Chinatown Voices: The Impact of the Community Ambassador Program

7 min readSep 18, 2023


This article is the third in a series on Oakland-based programs working to address public safety and violence prevention using community centered approaches.

Learn about the Community Ambassador Program in Part 1 and meet the Ambassadors in Part 2.

Graffiti and Supporting Unhoused Community Members

Fiona Ngan is the Vice President of Marketing & Relationship Manager at Gateway Bank in Oakland Chinatown. She initially got in touch with the Ambassadors when the bank was struggling with graffiti on their storefront. She had heard about Sakhone, one of the Ambassadors, and saw him on the street cleaning graffiti one day. She asked him for help.

The Ambassadors responded right away. They cleared the graffiti and were respectful and mindful while doing so, being sure not to damage anything. She was amazed when they took the time to find the right paint, painted the walls and even the door and door trim. Twice, she has called on the Ambassadors to help clear graffiti.

Example of graffiti abatement before and after. Photos courtesy of Community Ambassadors.

At the time of our conversation, several unhoused community members had started staying right outside of the bank. The sidewalk became covered with their belongings and clients began to complain, as did the landlord. One of the individuals came in and yelled at the staff. Fiona said she tried to call the police multiple times and never got help. She tried other agencies as well.

She was frustrated and decided to text Sakhone. She said the Ambassadors immediately sent someone to help. They came back everyday to talk to the houseless individuals, building rapport and relationships and trying to find solutions that would work for all sides. As of the day of our conversation, the Ambassadors were able to find an emergency shelter for one of the unhoused individuals and were working to find shelter for two others after understanding their needs. The area on the sidewalk had been cleaned up significantly.

“It has been successful,” Fiona says. “They did everything. They’re very good for the community and good for small businesses.” She says that unlike other services that may just address one issue, such as illegal dumping or shelter, the Ambassadors provide all around service and address the needs of everyone involved.

Ben, one of the Ambassadors, was present for our interview with Fiona. When asked why the Ambassadors are effective, he said, “Because we care. We have emotions invested in the community. It’s not about a job or paycheck. We respond with genuine compassion and concern.”

Being part of the community on a daily basis and getting to know the unhoused community members gives the Ambassadors an entry point to serve in ways that other services cannot. According to Ben, the Ambassadors try to find a solution where everyone’s needs are getting met, from businesses to the unhoused. Without that trust and relationship building on a consistent basis, individuals may not be willing to cooperate. Ben believes if they treat people with kindness, they will in turn treat the community with kindness.

Cleaning the Streets

Seifu Gebre Michael, the owner of Lanee Kefa Coffee, says the Ambassadors have been a major help for his small business. He has been operating a coffee shop near Lake Merritt BART for 12 years, and used to clean the sidewalk outside his shop everyday. He says while he never littered, he was charged with an excess litter fee every year by the city because other people would regularly dump trash outside his shop.

Seifu Gebre Michael serves coffee to a customer at his coffee shop. Photo by Joyce Xi.

One day he ran into the Ambassadors, who were cleaning outside. Seifu realized they were regularly picking up trash outside of his business and went out to thank them. Over time, they built a relationship.

“I really appreciate what they did. I don’t see the dirt I used to see.” He says they come often, and he doesn’t have to clean anymore. “They made life easier… they are just amazing.” Instead of having to decide between cleaning the sidewalk outside and running his cafe, Seifu can just focus on his business. For someone who runs a business on his own, this made a huge difference.

Example of trash cleanup before and after. Photos courtesy of Community Ambassadors.

He says the city needs the Ambassadors program right now. The pandemic was hard on his business, and the city was not doing anything to help clean things up, instead making things harder by fining him for litter he did not create. Now, the Ambassadors take care of cleaning it up for him.

Support for the Local Daycare

Community Ambassadors outside the Lake Merritt Child Care Center. Photo by Joyce Xi.

Lake Merritt Daycare Center is a preschool for children in the heart of Chinatown. Every morning, the Ambassadors help open the main gate to the daycare. They also help make sure the kids get in the building safely when they arrive. A staff member at the preschool says the Ambassadors have been a big help, alleviating staff of a major task at the beginning of the day.

Lack of affordable housing has caused many Oaklanders to become unhoused, including in Chinatown. This has led to unhoused community members living in various locations outside, including at one point beside the preschool. There were incidents when unhoused individuals swore at staff, and of indecent exposure near the children.

When this occurred, the Ambassadors were able to interact with the unhoused individuals around the daycare’s concerns with respect and compassion, to identify their needs, and find a solution that would work for both sides. Ultimately, the unhoused individuals voluntarily moved to another location.

The staff member says she still reaches out to the Ambassadors periodically to help out when issues arise, especially since other services can’t help immediately like the Ambassadors can. “It gives peace of mind to have someone we can call,” she says, adding that some of the kids recognize the Ambassadors and say hi to them as well.

Helping Restaurant Staff Feel Safe

Community Ambassadors share a meal and conversation with Denise Huynh at her restaurant Tay Ho. Photo by Joyce Xi.

Denise Huynh grew up in Oakland and is the owner of Tay Ho, a Vietnamese restaurant in Oakland Chinatown. For Denise, it has been a tough year. She almost got robbed twice while walking home from work, and the windows of her restaurant were broken 3 different times. She’s been running Tay Ho for over a decade, but until now, she had never had break ins. Denise says that things have gotten more difficult since the pandemic.

Her calls to the city and police went nowhere, and Denise felt like giving up. But when she called Sakhone, they came within 10 minutes. After the break-ins, the Ambassadors came by and checked in on Denise and the restaurant on a regular basis. They didn’t just ask questions and leave, but stayed to provide support and offer help. “They helped staff and customers feel safe — just their positive presence was helpful.”

Over time, Denise built a relationship with the Ambassadors and feels she can call on them when any safety issues arise. “They’re just a phone call away… it’s nice to know they’re there for you,” she says, calling the Ambassadors “angels.”

With the rise in anti-Asian violence, Denise says she feels more worried when walking around in Chinatown. Yet the presence of the Ambassadors walking around the neighborhood gives her more of a sense of safety.

“We need more support for the Ambassadors,” she says. “Especially if people want to feel safe coming to Chinatown.”

Impact of the Community Ambassadors

From cleaning up graffiti and trash, to addressing the needs of houseless community members, to providing a sense of safety to merchants and residents, the Community Ambassadors have been building a network of support and care in Oakland Chinatown.

Day to day, the Ambassadors tend to the immediate needs and concerns of community members, solving problems and building relationships on the ground. They provide these critical services amidst larger systems that often leave people falling through the cracks. While organizers and advocates continue to push for longer term solutions like more secure, affordable housing and more effective and public safety systems and social services, the Ambassadors do the best with the resources they have to create a more supportive and safe environment for the community today. They have served everyone from merchants to visitors to unhoused community members and residents, across age, gender, race, and economic status.

Next time you’re in Chinatown and see a Community Ambassador in their signature red or green vest, feel free to ask for help or just say hello. They’d love to talk to you.

This article is the third in a series on Oakland-based programs working to address public safety and violence prevention using community centered approaches.

Learn about the Community Ambassador Program in Part 1 and meet the Ambassadors in Part 2.

Read “Chinatown Voices: The Impact of the Community Ambassador Program” in Chinese.

Joyce Xi is a Bay Area based photographer, writer and activist.




Asian Pacific Environmental Network is an environmental justice organization with deep roots in California’s Asian immigrant and refugee communities.