International Clash Day: Spotlight on API Chaya

Community Engagement, International Clash Day
Alina Santillan

Because The Clash was anti-racist, anti-fear, pro-solidarity, pro-unity, pro-inclusion, KEXP is taking time to spotlight local social-justice organizations making a difference in our community. This is a public service announcement with GUITARS.

Today, we're spotlighting API Chaya, a Northwest organization whose mission is to empower survivors of gender-based violence and human trafficking to gain safety, connection, and wellness. KEXP's Community Engagement Coordinator Alina Santillan spoke with Derek Dizon, Program Manager.

KEXP: What does API Chaya do? 

Derek Dizon: API Chaya empowers survivors of gender-based violence and human trafficking to gain safety, connection, and wellness. We build power by educating and mobilizing South Asian, Asian, Pacific Islander, and all immigrant communities to end exploitation, creating a world where all people can heal and thrive. 

That's a really big mission. How do you approach that work? 

I feel like, at the heart of the work we do, it is building relationships, whether it's through the direct practice with advocates who are working with survivors or with community organizers who are educating and mobilizing the community on talking about survivorship, talking about healthy relationships, talking about boundaries, talking about deconstructing mythologies around what it means to be... well, what it means to experience violence and what it means to be connected to a community of survivors. 

That's really powerful. I don't think a lot of folks really talk about the importance of community when it comes to healing. A lot of times I think we have to do that in isolation or with one person  maybe it's with a therapist instead of allowing your community to hold space for you. 

Totally. And I think those type of outlets are super important, such as therapists or other folks like one-on-one if you have that special connection with a person that you can feel comfortable with. But what I really appreciate about API Chaya is the way in which we hold space for people to feel interconnected. For several years, API Chaya has been centering our vigils in a concept called "kapwa." But before I get into kapwa, I do want to talk about the vigil that we host every single year because it's kind of one of the genesis of our organization. 

photo courtesy of API Chaya


Twenty-four years ago in Seattle Washington, there was a case known as "the Susana Blackwell" case. Susana Remerata Blackwell was a Filipino woman who came to the U.S. to be with her husband Timothy Blackwell. When they first met, their relationship was OK. But as time progressed, he became very violent with her. And during that time, there weren't a lot of non-profit organizations in the Seattle area to help out Asian or immigrant women who were experiencing violence.

It was during that time that she got connected to two other Filipino women Phoebe Dizon and Veronica Laureta Johnson. [They shared a] collective sense of "hey, this is really horrible, but we're here for you, and we're going to do our very best to see how we can look at options for you to not be in this situation anymore." And it was really important that they shared the same culture, that they shared similar language, that they shared certain different types of identifiers to feel the interconnectedness. And it's through this sense of kapwa -- the word I spoke about earlier -- that they were able to garner this sense of shared self. So "kapwa" is a Filipino psychological term that means the shared interconnectedness among and between beings and feeling a shared sense of self. At API Chaya, I feel like we really do believe that survivorship is seen in this way: survivorship being experience and not isolation. Survivorship being experienced in a way where we see ourselves in another person or in our community. 

So for these three women — for Susana, Phoebe, and Veronica — it was really important that they stuck together and really advocated for each other so that they could see what their options were in regards to surviving violence. Over the course of a year or so, Phoebe and Veronica helped Susana navigate systems, helped her talk about the violence that she was experiencing, helped her get connected to other social services and other community members. And unfortunately, on the last day, I believe, of the Divorce Court hearing between Susana and Timothy, Timothy was able to sneak a gun into a downtown King County Courthouse and shot all three of them. And it was the response to that case that mobilized us — the Asian and Pacific Islander community — to form the Asian Women and Family Safety Center which is kind of the genesis of our organization. 

Wow. It's amazing to see how community comes together when they've experienced trauma or when people in their community have experienced trauma and how other people come to hold space for that and it sounds like even from the very beginning that community piece of that and the cultural piece of that has been really important and integral in the work. 

Totally. And I think that's what makes us so special, is our sense of relationality to the people that we companion in their survivorship. I see us as an organization that is not so separate from the people that we work with. As a survivor-led organization, many of the folks in our agency share a deep connection with folks who we work with through a historical, spiritual, religious, and many other types of identity types of connection. And I think that's really important when folks who are surviving in violence know that there are people out there who are like them, who share the same history and culture and language to feel that sense of connection and their survivorship. 

So how can people support the work that API Chaya is doing? 

I think on the interpersonal level, simply believing survivors, listening to their stories wholeheartedly — with no judgment with non-victim-blaming sentiments — can do a whole lot in a person's healing. And there are so many other ways that you can also get connected with the organization. We have many types of volunteer opportunities. And if you'd like to get connected to the volunteer opportunities, click here.

Can you speak a little bit about what transformative justice is and how can we use art and music as a form of transformative justice? 

I will try my best. (laughs) I think, even for me, I'm definitely in my own journey in understanding transformative justice. In my understanding, transformative justice is a way in which communities and people can seek accountability outside the systems that we are taught where accountability and healing can happen. 

Systems like the criminal justice system, systems that don't always offer our communities or historically haven't offered our communities the holistic type of healing that we need to feel safe in the world. To me, transformative justice is shifting culture outside of systems and rooting in the deep love for our community and for ourselves through the sense of interconnectedness. 

So how do you think we can use art as a form of transformative justice? 

That's a really great question. I feel like art is so important in making imagination a real, palpable experience. I like to tell people that imagination is one of the realest things in the universe because it has the power to create whatever you want, here and now. And I think for survivors, oftentimes there may be moments where things have been taken away from us. There may be times where we were not able to feel as self-determined or in control of our own bodies, and sometimes there is a lot of grief around that. But I think that's where imagination also plays an integral role in healing and survivorship because it's a way for us to reimagine us the way we want to imagine that we are. It's a way for us to be connected to ourselves, to go back in time, to time travel to the past, to the future, and make it real, all the things we had have control over because of somebody else's power over us or through a type of systematic hold on who we are. And in that way, I think all the types of arts — whether it's dance, music, visual arts, storytelling — can be really powerful to have folks who are in the survivorship make real their whole selves in a really genuine way that provides connection to the self and the community. 

Yeah, that's a great answer. I remember watching a comedian talk about her "coming out" story. She had decided to use interpretive dance to talk about her coming out instead of having to go through all the details of how challenging it was. And I saw this during the time was coming out. I just remember watching this funny interpretive dance, and there was obviously a serious moment in it, and then it became joyful again. But I think, it was important for me to see someone else totally do that and to think, "OK I'm not alone. It's not always going to feel so bad." It gave me hope. 

Witnessing other people and their absolute truth can be very contagious and that's what I really love about API Chaya, is the way in which folks who I work with are able to companion survivors companion communities in being a truth in their survivorship. There's so much shame around surviving violence — whether it's sexual violence, domestic violence, or human trafficking. There can be so much shame around the ways in which we have been violated and oftentimes that can lead to isolation but that doesn't always have to be the case. And API Chaya does a really amazing job in connecting with people, witnessing people and communities on a really hard level where people can feel wholeheartedly present in their survivorship, in their truth, and it's through that truth and genuineness — if that's even a word — that folks are able to get connected to where they want to be. And I think that's really important and key when we think of survivorship is that self-determination piece and imagination piece which is connected to the arts. Allowing survivors space and time where they can use their imagination to let us know where they want to be in a situation where they may not have had the opportunity or power to say this is not a safe place for me. 

So I really do appreciate that about API Chaya and the folks I work with: their ability to sit in that discomfort but also help survivors in a way that provides them a space to feel wholeheartedly there. 

Can you talk about some artists who have either changed your life or had an impact on your life? 

Totally. There are three artists I can think of. One is Julz and they are a songwriter, visual artist, and a ritualist tattooist based here in Seattle. I consider them a sibling. And the way in which they use their art as a way for Filipino folks in diaspora to connect more deeper to who we are through something that has always been ours, I think it's really important — at least for me, and I know it's really important for folks across so many other diasporas to be given the chance to have what is ours. And I also relate that to the way in which API Chaya provides services, too. Survivorship has always been ours. Healing has always been ours. And similar to the work is how Julz uses ritualistic tattooing to provide spaces to give back, kind of remembering — if that it makes any sense — to give back memory, to give back pieces of ourselves that we always have had through art, to me is really beautiful. And I feel like API Chaya has similar work in helping us remember our power, helping survivors remember who they are and who they want to be. So I give a huge shout to Julz. 

And the next artist that is also very dear to my heart is Raychelle. Raychelle is a queer femme Filipina illustrator and tattoo artist, also based here in the Pacific Northwest. Also my chosen family. I also consider them a sibling and they are a very remarkable illustrator and tattooist. I remember I had heard about them through a mutual friend long ago and when this mutual friend had shown me her art, I thought to myself, "oh my gosh." Growing up I didn't really know about Filipino artists. And so to see somebody in their art being unashamed of who they are and illustrating in a way that was vibrant, that was bold, it really meant a lot to me. I really love the way Ray uses colors. I've never really seen another illustrator or tattooist use colors in that way. 

photo courtesy of Derek DIzon


And the third artist I'd like to highlight in this interview is someone who means everything to me, and that's my mom. So my mom is Phoebe Dizon and she's one of the women who was shot and killed along with Susana Remerata Blackwell and Veronica Loretta Johnson twenty-four years ago, which started API Chaya. Growing up, she'd always create these marvelous cakes and these really amazing flower decorations. 

My mom is a really big reason why I do this work. Even though she may have not called herself a community organizer, my mom was hella. She was a hella community organizer. The way in which she always brought things to life, she always had parties at her house, and she'd always create these really beautiful stunning cakes in her parties. And relating back to the whole art question, I think community organizing within itself is an art. The way in which you can move people and the way in which you can transform culture, that to me is art. And if community organizing does that, then in my mind, community organizing is definitely an art form. I'm not sure if my mom would even consider herself an artist, but she definitely was one because of her ability to make beautiful cakes, to make beautiful flower arrangements — the way in which she was able to bring people together in a way where they could feel absolutely wholly themselves. 

She was a very vibrant and joyful and loving person and I think it was her spirit of connection and her desire to help other people that really contributed to the way in which she advocated for the well-being of Susana. And to see her legacy blossom in the way in which advocates and organizers do their work at API Chaya has been so remarkable. So hella shout out to all my amazing co-workers who are continuing this really beautiful work. It's been one of the biggest blessings of my life to work alongside them, for sure. 

photo courtesy of derek dizon


And that's what I really love API Chaya is that I really do believe that we do just that. And I think it's a really beautiful thing especially in a world where so many of us are taught and forced to feel like we need to be smaller than we are. And my mother had a really big personality and I think that's important to feel big and expansive in who we are when we have experienced things or harm that have made us feel limited to our being. 

Susana, Phoebe, and Veronica's legacy of being there for each other — through this sense of interconnectedness, through the sense of shared culture, of shared language — really echoes the way in which we do the work now. 

And it's a huge, huge, huge blessing. 

Is there anything else that you want to highlight for API Chaya that people should know about? 

You can click here if you'd like to donate to API Chaya, and click here to learn more about volunteer opportunities. We do accept office items in usable condition, such as office supplies, computers, filing cabinets, bookshelves, office chairs — to arrange that donation. Please call 206-467-9976 or contact us here

You can also support API Chaya by coming to our upcoming gala which will be on Saturday, April 20, 2019, at 6 PM. Click here for more information on this event.

And March 3rd marks the anniversary of the King County Courthouse shootings. This year, the vigil is going to be a more internal reflection for our organization. There is a plaque in the King County Courthouse downtown — I encourage the community to visit that plaque and bring flowers if they want. It's open to the public.