Stephanie Cheung
(Kevin Painchaud/Lookout Santa Cruz )
Pandemic Life

Seeking ‘safety & community’: College minister forms local Asian American group, plans vigil to grieve, heal

In the wake of the Atlanta-area shootings, Stephanie Cheung took to social media to organize a group for Santa Cruz’s Asian American community. On Saturday, the new group is holding a vigil at the county administrative building to gather in solidarity for the victims in Georgia and Asian American elders who have been attacked and killed.

After a white gunman went on a shooting rampage at three Atlanta-area spas last week, killing eight, including six women of Asian descent, a sense of desperation gripped Stephanie Cheung.

A Christian minister working at UC Santa Cruz and Cabrillo College, she wanted to gather fellow Asian Americans for a space of communal healing in Santa Cruz. But having moved to the area only three years ago, she wasn’t sure where to turn to bring such an event to life.

“I just felt a desperation of like, ‘Who will I reach out to in Santa Cruz?’” said Cheung, 29. “I actually don’t know, because … I don’t know who the coalitions are here. And so I ended up just reaching out on Facebook to random people. Like: ‘Hey, I’m Asian American, you look Asian American. Can we like gather?’”

The Hail Mary approach paid off. That night she created her own group, which has since grown 35-40 members strong, called Asian Americans in Santa Cruz.

The new group is hosting a socially distanced, masked vigil Saturday at 3 p.m. at the Santa Cruz County administrative building on Ocean Street to gather in solidarity for the victims in Georgia and for Asian American elders who have been attacked and killed over the past few months.

Cheung wishes it could be a potluck (“Because that heals our bodies and our souls as Asian Americans”), but for now the vigil will serve as an opportunity for the Asian American community to grieve, honor and heal together. Allies are welcome to help protect the space, listen and stand in solidarity on the edge of the event.

“I’ve never organized anything before but I just felt that we needed to heal and this is one of my expressions of that towards meeting people and being together in the city that I have chosen to live in,” she said. “And I just need a sense of safety and community and this is it.”

A flyer for the Saturday candlelight vigil at the Santa Cruz County administrative building.
A flyer for the Saturday candlelight vigil at the Santa Cruz County administrative building.
(Stephanie Cheung)

The vigil comes against the backdrop of an ongoing national reckoning over the treatment of Asian Americans as anti-Asian violence and rhetoric has surged in the last year, touching communities from the Bay Area to New York City.

Santa Cruz County supervisors this week adopted a resolution denouncing hate crimes and bigotry targeting Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, with supervisor Zach Friend pointing to a “hate crime epidemic within our country right now.”

Since the outset of the pandemic in March 2020, thousands of hate incidents targeting the AAPI community have been documented across the country, with more than 700 of those incidents occurring in the Bay Area, according to documents submitted with the resolution.

“We’re seeing more hate and more conspiracies and then more victims,” said supervisor Ryan Coonerty, who submitted the resolution along with Friend. “We wanted to make a statement, recognizing the significant Asian population and history in our community — that we recognize this moment and will take steps to combat it.”

The resolution also points to the longstanding history of racism toward AAPI communities in the United States, from the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 to assaults against Filipino farmworkers in the 1930s by white mobs and the Japanese internment camps of the 1940s.

The “recent rise of violence against Asian Americans is part of a larger history of violence against communities of color, and we must work together to create community centered solutions that stop the violence in all communities,” the resolution states in part.

Reflecting on the past will also be a part of Cheung’s vigil Saturday. She wants local Asian American voices to be able to share their stories of pain and trauma, and the community’s long history of being othered and excluded.

Being relatively new to the city, Cheung said she herself is still learning about her community’s roots in Santa Cruz.

“There were several Chinatowns actually in Santa Cruz and Chinese families that lived here, and as a Chinese person, I’m trying to like reclaim that, right? And kind of find that and center that and for the community here in Santa Cruz to know that we’re here,” Cheung said.

For Cheung, the biggest feeling that has arisen in her — as hate and violence against Asian Americans has erupted — has been sadness. “Along with just tingling in my body because this is something that our people have experienced, but have never — it’s been silenced and erased, right, I think that’s some of the Asian American experience of, we’re very invisible,” she said.

What comes to mind for Cheung, during these times of national reckoning and escalating attacks, is part of a quote that a lecturer of Asian American Studies at Cal State Long Beach recently posted on Instagram.

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“She said for Asian Americans right now — for someone like me, I’m a second-generation Chinese American — it’s almost like, ‘we’re dying and being born at the same time,’ because we’re literally dying, right, we’re getting killed,” Cheung said. “And also we’re learning to speak up on behalf of the pain and trauma that we’ve held in for so long.”

There is an element of fear, too. Even for the vigil.

“I feel scared, even for Saturday, I’m like, ‘What’s gonna happen,’” Cheung said. “I don’t know, but I feel safe with my people.”