, because people need to know.'
People just don't know. And I think so much of this happens because of ignorance. The problem here is invisibility. So the solution is visibility.
What kind of response have you gotten from the video?
We're in a moment of reckoning right now. It's been both so heartening and heartbreaking to see the wave of people speaking up — I'm literally getting messaged by thousands of people every day with stories like, 'My father was murdered, can you uplift the story?' Or, 'My grandma was assaulted, can you uplift the story?'
I've also gotten messages like, 'For the first time in my life, I feel like I can speak up about the grief that I've experienced or the racism that I've experienced living in this yellow skin.'
Reading that has been so just amazing and powerful.
While the video certainly was a first domino, we wouldn't be here without literally millions of people feeling like, 'You know what, it's OK to be seen and speak our truth.'
Anti-Asian discrimination in the U.S. dates back to the 1800s. How does this moment feel different?
At Rise, we've had folks working on the ground on this for nearly a decade. There's an inflection point now because we have had these horrific acts of violence caught on camera. It's so hard to turn away from what is recorded. It's also because these acts of violence have been rising.
Over 2,800 attacks have been reported to Stop AAPI Hate in the past year.
Additionally, people are saying they've been through this experience and are asking for help. When people join in solidarity, it helps create a new space to speak out.
Social media is a powerful tool to raise awareness. How do you hope awareness becomes action off of these platforms?
It's quite simple. There are structural, systematic exclusions that have happened to the AAPI community. It's not only in the newsrooms; it's also clearly in our federal government.
Some federal agencies don't even include Asians in the definition of racial minorities. This is a widespread omission.
I want to hear from the secretary of education about why AAPI history isn't taught in schools. Why is it that people don't know about internment camps, or how the one of the largest lynchings in U.S. history was against the AAPI community?
I want to know why people aren't taught our contributions as well?
There are so many things that people can do to educate themselves, not only about our history but also about our culture. Empathy is going to be the solution for this, and visibility builds empathy.
You can start from home. Turn on your computer and find out more information about the AAPI community and listen to the grassroots organizers on the ground.
AAPI organizing has a long history. Whose work has informed your approach to activism right now?
Russell Jeung, a professor of Asian American studies at San Francisco State University and cofounder of Stop AAPI Hate, has been so eloquent in calling out for racial solidarity between communities. It's so important we understand this is not a zero-sum situation. It's not the 'oppression Olympics.' But we have to do this together. We are stronger together.
It's important that people not only get to learn about AAPI history as an elective in college, if it is even offered in colleges. It needs to start from elementary school, middle school and high school. It needs to start from the very beginning so that we are seen as part of this community.
I think that there hasn't been an Asian American who hasn't been asked the question, 'Where are you from? No really, where you really from?' It seems innocent, but at the core of that, it's othering. It's the idea that you don't belong. When you have this perpetual foreigner stereotype, it's easy to scapegoat. The consequence of that has been lives lost.
How do you plan to continue this type of work?
It's important we focus on education and let people understand where the roots of misinformation [around the coronavirus, and related xenophobia] have come from, where ignorance can and should be stopped, and then on top of that, how people can contribute and uplift Asian-American voices.
At Rise, we're building the plane as it's flying and pulling together a campaign that will educate people to let people know what the Asian American experience is now. Democracy is meant to be for all people of the people. So Rise is going to be providing educational content talking about Black and Asian solidarity, talking about AAPI history and celebrating it.
As a community organizer who fell into this work because I needed civil rights and no one was going to write them for me, what I want people to take away from this is you can absolutely change the world.
It really, really matters what you think and your grief, your rage, your hope, all of that matters. I just want people to know the most powerful tool they have is their voice, and no one is powerless when we come together and demand to be seen.