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AAPI Women Lead’s groundbreaking IPAR Report expands definitions of gender-based violence, centers community approach

An ANHPI Healing and Wellness event from 2023 (Photo: AAPI Women Lead team)

AAHPI communities are experiencing racial and gendered violence in mundane and invisible ways which are often hidden when compared to the hypervisible forms of “hate crimes.” The type of violence ANHPI communities experience do not always look and feel the same across communities.

These are some of the findings from the nonprofit organization AAPI Women Lead (AAPIWL) who released the first project in its intergenerational participatory action research (IPAR) program based on community-based research from Asian and Asian American communities in New York, Massachusetts, California, Hawaii, Wisconsin, and American Samoa. 

The Milwaukee-based organization Hmong American Women’s Association (HAWA) is one of six participating community-based research groups included in the report, along with Asian Task Force Against Domestic Violence, the American Samoa Alliance Against Domestic & Sexual Violence, ʻĀina Momona, Empowering Pacific Islander Communities (EPIC), and Asian Women’s Shelter.

“Naming Our Rage, Building Our Power,” is the first community-driven project of its kind that focuses on Asian, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander women, femmes, and non-binary communities and their experiences with racial and gender-based violence. Its findings compile 18 months worth of research that digs into how violence is defined in various Asian and Asian American communities, as well as how these violences are addressed and resisted.

Though data collection and research for this report began in 2022, the project itself has been almost a decade in the making, dating back to the very inception of AAPI Women Lead. Together with Jenny Wun, AAPI Women Lead Executive Director Dr. Connie Wun founded the organization in 2018 to address a concerning gap in ANHPI communities.

“We learned that there was limited research and data around our communities, and that there was a very limited understanding around gender-based violence against our ANHPI communities,” Wun explained. “Whatever information we learned also included hyper-criminalization of survivors, coupled with neglect.”

Among those who were disproportionately criminalized for being victims of gender-based violence were migrant workers, massage workers, and sex workers, whose believability was often questioned. AAPIWL wanted to provide them with a space to be able to tell their stories in safe community. 

After years of fundraising and collecting data through community stories, advocacy, and community building, AAPI Women Lead finally secured funding to complete the IPAR project in 2021. Drawing inspiration from Wun’s existing work with Black women and girls fighting against state violence and the healing justice work they were doing in their community, as well as her work with national ANHPI advocacy organizations and groups working against domestic and sexual violence, the AAPI Women Lead team wanted to create a similar space for ANHPI communities.

“Ever since we understood that there were community organizations working to end violence all across the country but that there wasn’t ever research on them, one of the ideas was to actually bring them together so that they could do the study together,” she explained.

“We saw an important opportunity for us to work together to collaborate and define violence against us and make that intervention.”


Expanding Definitions of Violence

“Naming Our Rage, Building Our Power,” comes at a crucial time in the national conversation around violence. In 2020, during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, people of Asian descent around the country (and the world) were subject to physical assaults because of racist beliefs about the virus’ origins and who its carriers are.

Wun notes that in a sense, the discourse around anti-Asian hate is a detriment to how we come to understand structural, institutional, and intergenerational violence because of its focus on acute, interpersonal instances of harm. 

“The inception of our project was because there’s so much violence against our communities — decades if not centuries-long,” Wun said. “But the way people understood violence against us was that number one, it didn’t exist. And that if it did exist, it was street violence.”

But violence in Asian and Asian American communities manifests in far more structural,  intergenerational, and even insidious ways: “[This understanding] didn’t account for colonization, immigration, patriarchy in the family, sexual violence in the family or the state, or the climate crisis and how it forced many of our people [in diaspora],” she continued. “That did not count as violence in people’s popular imagination.”

Wun further explained: “When you [label actions as] hate, you individualize it, and then you don’t implicate the systems that make the violence possible. It limits the understanding of our experiences here and abroad.”

In reality, many of the violences that Asian and Asian American communities endure are things that are seemingly “mundane,” from language injustice in the courtroom (e.g. not being given access to a translator or being mistranslated) to extreme barriers to accessing governmental resources.

In part, the allure of framing harmful actions as being driven by hate is its potential for sensationalization, in the media and in popular imagination alike. For people and organizations working to make more insidious forms of violence more visible, their efforts have been given little public attention: “The anti-gender-based violence organizations and survivors of violence—including domestic violence or sexual violence—were naming these things as violence, but that wasn’t making any news,” Wun said.


Harnessing Community Power and Ways of Knowing

One of the IPAR project’s most important features—as well as its biggest points of pride—is its rootedness in community. In seeking out groups and organizations to participate in the research project, AAPI Women Lead focused on inviting survivor-based organizations that are working to end violence “in its vastness.” 

But they were also intentional about including those who have been “invisibilized” by the anti-Asian hate discourse, as well as bringing in marginalized communities within the Asian diaspora, including Southeast Asian communities, disabled folks, and those living in the U.S. territories.

One of the first steps of putting the research project together was making sure that all of the participating researchers had the same baseline knowledge on concepts such as gender-based violence, transformative justice, and the histories of violence against ANHPI communities.

AAPI Women Lead 2022 I’m Ready Conference (Photo: AAPI Women Lead team)

For a year before their research processes officially began, Wun and AAPIWL partners facilitated compensated pre-research trainings for participants. Dr. Katherine Nasol, AAPI Women Lead’s Senior Research Coordinator, said that these spaces both fostered racial solidarity across ANHPI communities and helped to productively “problematize” the very umbrella term of ANHPI itself by “really understanding the disparate ways that we’re experiencing violence.”

“Those pre-research trainings were ways to not only be on the same page and speak the same vocabulary, but also understand the different ways we are experiencing violence in our communities,” Nasol explained. “That laid the framework for when we went into the process of determining our research questions and our research methods.”

In developing these collaborative questions (some of which were shared across communities, and others which were community-specific) and methods, participants realized that they were already doing this kind of research within their communities. They were simply calling it by a different name.

“For some of our Pacific Islander organizations, they use the method of talk story because that’s such a natural way of producing knowledge in their community,” Nasol explained. “For other researchers, they used autoethnography, which is a type of method where the researcher themselves is observing and interrogating their own experiences to understand the world.” 

Amplifying these ways of knowledge that are deeply embedded within different Asian and Asian American communities’ everyday practices was also an important part of the project. Even as people who hold doctorates and have been through the academy themselves, both Wun and Nasol emphasized the importance of bringing research outside of academia’s walls.

“Research has not always belonged to the academy,” Nasol said. “Our communities have always been producing knowledge in different ways, and we are creating different survival strategies of how to survive in the areas that we are forced to migrate to.”

“How do we shift the value around research away from the academy and towards the community?” Nasol further asked.


Hmong American Women’s Association

Like many things when it comes to community outreach, Hmong American Women’s Association (HAWA) Executive Director Tammie Xiong heard about AAPI Women’s Lead through word of mouth, from a friend in Des Moines who was familiar with HAWA’s work and thought the organization would be a good fit for the project. 

Dating back to the mid-90s, the Milwaukee-based nonprofit organization HAWA is one of the oldest Hmong women’s organizations in the country, led by Hmong women and queer femme leaders striving for gender justice and queer justice through advocacy efforts around gender-based violence work, healing justice work, and civic engagement. 

“​​We’re really looking at—instead of just trying to survive multiple forms of violence that our communities are experiencing—how do we also work with other community partners on the power of AAPI communities here in Wisconsin?” Xiong explained. 

Because her mother was one of the organization’s founding members, HAWA has always been a part of Xiong’s life in one way or another. Before taking over as executive director 10 years ago, Xiong was an active HAWA volunteer in her youth.

“It really has been a political home for me as well. Through its work, [HAWA has built] my political analysis and understanding of violence and my understanding of multiple forms of violence and [its] intersections,” she said.

Xiong is particularly passionate about “tell[ing] the story of how Hmong women from the Midwest have been organizing to actually create a national and global movement,” emphasizing that today’s Hmong gender-based violence movement originated in the region.

HAWA’s participation in AAPI Women Lead’s IPAR project further emphasized the crucial work that HAWA has been doing almost for decades. “What was presented and what I learned at IPAR really helped me understand deeper that in the past, HAWA was actually doing our own research, but we didn’t call it that,” Xiong said.  

As part of the IPAR project, HAWA created focus groups for survivors and “anyone willing to talk.” Engaging participants in talk story and sharing circles, Xiong and her colleagues strived to understand the reality of the issues their community members are facing, along with their solutions to them.

Like so much of HAWA’s work, these sharing circles filled a gap in the community. “Women kept telling us, ‘We need more spaces. We need to talk about domestic violence [and] sexual assault, because so much of it is happening in community, and I have nowhere to listen and learn from my sisters.’”

Xiong says that for her, one of the most surprising things that came out of these conversations was the sense of community readiness: “[There are] people who are willing to coordinate and organize their own spaces.”

She continued: “It can’t be organizations that are trying to shift and change these things. That’s why we’re giving these tools to communities so that they can be in a place to be like, ‘You know what, we don’t actually have to wait for institutions. We can actively engage in what it’s going to take in order to  end violence in our community, to end the silence in our communities.’”

One of Xiong’s biggest takeaways from being an IPAR participant was the “bittersweet” realization that the same conversations around gender roles that she was having as a young person are the same ones that young Hmong women, and queer and trans folks are having today. “That blew my mind,” she said. “What do we need to do to shift [the culture]?”

The demands that HAWA’s focus groups made time and time again in their focus groups is pushing Xiong to think about how HAWA can show up differently to foster accessible community education. “It has to look and feel different,” she said. “How can we create spaces for people to come in and basically just ask their questions?”


IPAR’s Research Outcomes and the Road Ahead

Described by both Nasol and Wun as a “Robin Hood” kind of project because of how it decenters the academy, “Naming Our Rage, Building Our Power,” succeeds in recognizing that while the research methods coming out of university settings are useful in accessing knowledge, they certainly aren’t the only way to create it.

“It is the honoring of us as producers of knowledge that I think is the biggest intervention,” Wun said. “It is the robustness of what constitutes knowledge that was really great about our project.”

“We can teach you how to interview if you’re interested in learning that, we can teach you how to lead a focus group,” Nasol added. “But we also want you to lean on your spiritual knowledge. We want you to lean on the transformative justice practices you’re already doing in your community.”

Nasol spoke fondly of the work coming out of American Samoa Alliance Against Domestic & Sexual Violence, whose effectivenes was rooted in the organization’s leaders utilizing their own knowledge while engaging in their research. 

“[The facilitator was] able to accurately decipher the types of violence that her community members were experiencing because she had that trust and because she had that skill of being an organizer and a community builder,” Nasol recalled.

Through their collective analysis, the researchers also found that there was no singular definition of violence that binds them all. “Our definitions or understandings or experiences with violence are so different, and they’re so tied to our very distinct histories with U.S. imperialism and colonization and militarism,” Nasol explained. 

Despite these specific definitions and experiences, they highlighted that the violences endured by Asian and Asian American communities have similar root causes: systemic neglect and organized abandonment by government agencies and institutions. 

Given these findings, the IPAR researchers dare to ask: “How do we build intimate support networks that can combat that organized abandonment, from this to an experience in our own communities? How do we build cross-racial solidarity across our communities, as well as with other communities of color, as an antidote and as an act and practice of resistance?”

To learn more about AAPI Women Lead’s work and to read “Naming Our Rage, Building Our Power” in full, visit www.AAPIWL.org.