Helping Survivors Rise Above Violence
On March 16, 2021, a shooting spree occurred at three spas in the metropolitan area of Atlanta, Georgia. Robert Aaron Long, who police say went on a rampage at the spas, killed eight people that day and was charged on eight counts of murder in connection with the attacks. Six of the eight victims were women of Asian descent.
Long told authorities that he had a “sexual addiction” and had carried out the shootings at the massage parlors to rid of his “temptation.” He admitted that he frequented massage parlors in the past and launched the attacks as a form of vengeance. Authorities also initially suggested Long's crimes weren't racially motivated but born of a sex addiction and that the gunman had a “bad day.” Like many people, we found this extremely upsetting.
We remember the victims, Soon Chung Park, Suncha Kim, Yong Ae Yue, Paul Andre Michels, Hyun Jung Grant, Xiaojie Tan, Daoyou Feng, and Delaina Ashley Yaun. We are still heartbroken for the victims and their families. And we can’t help but think that they could have been our family members, friends, and even ourselves. It is true that this tragedy shed light on the continued fetishization and dehumanization of Asian American women. But pop culture has had a long history of perpetuating harmful stereotypes of Asian women. Ultimately, it has made it hard for women who suffer from abuse to find support, especially those who immigrate with little financial means.
Fortunately, there are organizations who support women, particularly Asian women who have experienced abuse and face language barriers when seeking services or a lack of resources altogether. Womankind was started by a group of volunteers led by a student from Hunter College’s School of Social Work and specializes in supporting this community. We had the opportunity to speak with Shan Huang, the Associate Director of Special Programs at Womankind. Huang has spent nearly a decade with the nonprofit in various roles from providing direct services in the residential program to managing their programming. We spoke at length about Womankind’s mission, the beginnings of the agency and community they serve.
What was the inspiration behind the founding of Womankind?
The organization was founded in 1982 as the New York Asian Women’s Center—a place for Chinese immigrant women experiencing domestic violence to seek help. Domestic violence is a taboo topic in many Asian cultures, especially Chinese, where it is considered family business and would be shameful to talk about. For these women, there was a lack of resources and a language barrier to accessing the services that were available (mostly in English). The first service we provided was a Chinese language hotline, which was a single telephone hidden in a filing cabinet. Some of the founding women/volunteers also opened their own homes to provide shelter, which was a precursor to our emergency residential program.
Which communities does Womankind serve?
We initially started with a focus on just residential clients and now we include non-residential clients, meaning clients who may not need to live in the shelter but still want constant support or who have moved out of the shelter but want continued care from us. Womankind also started with domestic violence issues but has expanded to include sexual violence and human trafficking, and more broader issues under gender-based violence. So our care has become more holistic. While emergency housing and helpline are still our primary services, we’ve expanded to other social services including counseling, legal services, economic empowerment, and various wellness and support groups. We have 3 community offices in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens where anyone can walk in for help (pre-pandemic), and now run 2 confidential emergency residences (shelters). The intention is to provide resources to help the clients with their healing journey and the goal is to help them move towards self-sufficiency. But they need more resources to get there, so we help them in those areas to reach this goal.
We specialize in serving Asian survivors of gender-based violence and their families, but what we offer is valuable to all. Because of our Asian heritage, we have the capacity to provide services in 18+ Asian languages and dialects, as well as Spanish and we do want to leverage those skills and support and serve those communities that have language-specific needs. I also want to highlight that since our inception, our agency has had this philosophy about cultural humility - although we come from Asian cultures, it doesn’t mean we understand all cultures our clients come from. That humbleness is us trying to understand and we’re trying to explore conversations with our clients. We’re not making assumptions based on our background or knowledge. And we use that to put ourselves in a peer relationship dynamic with the survivors, so we learn from them and they teach us their lesson. They know what's best for them. We see ourselves as their peers and we walk alongside them on their healing journey. We will provide the resources but they are the ones who make the ultimate decision and which route to choose. It’s very nuanced but we try to put ourselves in their shoes. So there’s a lot of tailoring in our services to fit the needs of our clients because of this cultural humility and humbleness philosophy.
What is Womankind's goals?
Womankind’s vision is to work tirelessly to create a future where we Rise Above Violence and our communities can innovate towards collective well-being, restoration, and social justice. As we celebrate our 40th anniversary this year and look to the future, we reaffirm our commitment to the following goals:
- Amplify advocacy work by addressing the inequalities that exist within our communities and elevate the voices of our survivors so that they are heard. To do this, we’ll continue to use our platform and partner with those who are also passionate about this work, including community organizers, advocacy groups, and legislators.
- Increase Womankind’s footprint by serving more historically-underserved groups within the AAPI community, which is not a monolith. This community is made up of many, diverse cultures and experiences, so our approach must be tailored to each person’s needs.
- Elevate our resource development by growing and diversifying our funding sources and fundraising efforts. We will leverage our community and focus on building lasting relationships with value-aligned funders, all of which will ultimately help improve our programs.
How has Covid and the anti-Asian sentiment impacted the Womankind community?
I think Covid put us in a very difficult situation just like all other nonprofits because our services tend to be in-person. Most social services need to be provided as in-person support, which is very meaningful to our clients. So Covid definitely put a lot of challenges on our program design but we were able to adjust very fast and adapted very well. We changed our programming from in-person to virtual and then transitioned to a hybrid based on protocols from the city and state. Covid also put a lot of our communities in a vulnerable situation. We’ve seen an increase in helpline calls. A lot of clients are stuck with their family members when they could have gotten support. So in the beginning of Covid, we did get a lot of helpline calls but people couldn’t leave their homes so we did a lot of safety planning with them. And whenever the opportunity came, we brought them to our houses. There is also a lot of financial support for our communities because their jobs were impacted by Covid. The majority of our clients work minimum wage and a lot of them work in restaurants and retail, so it impacted them a lot. We explored different resources to provide them with like emergency grants, funding from donors using our relationships, and foundation and government help.
Womankind noticed an increase in visibility to our work, especially during the rise of anti-Asian violence at the start of the pandemic, and unfortunately after the shooting in Atlanta. We received more requests for trainings on gender-based violence, cultural humility, and sexual violence. More press and media highlighted our work. We’ve also seen an increase in funding—ranging from microdonations to community members, like WE ARE CHIMMI, to brands and businesses that normally have not invested in our communities.
We appreciate people reaching out and donating. It still speaks high volumes. We hope it can be ongoing and consistent and that there is acknowledgement of the existence of many nonprofits doing the groundwork everyday.
Are there any new initiatives or programs that Womankind is currently working on?
Womankind restructured our existing programs to provide more holistic support to survivors. It’s now called Special Programs with 4 distinct teams, which I oversee. First is Pathways to Empowerment, which offers economic empowerment, housing, entitlement and benefits - anything that can empower our clients with resources. The second is Community Education and Outreach,where we reach out to communities with gaps in knowledge and services. Pathways to Healing is a holistic wellness program dedicated to creating a space where survivors can participate in various culturally-specific healing modalities to re-establish the mind, body and spirit connection. Finally, Project Free focuses on serving survivors of human trafficking and addressing its legal complexities.
We have also piloted survivor-led initiatives. We’re trying to structure it in a formal way with small groups where we invite survivors to speak or we might have them co-faciliate. We want to acknowledge the skills and experience of our survivors and offer them a platform and opportunity to speak to their experiences. It’s something we’re working towards.
What is Womankind's greatest need and the best ways for people to get involved?
It’s our 40th anniversary and a great time to get involved! People can donate to us directly. We do need flexible individual funding because government funding has a lot of restrictions and because we serve this very vulnerable population, a lot of them don’t have legal status and don’t have an understanding of American systems. This is also truly trauma-informed, because if we wanted to give money to clients, we shouldn’t have too many expectations from them to prove how to utilize money. They know how to use the funds they need. Having that pool of funds helps us run more innovatively and is more trauma-informed.
Volunteering with us is a good way to get involved in whatever capacity. We never know what survivors need and they come from very different backgrounds. Anyone can volunteer their skills whether it’s coming to our shelters/houses to do gardening, or teaching computer literacy - anything!
People can also join Champions for Womankind, our membership program which includes exclusive members-only programming and a thank you gift, depending on the level of gift ($125-1000+). Learn more and check out our Wall of Champions here.
Through the rest of March, WE ARE CHIMMI is donating 10% of profits from our sales to Womankind. If you’d like to learn more about Womankind or to donate to them directly, visit iamwomankind.org.