By: Joanne Chew
“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” – Edmund Burke
I have to admit, there are times when I feel as if my foray into activism was for selfish reasons. When I was going through a difficult personal time a few years back, friends encouraged me to channel that energy into something positive. How could I get more involved within my community and give back? At the time I felt like I was buckling under the pressure of having to face a lot of injustices, betrayal, and feeling like I was powerless against it all, like I had no voice. The only way to take your power back was to get up and stand in it. I just had no idea how to go about it.
During the holiday season of 2016, I went back to my hometown of San Francisco to visit family as usual. It’s quite normal (at least in my family) for tension to run high during the holidays. To give myself a bit of a breather, I jogged to the top of Strawberry Hill in Golden Gate Park, as I had often done in high school during XC practice. I soaked in a few moments of solitude, taking in views of the Golden Gate bridge, when a couple around my parents’ age approached me.
“Excuse me, I hate to bother you when you’re looking so peaceful, but could you please take a picture of me and my husband?” the woman asked.
I obliged, and afterwards, the couple struck up a conversation with me. The wife had attended the same high school I had gone to, thirty years earlier. She told me she and her husband were heavily into activism during their younger years.
“How do you feel about this year’s presidential election?” she asked me.
I told her I was scared and angry at the same time, that I had an unsettling feeling in the pit of my stomach that wouldn’t go away. I had already begun attending protests and rallies supporting the #NODAPL movement, after hearing about all the horrific things happening to the Sioux tribe in Standing Rock over them protecting land that was rightfully theirs, and also fighting to ensure the quality of their main water sources was not compromised. I had the privilege of hearing some of the Elders who had come in to Los Angeles to speak, and was continuously inspired by their resolve. “We will not give up.”
“My husband and I try to stay as involved as we can, but we don’t have the energy and stamina like we used to,” the lady in the park continued. “We’re counting on the younger generation to help us continue. Don’t be afraid to use your voice. If you see something that you feel in your gut is wrong, stand up against it.”
My parents cautioned me against getting involved. They had seen and heard too many horror stories on the news about rallies and demonstrations that had gone awry and worried for my safety. They also didn’t want me to become disheartened if my single efforts couldn’t make the impact that I had hoped for. “You can’t save everyone,” my father always told me. At the same time, he also told me to work hard and be helpful to others.
It was around this time that the Muslim travel bans were enforced. A girlfriend of mine told me one of her bridesmaids wouldn’t be allowed back into the country in time for her wedding, despite having proper documentation. As 2017 progressed and we went into 2018, I would read in the news that even naturalized citizens were in danger of deportation. I felt my eyes burning with angry tears. From a young age I was always taught that essentially we are all immigrants, aside from the Native Americans, and some of them were now tragically losing a battle fighting for what should very much be a basic human right in our land of “equality and freedom,” access to a clean water source on land that was rightfully theirs in the first place.
Three of my four grandparents had already passed away by the time I was born. I remember having to coax much of my family’s earlier history out of my parents because they often said the memories were too traumatic to remember. My parents both grew up during WWII. My father was in Southern China, and my mother was in Taiwan. My mother told me her family was so poor the houses in the village they lived in often had dirt floors and they went to school without shoes. My father’s family had been fairly well-to-do, but Communists took everything they had once the war started. I’m often told that my inclination towards the arts and painting most likely came from my paternal grandfather, who was a skilled calligraphist and overall, a very learned man. He had to abandon all of those pursuits as his family went from living quite comfortably to having virtually nothing and fearing for their lives. After witnessing the murder of their neighbors, my grandparents got together the last of what they had to get their family to the United States, but there wasn’t enough for everyone to go together. The family had to separate. My father was thirteen when he arrived, and had to go to work immediately, shucking shrimp with my aunt after he finished school so that they could continue sending money to the family members still in China. My father went on to serve in the Army before getting married and starting his own family.
If the Chinese Exclusion Act hadn’t been repealed in 1943, would my family have made it over? Would my sister and I have even been born? The reason I’m able to be here today, writing about my experiences, living an extremely privileged life in comparison because I have so many opportunities my elder family members did not have, is because they fought for their future generations to have a better chance than they did. Countless immigrants from past generations did the same, painstakingly sacrificing even the most basic of comforts to work their entire lives, never having the opportunity to even ponder what could have genuinely made them happy, what their innermost dreams were, because everything was all about survival, morning, noon, and night.
Whatever abilities I may have, whatever areas people may tell me I’m gifted in, I am not presumptuous enough to believe I was simply born with them. They’re an extension of the abilities and talent from those who came before me, but perhaps never had a chance to realize them.
To get involved today, to stand up and fight back against so many facets of a society that feels like we’ve taken so many disheartening steps backward in, was a duty I felt I didn’t have the option to turn away from. It was the one way to honor those who fought for us and made all of the necessary sacrifices so that we could have the lives we have today. It was my one way to stay connected with members of my family I never got to meet, but who gave up everything they had just so my life could be better.
On January 29th, 2017 I was one of the many on a shuttle heading towards LAX (Los Angeles International Airport). The funny thing was, most of the passengers aboard that shuttle weren’t headed to the airport to catch a flight, like people usually were. On that day, thousands of protesters gathered at airports across the United States to rally against Trump’s Immigration Order.
That morning, during a church sermon, our pastor, who was also an immigrant, spoke about how important it was for us not to stand by and do nothing against the injustices of the world. When I told him where I was going after services, he seemed shocked and worried on my behalf, but then again, I was just putting into practice what he was preaching.
On the shuttle I started chatting with a woman named Amanda.* She was carrying a sign that said “I Love Immigrants, Especially My Parents.” She told me her family had come from Poland. We had heard that the crowds were already quite massive and agreed to keep an eye out for each other and catch the same shuttle home later in the evening.
I’ve been very fortunate in my experiences. I’ve attended close to twenty marches, protests, and rallies in the last two years and one of my favorite things, besides lending support to the people and causes we are fighting for, is the incredible sense of community I always find. I was at another immigration march alone, and two ladies ushered me over to them because they noticed an isolated man to the side was looking at me in a way that made them feel unsettled. I thanked them for the concern, and let them know I had noticed him as well and was staying alert.
Everyone who was detained at LAX that day as a result of the ban was released, but there were countless others who weren’t so lucky. At times it felt overwhelming, seeing so many causes, social concerns, and groups of people who were in desperate (and often extremely dire) need of help and support. My father is right in the sense that a single person can’t save them all, which is why collective effort is so important. Working together is the only way we can all pull through. What would happen if we could all band together and unite for the causes and people we so passionately believe in?
There were times when I had to go purely by instinct, because there was just too much for me to keep up with. I could only go where my heart was propelling me towards. I’ve learned countless times in life that when we go against that inner pull, things will fall more and more out of alignment, we’ll become more unbalanced, and more unhappy. We can’t serve others to our fullest ability if we don’t also take care of ourselves.
I attended a prayer vigil in Los Angeles held for the Sioux Tribe at Standing Rock when drilling for the Dakota Pipeline began, and we heard news of their camps being burned as they were forcibly evicted. Elders from those camps came in to speak again. “They call Los Angeles ‘the City of Angels.’ Thank you for standing with us.” I remember struggling to hold back tears. So many of them had lost their homes, family members had been injured or thrown in jail all for the sake of protecting their own land, and despite all that, some of the first words out of their mouths was gratitude towards us. I felt incredibly helpless and humbled at the same time. Couldn’t we do more for them?
A couple months after the nationwide airport protests, I got that opportunity when I joined a small group of activists in Los Angeles who wanted to encourage major investors of the Dakota Pipeline to divest, like many major chains of banks. Our group would split in two, one half of us was to lie outside one of the bank’s locations in downtown Los Angeles, covered in black paint to symbolize oil, with our eyes closed as if we were dead. It’s a particularly graphic and morbid image, but it gets the point across. This is what will happen if we force people to live with a contaminated water source. Every single human being on this planet deserves better than that. The second half of our group agreed to go inside the bank to withdraw all the money from their accounts and explain their reasons for doing so on camera. A news program known as The Young Turks would later on edit all the footage and release a video.
I was in the group that volunteered to be painted. We walked to the front of the bank, joined hands, and slumped to the ground. We were instructed to keep our eyes closed and not move until we were helped up by our friends who would have just closed their bank accounts.
Lying in the middle of the sidewalk and not being able to see what was going on made me feel completely vulnerable and exposed. It involved a lot of trust in people I had just met that morning, but I still felt completely safe. I could feel the other three people lying still just inches away. A few minutes later, I could hear the bank lower their security gates. Our friends were still inside. I could hear people walking by and asking what was going on, and our volunteer photographers and videographers explained the demonstration. My job was to continue lying completely still and appear to be unaware of whatever was going on, but I was starting to feel a slight panic. I hoped everyone inside was okay. I prayed that we wouldn’t get arrested, even though everything had been clearly researched and what we were doing was within the law.
It felt like an eternity until I finally got pulled to my feet, and the “oil” was wiped off my face. We finished getting all the photography and video footage needed to properly document everything, and got to speak to more passerby on the street. Some were entirely unaware of what was happening, so I felt that the afternoon was a success, so far. We had communicated our statement and raised awareness.
This would be the first of backlash I would receive for my activism efforts, but I had already prepared myself for that. A former instructor sent me a message laden with profanities after he saw the photographs. I chose to sever contact and continue on.
People would constantly tell me that this was a waste of time, it wasn’t accomplishing anything, and we were just doing it to feel good about ourselves. I say everyone is entitled to their own opinion. Joining forces with like-minded individuals only makes an effort stronger. Perhaps one rally or one protest won’t be enough to change a law or immediately get us to our end goal, but it’s the collective energy that can fuel ideas and lead to more opportunities that can get us to where we need to be. It’s so the people who are in more vulnerable and dangerous positions than we are, the ones we’re fighting for, know that they’re not alone, they’ve been heard, and they will not be forgotten.
Again, I was just going wherever my heart led me, and where it inexplicably led me next was towards female empowerment, and the fight against sexual harassment and abuse. I hated how virtually every woman I knew had a story or some harrowing experience they eventually shared with me. I considered myself fairly lucky in the grand scheme of it all, even though I’m still processing my own experiences in which my proximity with a man (be it personally or professionally) put my physical safety and/or emotional well-being in jeopardy, and feeling the utter helplessness of it all. It’s not always easy disentangling oneself from these situations, there’s fear of backlash, the safety of ourselves and loved ones, our employment could be at risk, a myriad of things could be endangered if we were to speak up or “anger” the wrong people in power. On top of all that, there’s the possibility that no one would believe us.
It’s something our mothers and grandmothers experienced, but perhaps it was far more dangerous for them back then to speak up. It’s something I hope future generations will never have to experience. My hope is for my sisters who’ve already experienced or continue to experience such a distressing ordeal to find peace and ultimately heal. To reclaim the power they’ve always had.
Which is why we cannot afford to stay silent and do nothing.
A fellow actress and activist summed up this next part of my article best.
“When your art aligns with your beliefs.”
I got the opportunity to work on two incredible projects, “I Am Christine Blasey Ford Project,” directed by Skyler Barrett, and “Don’t Silence Me,” a music video starring Mhairi Morrison, whose song was composed and performed by Sadie Jemmett. The video was directed by Jenn Page.
For “I Am Christine Blasey Ford Project,” Skyler had compiled a very diverse group of women, which included Harvey Weinstein survivors, to show just how prevalent this horrifying epidemic of harassment and abuse truly is. It could be any one of us. We had each been assigned to read a portion of Dr. Ford’s testimony, and I unexpectedly burst into tears when I was reading my part. I was just so angry. As proud as I am of this project, I am still unable to watch it without getting upset, which further affirms how important it is to stay involved.
“For some reason the issue of respecting women and believing survivors became a political issue and it shouldn’t be,” says Skyler, as told to Stacy Chen for ABC News, when “I Am Christine Blasey Ford Project” was released at the end of 2018.
I’m absolutely heartbroken that so many women have “a story,” and it’s so important for us to let each other know that they aren’t alone, that we believe them.
A month later, I was cast in “Don’t Silence Me.” I had the privilege of meeting Mhairi on the first day of the video shoot (the second half of the shoot would take place in early 2019 at the Women’s March in Los Angeles), and I could not respect her more for her bravery in taking on such a project, as she had related that she was also a survivor of sexual assault. I’m also completely enamored with the fact that both projects were helmed by female directors. Another diverse blend of incredible women I’ve been so privileged to meet were assigned to learn portions of the incredible song Sadie wrote especially for Mhairi, and we got to sing and dance to them for the video shoot. Another powerful moment was tearing a piece of tape off our mouths, that had a word we each chose that brought back a negative memory or symbolized when we felt powerless and unable to speak up for ourselves. Mine was “worthless.”
The video premiered in March of this year and has now amassed more than 132,000 views. Mhairi and Sadie were interviewed on CBS news, and have since taken “Don’t Silence Me,” to at-capacity screenings all over Europe, making the front page of The Sun and garnering press with BBC News. Each screening was followed by an inspiring and educational panel loaded with resources to help survivors move forward with their healing, whether or not they choose to name their abuser. However they choose to go about it is their decision, it’s a power every single person holds within themselves and we must never let each other forget that.
It is these connections, hearing stories of more people coming forward, speaking up and finding the courage to stand against this type of treatment that continuously remind me that all of this is not in vain. When we unite and join efforts, the strength and power of it all is extremely palpable.
In between these two projects, I had the opportunity to become an associate producer for the first time. “The Divisible,” written & directed by Marcus T. Thomas, who also stars in the film alongside Nicole Starrett and Mateo Ray Garcia, was inspired by all of the political unrest that has permeated the country and how so many basic rights and freedoms could be in jeopardy if we don’t take action. It addresses a lot of the fears and prejudices that have unfortunately gained a foothold in recent years, but above all, stresses the dire need for us to stay united and work under love. It’s the only way we will ever truly win. The film completed a successful crowdfunding campaign at the end of last year, shot early this year, and is now in post-production. I could not be prouder or more impressed with everyone involved.
There are days when I don’t feel fit to call myself an activist. I’ve got a lot to learn and am often doing it as I go along. I know there are people who are more educated and have the ability to communicate far more effectively than I can, and at times I worry that I’m failing the very causes and people I desperately want to support.
It’s in these moments that I tell myself, “Hey there, wait a minute. If you’re standing up for other people, you have to stand up for yourself, too. No more of that kind of talk. Just keep doing the work.”
Imagine what could happen if we all stood up and found a way to do this work together? If we could commit to fully showing up for ourselves and each other every single day?
The ripple effect would be absolutely astounding.
*Names changed to protect privacy
Joanne Chew is an actress, artist, and writer residing in Los Angeles. She is very excited to have her fifth piece published in Overachiever Magazine. She is a passionate advocate for womens’ rights and their empowerment. In her spare time, she enjoys studying martial arts and training for her next marathon. Her upcoming art show, “Spring Into Summer,” will be in Los Angeles on April 28, 2019
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