Meet Chinatown’s Community Ambassadors

9 min readSep 18, 2023


This article is the second 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.

Sakhone Lasaphangthong

“It is very gratifying to be able to provide services to underserved folks”

Sakhone is one of the founders of the Community Ambassadors program at Family Bridges.

While incarcerated, he made a commitment to give back to the community once he was released. Soon after coming home, he became an Oakland Chinatown Ambassador. As an Ambassador, he worked around the clock, cleaning the streets from 5AM in the morning, picking up trash, feeding houseless community members, and interacting with community members and merchants to provide a sense of safety. Eventually, he helped grow the Community Ambassadors program and establish it officially at Family Bridges.

Sakhone says one of his most meaningful contributions has been helping unhoused individuals find permanent housing. Through his lived experience and training, has been able to communicate and connect with unhoused individuals. For Sakhone, the work is not just about housing but also helping individuals holistically, from reconnecting with family members and children, finding employment, and accessing resources.

Furthermore, he has been able to bring more formerly incarcerated individuals to the Community Ambassadors program, many of whom go above and beyond in serving the community. “We are creating a safe and supportive environment for people to re-enter society… to have a place where they can find firm footing,” he says. He also assists people coming home from prison get their IDs, important documents, and benefits.

Sakhone values the opportunity to contribute to the safety, cleanliness, and well-being of Oakland Chinatown The best apology for the harms he once caused, he says, is changed behavior.

Somsak “Sak” Uppasay

“My arms are open. I welcome anyone to come ask for help and support”

When Sak came home from prison after serving over two decades, he was looking for an opportunity to give back. He joined the Ambassadors as a volunteer supporting Sakhone, and was then hired as staff. He has been with the Ambassadors for four years.

Sak was incarcerated at a young age and for many years carried a negative attitude and caused harm to his community. His life changed years later at San Quentin State Prison, where for the first time he witnessed volunteers, people he didn’t even know, coming in to offer support for people like him. To his surprise, he finally felt valued. “My community embraced me, accepted me,” he says.

That inspired him to join self help groups, where he learned about himself, his past, and the hurts he carried that caused him to harm others. He learned about topics like trauma, healing, and conflict resolution. Sak made a commitment to do no more harm towards other people, and now hopes to offer the type of love and kindness that he received from strangers to other people.

When Sak came home, he served as a domestic violence counselor before joining the Ambassadors. One of Sak’s most memorable experiences as an Ambassador is when he noticed an unhoused woman in Chinatown asking for food, and person after person paid no attention to her. As someone who experienced rejection from society in the past, Sak felt compassion for her and decided to help provide food, water, and kindness. Afterwards, he noticed that other people started giving to her too, and realized sometimes it takes just one person to take the lead for others to step in and make a difference. Seeing that his actions could have a positive ripple effect inspires him to keep serving the community with compassion.

“The acronym for Sak is ‘Supportive And Kind,’” he says.

Peniamina “Ben” Ah You

“We are laying the foundation of understanding of how to coexist with one another”

For Ben, being an Ambassador is an honor and a way of life. He believes helping people feel loved, getting to know our neighbors, and acknowledging people on a human level can all help prevent violence in the community. On the other hand, when people feel unloved and threatened, they project it onto others and that is how violence occurs — he knows because he was once in that situation.

Ben is mixed Chinese and Samoan. His parents were both immigrants to the U.S. and he grew up in difficult conditions and amongst many negative influences. He committed a crime at 16 and was incarcerated soon after. After experiencing dark and difficult moments in prison, he changed and matured. He got involved in self-help programs, classes, and self exploration, and began to change and hold himself accountable for the wrongs he had done. Through these programs and his transformation over time, he also learned how to communicate effectively with many different types of people in a more open and positive manner. He began to receive positive responses from his peers for his new demeanor.

Ben made a promise to serve the community and make things safer and better when he came home. He started as a volunteer with Sakhone and then was hired as an Ambassador. He is grateful for the opportunity to utilize the skills he learned in prison to interact with many different types of people in the streets with compassion and to de-escalate conflicts.

“The work we are doing out here is the same work we were doing in there,” he says. “We were part of community building within those walls.”

Through genuine kindness and compassion, Ben believes we can create safer communities.

Meuy Saeliow

“We were houseless. Now we have housing”

Meuy first got connected to the Ambassadors program through the Oak Street Community Cabins, a 24/7 emergency shelter operated by Family Bridges, when she was facing housing instability. After looking and getting turned away from multiple halfway houses after coming home from incarceration, she connected with Family Bridges, who quickly provided her with an accessible shelter, and eventually helped find more stable housing.

Meuy thought about other friends she knew who were struggling with stable housing, and told them about the Oak Street Community Cabins and the resources they provide. She was able to connect a handful of others with Family Bridges to get support too. Later on, when there were volunteer opportunities to get involved cleaning the streets in Chinatown, Meuy decided to participate. After joining as a volunteer, she was later hired as a Community Ambassador, and continues today to work towards clean and safe streets.

For Meuy, working with the Community Ambassadors team has been inspiring and motivating. Seeing people who were incarcerated for many years provide positive leadership in the community encourages her to be a better person.

Meuy is formerly incarcerated, and knows she has hurt a lot of people in the past, especially after dealing with difficult circumstances such as loss of family members and people close to her. Today, she hopes to do things differently and live a productive life for her kids. She also does this work in honor of her late parents, who always encouraged her to do good and stay close with family.

Mouang “Tina” Saelee

“I’m glad I’m here. It helped me a lot”

Tina got introduced to Family Bridges, and the Community Ambassadors program, through her cousin Meuy who is also an Ambassador. Initially, she connected with Family Bridges when she was in need of housing. They were able to connect her to the Oak Street Community Cabins and ultimately find permanent housing.

As someone who benefited directly from Family Bridges’ services, Tina was given the opportunity to volunteer with the Ambassadors to help clean the streets in Chinatown. As reliable and hard working volunteers, Tina and her cousin Meuy were both eventually hired to be Ambassadors, at a time when she needed a job.

Tina says it feels good to be able to help the community, having grown up in Oakland. She keeps Chinatown clean by picking up trash and also helps community members with whatever they may need help with. “It feels good when people stop us and tell us we are doing a good job,” she says.

Maurice “Reese” Reed

“This is not just a job for me, this is a lifestyle”

Reese believes his role as an Ambassador is part of his lifestyle of giving back to the community. He loves what he does.

When Reese first came home after incarceration, he was looking for a job, but found it challenging. Another formerly incarcerated friend recommended the Community Ambassadors role. Reese joined the team and hit the ground running right away.

While it is his job now, Reese believes in serving the community no matter where he is or whether or not he is working. Even in his personal time, if he sees someone who needs help or sees trash on the ground, he will take action. He says being able to do this work as a job is particularly fulfilling. As someone who once took away from communities in the past, giving back and helping others in need is how he tries to live his life.

“I always reassure everybody who I talk to– if you see me, see the red vest, ask me if you need help or if you just want to stop and talk… You can come to us,” he says.

Reese likes to stay busy. While incarcerated he worked several jobs, facilitated groups and programs, and went to college. The Community Ambassador role allows him to stay busy and at the same time utilize many of the skills he developed while incarcerated to make positive change and connect with others. He loves being out in the community, socializing with people, building connections, and doing acts of service.

Reese is also a filmmaker, and hopes to be able to share more stories about the work the Ambassadors are doing through film.

Danny Ko

“I can use my skills to translate”

Danny worked in restaurants since he was young. One day, he connected with Sak, who was working as an Ambassador, through a mutual friend. At the time, he was looking for a job. Sak built a relationship with him and offered him the opportunity to come volunteer with the Ambassadors.

Danny decided to join, and woke up before 5AM on a daily basis to help Sakhone clean the streets in Chinatown. He worked hard, showed up regularly, and after volunteering consistently for a month, was offered a job to join the Community Ambassadors. To this day, Danny wakes up early every weekday to clean the streets, and is working on building more relationships in the community.

Danny speaks Vietnamese, Cantonese, and some Mandarin, and is able to use his language skills to translate for the rest of the Ambassadors, as there is sometimes a language barrier. His language skills are invaluable for the team to be able to understand and communicate effectively with community members who do not speak English.

This article is the second 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 hear from the Chinatown community in Part 3.

Read “Meet Chinatown’s Community Ambassadors” 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.