by Denny Khamphanthong, Richmond Community Organizer, APEN
I still remember the first time I learned about APEN.
It was a cold, drizzly September morning in San Francisco during the People’s March for Climate, Jobs and Justice in 2018. I wasn’t affiliated with any organization, but a friend had let me know it would be a great opportunity to do photojournalism and use my camera to document history.
I heard a thousand grandmothers sing their songs of liberation, I smelled burning sage from indigenous leaders, and I listened to rally speeches left and right from different organizations. And then, I heard someone from APEN on a microphone talking about Richmond, the Khmu and Laotian refugee experience, and the battle for Environmental Justice. I immediately made my way to the speakers, where I saw APEN organizer Tom Nompraseurt and APEN leader Saeng Chantanasak speaking to a large audience about their struggle. These were people from my community, people who looked like my aunts and uncles who I might see at family parties or gatherings in my neighborhood.
As Torm and Saeng walked by me after their speeches, I immediately thought: who is APEN, how are they so connected to the Laotian community? In that moment, I knew I had to connect with APEN and learn more about their work and presence in Richmond.
I spent the whole week taking photos at different actions and felt really good about my shots and how much I was learning. On the other hand, I felt empty because I didn’t really know what to do next or how to stay organized and connected to the movement. Most of the organizations I knew of were big, national green orgs, and I didn’t really feel connected to their vision. I wanted to find a way to be involved with my community, at the local level.
I knew I had to connect with APEN and learn more about their work and presence in Richmond. I reached out to see if they wanted to use any of the photos I took, and I was invited to come into the office in Richmond.
The first thing I noticed was the photos: dozens of photos of APEN members covered the walls, showing the depth and breadth of APEN’s organizing in Richmond across the different Laotian and Southeast Asian communities. APEN has spent decades building power and resilience in our communities, and it shows. This is the work you make possible by donating to APEN.
At APEN’s office, I met with Megan Zapanta, APEN’s Richmond Organizing Director, and Torm Nompraseurt, APEN’s Senior Community Organizer who I had seen speak at the rally in San Francisco. One thing that Torm told me has stuck with me to this day.
Torm told me that he is getting ready to retire, and that many of the elders who founded APEN 27 years ago are getting older and no longer have the energy they used to. He told me about his hope for a new generation of leaders in Richmond, leaders who could learn from our elders and carry their fight forward in the coming years.
This is the vision I carry on at APEN. This is what gives me hope: we are building a new generation of leaders, carrying our elders’ vision forward and fighting for real justice for our communities.
After the meeting was over, Megan and Torm invited me to APEN’s annual Richmond holiday party. I didn’t know what to expect, but I figured it would be like the parties Laotian folks usually have, so I came ready for food, music, and dancing. What I did not expect was seeing so many Laotian elders in one room, decked out with translation equipment.
This shocked me — these elders looked like my friends’ grandparents or parents, and it made me really think about all the years of work and organizing these elders have done with APEN. Nobody knew who I was, so I began introducing myself. I remember the surprise on many of the elders’ faces when I spoke to them in Lao. During the party, the organizers went over the highlights and lowlights of the year and I got to see the depth of their work. I also got to hear different reflections and visions of the elders and leaders. This brought me hope, but also uncertainty, because many of them shared how they’re unsure what the future will look like for their children and grandchildren. It was a lot to process, but it did open up my eyes to the need of a younger generation to carry on the vision of the leaders in this room.
In April 2019, Torm reached out to me and asked if I would like to participate in a training called APEN Academy. Through APEN Academy, I was able to learn about APENs organizing methodology and the principles and vision of a Just Transition, and most importantly, connect with other young adults who wanted to carry on the work laid out by our elders.
Fast forward a couple of years, and I have been hired as a community organizer at APEN. I have organized youth, adults, and elders in my community to win the #NoCoalInRichmond campaign and pass an ordinance to phase out the export of coal and petroleum coke that has been polluting homes and schools in Richmond since 2013. I spoke to hundreds of young people about the campaign, and was blown away when two students from Richmond High spoke at the #NoCoalInRichmond hearing and stayed until midnight to make sure their voices were heard by the city council.
My community comes together in times of crisis. In 2020, we adapted quickly to the COVID-19 pandemic. I ran my first APEN Academy training series with ten young leaders, and it was a very unique and powerful APEN Academy. Due to COVID-19, the training series was entirely online, but I was blown away by the way everyone connected and made each other feel welcomed, loved, and supported throughout the series.
Our APEN Academy started shortly after George Floyd was murdered by the police and uprisings for Black lives were taking place across the country, including right here in Richmond. Most of the Academy participants are second-generation Asian Americans who understood how important it was to get involved with the #BlackLivesMatter movement and the need to show solidarity. We came together and wrote a call to action to our peers to stand together for BLM, we showed up to actions to support youth-led solidarity marches in Richmond and Oakland, and we put pressure on our elected officials to defund the police and reinvest in our communities.
We were also able to invest much needed time and energy into our local elections from candidate forums, ballot parties, and canvassing. I was also involved with the Rice and Water festival where we dropped off over 50 meals to elders and leaders in Richmond who have been struggling to access food and stay connected during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Now, I am working on a campaign to collect information about the housing needs in our community, as gentrification is increasingly displacing Richmond families and separating communities who were already displaced from their homes in Southeast Asia and came to Richmond to make a new home.
Working with APEN has been a life-changing experience, and I’m not sure how to put my gratitude into words. I never thought I would be in a position where I could help build the vision of my elders who suffered through so much but never backed down from the injustices they faced. The amount of love and support I received from staff, members, coalitions, and strangers in the movement is indescribable and it gives me life every day as an organizer.
I am telling you all of this because I want you to understand that this work comes from our hearts, and it is an extension of ourselves, our communities, and the future we believe in. I am so thankful to be an organizer at APEN, and none of this would have been possible without the 27 years of support we’ve received from donors like you every year.
I know these times are uncertain and many people are suffering during the pandemic, but I also know that we can get through this together. With your donation, we can continue building power in our immigrant and refugee communities and carry this vision forward to the next generation.
Thank you so much for your support, and for joining me in this movement.
Denny Khamphanthong is a Richmond Community Organizer with the Asian Pacific Environmental Network (APEN).