The month of May has been a big one for many. In BC, physical distancing restrictions relaxed. The death of George Floyd sent shockwaves over the news from Minneapolis all the way to the west coast. It’s also marked by Asian Heritage Month, a time of celebration that has been complicated by a spike in anti-Asian sentiments since the COVID-19 pandemic hit the province in March.
We spoke with two of our LEVEL Youth Policy Program participants about their experiences as self-identified Asian people during this time, and the futures they hope to create. This interview is with Rachel Cheang.
Rachel is a fourth-year student at UBC pursuing an Honours in Human Geography and a minor in Political Science. Rachel has been organizing for divestment and climate justice, and is always curious about energy policies, ensuring a just transition that leaves no one behind.
LEVEL: Rachel, why are you interested in public policy? What do you hope to get out of the LEVEL Youth Public Policy program?
Rachel: While our lives are all shaped by public policy, we are all not given equal opportunity to create and advocate for policies pertinent to our own communities. I believe we should all be able shape the way our economy and society are built. I see the potential of public policy as a tool to broaden equities rather than as a tool of oppression.
As a newcomer to Canada, I wanted to understand how different levels of government could influence policies down the road. I also wanted to be equipped with tools to develop policies in areas where change may be needed — especially for folks who are often intentionally excluded from policies that claim to be “universal” or “for every Canadian”.
LEVEL: What do you mean by policies “for every Canadian”?
RC: We have seen how Canada’s crisis response to COVID-19 continues to exclude people with disabilities, the poor and unhoused folks in Vancouver, international students and many other groups. Instead, we should be prioritizing them in solutions where their real material needs should be urgently addressed.
LEVEL: Right. And you’ve mentioned before that grassroots groups are stepping up to help those excluded. What are they providing that is missing?
RC: We have seen more community-based groups step up.
The C19 Response Coalition provides multilingual and credible resources so that racialized communities can better navigate the current abundance of COVID-19 information.
Community organizers in Chinatown started Chinatown Care Packages to provide elders with a weekly delivery of fruit and vegetables. Black in BC Community Support Fund was set up to ensure Black folks unable to receive federal support have access to funds.The DTES Response team mobilized resources and coordinated operations to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.
These organizations expose the flaws in our current policies, promote new ideas, challenge the status quo, and push our policy-makers to do better. If we can shape public policy according to the needs on the ground and have our communities represented in policy-making circles, we are able to come up with much more effective policies.
LEVEL: Asian Heritage Month happened in May. What was it like to reflect on your identity during this month, with the COVID-19 pandemic in the foreground?
RC: COVID-19 put a harsh spotlight on the anti-Asian racism that has always existed in Canada. While many racist attacks of late have targeted Chinese-Canadians (or ‘Chinese-passing’ folks), there is no better time for us to address anti-Blackness within and towards Indigenous, Black and other Asian communities in Vancouver. As important as it is to call out any form of overt racism or micro-aggressions when we witness them during this time (in a safe manner, of course!), we should also do the difficult work of reflecting on how we can truly build pan-Asian solidarity with and alongside Indigenous and Black peoples in our collective fight against racial oppression and transform the landscape of power, rather than defaulting to stricter policing. There is an opportunity for us to speak up and act on our privilege.
LEVEL: And what does “acting on our privilege” mean to you?
RC: Growing up in Singapore as part of the Chinese-majority population, I have vastly different lived experiences as an Asian. I grapple with what it means for me to now benefit off being on Indigenous lands and to be complicit in ongoing colonial violence.
This means being mindful of the space I am taking up, holding space for others, and not speaking on behalf of other communities. It also means being intentional in using non-violent language, showing up for Indigenous, Black and other racialized communities in the best ways I can and building solidarity across different movements.
Admittedly, even in efforts to model equity in the work I do and spaces I occupy, I still make mistakes as an imperfect organizer, but I am committed to this lifelong process of learning and unlearning to constantly challenge my internalized whiteness and irrational belief of inferiority.
I am thankful for friends who gently call me in when I err, who uplift and value my voice, and those who trust and correct me so that I can be a better person, friend and ally.
LEVEL: In your words, why does it matter to have young people’s voices around the table?
RC: Having our voices at the table matters because we are not only speaking for ourselves, but also for our communities as a way of giving back.
Having our voices at the table means that we get to be on the agenda, that we have the tools to create and change policies, and that we have a say in how support and resources should be distributed in an equitable and just manner. We can push for accountability. We get to hold the door open for many others to enter the spaces and structures that we have been previously excluded from. We may inherit the trauma and struggles our elders and ancestors have faced, but we also inherit their resilience.
This is why the Youth Public Policy program is such a valuable experience for all of us. It is rare to have a space where we are encouraged to think about the implications of our policy asks on our communities alongside many others, as well as form relationships and networks to ensure our policy asks include diverse voices and perspectives. Instead of being regarded as a token member, we are invited to share our stories and empowered to practice our learnings.
LEVEL: What are the issues you want to see systemic change in?
RC: I hope to see systemic change in the formulation and implementation of solutions to the climate crisis. We need to ensure equitable access to green jobs within the renewable energy sector, as well as access and community-based ownership to energy systems. Solutions to the climate crisis must centre Indigenous communities and communities-made-vulnerable who have been systematically marginalized or displaced as a result of climate change. Climate change solutions cannot encompass governments purchasing pipelines, failing to acknowledge and respect Indigenous rights or promising stimulus packages to bail out Big Oil corporations.
We need policies that will provide immediate relief to communities, such as assistance for transition homes and businesses to renewable energy. We also need to ensure economic recovery with the creation of green jobs with extra support for immigrant and refugee communities and Indigenous sovereignty over their own homelands. Because of how connected our problems are, just solutions to the climate crisis should also address inequities in access to housing, healthcare, food, public transit and infrastructure. Access to basic needs and services are a human right and should not be commodified under a capitalist system.
An Update on the LEVEL Youth Policy Program 2020: Coming together has taken on a new meaning during the COVID pandemic. For now, LEVEL has shifted the Youth Policy Program online. At the end of July, our participants—all Indigenous and racialized immigrant youth–will start working on their policy projects to prepare for the final module and presentations in the Fall.
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