“Don’t Be Afraid to Ask for Help”: Oakland Chinatown’s Community Ambassadors
Public safety is an important issue for many in our Oakland community. All of us deserve to feel safe, in neighborhoods where we can live and play in peace and without fear of violence.
APEN had a chance to spend time with three Oakland-based programs working to address public safety and violence prevention using community centered approaches. Over the next several weeks we will be sharing a series of articles in Chinese and English to provide more information about these programs, how they work and how to interact with them.
The first program we are highlighting is the Community Ambassadors program in Oakland Chinatown, operating under the organization Family Bridges.
At 5am, when most of the town is asleep, a handful of Community Ambassadors have started their day walking the streets of Oakland Chinatown. They clean and pick up trash while it is still dark, before the shops open and the residents come out. They watch the community wake up, and as things get busy they are there to assist anyone who needs help. Throughout the day, they are the eyes and ears on the streets.
This is a daily routine for the Family Bridges’ Community Ambassadors team. The Ambassadors are there to serve anyone who visits, lives, and works in the neighborhood, to promote a “welcoming, caring, vibrant, and safe community.”
Officially, the Community Ambassadors are tasked with promoting clean and safe streets in Chinatown. They can be seen walking through the streets in their signature green or red vests, picking up trash, cleaning graffiti, checking in with merchants, and interacting with community members. As they make their rounds through the neighborhood, they keep an eye out for anyone in need- a senior who could use assistance carrying heavy objects or getting home safely, an unhoused community member who might need food, water, or clothing, an individual having a mental health episode, or a tense situation needing de-escalation.
The goal is to “instill peace and safety for everyone,” says Sakhone Lasaphangthong, one of the lead Ambassadors.
As they walk around Chinatown, the Ambassadors greet everyone from merchants and workers to seniors and unhoused community members — people they have gotten to know over time. Sometimes they stop and chat for a bit. Their approach is to show kindness, compassion, and understanding to anyone they meet.
“It makes our job easier when we get to know people,” says Sak Uppasay, one of the Ambassadors. “Everyone wants to be acknowledged. Just saying hello or by giving a little smile, that uplifts everybody’s spirit.”
Through growing relationships on a day to day basis, the Ambassadors build bridges and trust within Chinatown. This ultimately promotes a safer and more inclusive community. When disagreements, conflicts, or mental health episodes arise in the streets, the Ambassadors can leverage the relationships they have built to de-escalate the situation, and potentially prevent violence. Through human to human dialogue, they are often able to understand and meet the needs of each party involved in a conflict.
Program Origins: Supporting Formerly Incarcerated People
The Oakland Chinatown Ambassadors program was first created to provide formerly incarcerated individuals jobs and an opportunity to make positive contributions in the Chinatown community.
When Sakhone first started out as an Ambassador, he saw a lot of need in Chinatown. “There was a lot of garbage, a lot of houselessness” he says. Seeing an opportunity to meet the community’s needs, Sakhone started filling trash bags on a daily basis and clearing graffiti. He handed out meals to unhoused community members and got to know them. Over time, he received positive feedback from community members for his efforts and built relationships with people he saw on a day to day basis.
Sakhone began to recruit other people to help volunteer for street clean ups, including other formerly incarcerated individuals, unhoused individuals, and those staying at the Oak Street Community Cabins, empowering them to get involved and contribute. Over time, the program grew, and became established at Family Bridges.
Today, most of the 8 current Community Ambassadors are formerly incarcerated people who transformed their lives and have been working to give back since they returned home. Some of the Ambassadors have also experienced houselessness. Through their lived experiences, the Ambassadors understand the root causes of violence firsthand, and the importance of providing care and support to the community to prevent it.
If Sak sees someone causing harm in the community, he tries to see the underlying causes and communicate with them on a human level. “By offering compassion, love and understanding, it is more of a benefit than just to reject the individual,” he says. He knows because he experienced that rejection firsthand, leading up to his incarceration as a young man.
The Ambassadors see their job as an opportunity to promote peace, healing, and to make amends, since some of them did the opposite earlier in life. The program also provides re-entry support for people coming home from prison, giving them a chance to make positive contributions and successfully reintegrate into society. “We were responsible for a lot of pain and suffering in our communities, so we are doing our part to bring about some community healing and a sense of safety,” says Ben Ah You, another one of the Ambassadors.
Sakhone echoed these sentiments, “I know what it is like to destroy a community… With this job and opportunity, it provides an opportunity to give back and serve like I promised.”
Public Safety and a Welcoming Environment
The Ambassadors are a multi-racial group with a variety of lived experiences. They hope community members can witness people of many different backgrounds working together towards community safety and belonging in Chinatown and beyond.
Two of the Ambassadors, Sak and Reese Reed, have seen the power of this collaboration firsthand. One day, they saw a man in Lincoln Park being aggressive toward an elderly woman. When he noticed Sak, who is Asian, he became aggressive toward him too, cussing and making anti-Asian comments. When Reese, who is Black, joined them, the individual started making negative comments about Black people too. Instead of reacting, the two Ambassadors listened with compassion and remained calm. They shared that they were friends and had a different view on Asian and Black people. After a long exchange, the man’s mindset totally changed. He even thanked them for giving him a new perspective.
“We may have prevented him from reacting to someone else in the future,” Reese says. By demonstrating compassion, positive cross-racial connections, and never raising their voices, they were able to de-escalate the situation. They may have prevented future violence towards others.
When individuals have mental health episodes or act out, the Ambassadors try to help de-escalate via human to human interaction. Through the relationships they have built over time, they may even know the individuals involved personally.
Clearing trash and graffiti is also still a major part of the Ambassadors’ work to support a thriving Chinatown community. Every day, the team clears significant amounts of trash and reports illegal dumping to the city, power washes, and clears graffiti. To the Ambassadors, cleaning demonstrates care for the community. When people see the streets are clean, it feels more welcoming and inviting.
The Ambassadors also conduct regular outreach around Chinatown, including with merchants and unhoused community members, to check on their well-being. They regularly visit merchants to check in and see how they are feeling about safety and if they need help with anything. They have gotten to know many of them personally and offered an open line of communication. Chinatown organizations also call on them to provide support around public safety at large community events.
Another major component of the Ambassadors work is to check in with houseless community members to build rapport and ensure their needs are being met. Often, this means connecting individuals with resources, benefits, and housing, including at the Oak Street Community Cabins nearby that Family Bridges helps operate. They also help provide basic needs like food, water, and clothing.
By providing support and care for the houseless community, there are larger positive impacts on the neighborhood, Sakhone says. “When you address the houseless needs, you also address the safety needs of the community.”
While the community’s needs are complex, the Ambassadors’ goal is to help assist with the community’s multifaceted needs however they can on a day to day basis, and in turn to help keep people safe.
“We are building bridges of communication so we can forge understanding, so that we can be more effective living together as a community and living in harmony instead of living with conflict,” says Ben.
Don’t Be Afraid to Ask for Help
Community Ambassadors maintain a regular presence in the Oakland Chinatown area most days of the week, starting the morning cleaning the streets at 5am and working until 7pm on weekdays, and from 10am-2pm on Saturdays. As they walk through Chinatown, they welcome and encourage community members to approach them and ask them for help.
“We want people to know they can count on us, that we are steadfast in our support for the community,” says Heidi Wong, Senior Program Director at Family Bridges.
If you are in Chinatown and see someone walking around in a red or green “Community Ambassadors” vest, feel free to say hello or ask for help.
“We are open. You can come to us. I think it is important for the community to know that” says Reese.
Joyce Xi is a Bay Area based photographer, writer and activist.