The Send Chinatown Love volunteer on lifting up the AAPI community right now, and for the long-run.
– KEYS SOULCARE
One of the coolest aspects of bringing Keys Soulcare to life? Connecting with lightworkers living out bold, hopeful visions for this world — be it through their work, in their local communities, or just within themselves. Keys Soulcare digital strategist Lily Li absolutely fits this bill. (Case in point: Li is celebrating the one-year anniversary of Send Chinatown Love, or SCL, a grassroots self-advocacy and empowerment organization she helps power alongside a handful of NYC volunteers.)
We spoke with Li about channeling hurt into positive action to empower the AAPI community right now and for generations to come.
How did Send Chinatown Love start?
We are a grassroots organization made up of mostly “younger generation” members who were either born in Chinatown or just really got comfort from Chinatown growing up. We’re seeing that Asian-owned, immigrant micro-businesses [were] disproportionately impacted as early as January [of 2020] because of rising xenophobia. Many businesses were forced to close before there were government [shelter-in-place] mandates because of inequitable government loans, grant programs, and no language access or outreach.
What’s been your approach to meeting all of these very real, incredibly varied challenges?
We focused on direct door-to-door outreach for gaining the trust of businesses, onboarding them onto our program, and providing any customized support that they might need — from a webpage platform where we accept donations on their behalf with a hundred percent going back to them. We remove as many barriers as possible. There is no application needed. If they don’t feel comfortable showing their face, or being photographed, that’s respected. Our work continues — and all in their native language, too.
How has your own upbringing there influenced your intentions for your work?
Living in Chinatown has built my understanding of what home is. This is where my parents and my grandparents could feel comfortable in their own skin. I experienced Chinatown as a lived-in place full of loving memories, versus a place of transaction, exoticism, or a photo-op. Our work is storytelling what’s here — not the rebranding of it.
What are some of the timely initiatives happening right now, and then some on the horizon?
Our merchant donation pool funds go towards rent, paychecks, and whatever else merchants need. Our gift-a-meal program doubles donation impact through funds going directly to merchants, who then use them to make and distribute meals to neighborhood partners in need. And this spring, in honor of our one-year anniversary, we’re launching a cookbook ‘zine!
Why does SCL balance right-now impact with ongoing services?
“Right now” matters so much, because every month, rent is due. But, we’re invested in generating organic business because the ability to even think beyond “right now” is a luxury. The effects of the pandemic are not standalone: they span a long history of resource deprivation, gentrification, and outright discrimination. COVID-19 only exacerbated and further exposed the inequality and racism built into the very fiber of this country.
What have been some of your proudest moments so far?
There was a huge Chinatown fire over the summer [of 2020] and one of our merchant’s — Grand Street Imports — shop burned down. We fundraised about $20,000 within a week’s time. Or, when our gift-a-meal program partnered with La Jornada food pantry in Flushing [Queens], which services Asian, Black, and Brown communities in New York City’s Bland Houses, where there wasn’t working gas for six months last winter.
You’ve onboarded your own parents, uncles, and aunts onto the platform. How does it feel to nurture those who literally nurtured you?
It means everything to me to take care of people that have loved me through their labor. Their labor is their love language to me, and to be able to return [it] back to them is so energizing when I feel hopeless and exhausted. I feel like a grown-up to return some of the abundance that they’ve given me throughout their lives, and I’m so, so grateful for that.
How are you feeling right now?
It fluctuates. Overall, I feel whole and right, even though there’s so much wrong. I’ve found it’s good to channel grief or sorrow into ambition for something I can see now. I feel so high when merchants trust us — this group of rag-tag kids — to partner with them. Other times, being so raw with people’s pain and stories can feel like you’re screaming at the top of your lungs and not being heard. So when people put their money where their mouths are [and support our merchants], I’m relieved.
What do you need right now?
I’ve learned to think about that question more. Right now, it’s more courage to find my voice and my power. I was not raised to be an “outspoken” person, so it can feel out of my nature. But it’s becoming more authentic to me, and it comes easier.
What other organizations are inspiring you?
One is The Street Vendor Project, which represents vendors from halal to rice roll carts that did not get unemployment benefits on top of facing limited licensing both before and after the pandemic. The MinKwon Center for Community Action in Flushing, Queens provides resources such as language services to help with eviction, and empowers our community to step into the forefront of their own stories and become truly visible.
And lastly, Red Canary Song, which was inspired by a woman named Yang-Song who was killed during a police raid on a massage parlor back when I was growing up. They are working on issues like decriminalizing sex work, labor rights, and prison abolition.
What’s your highest vision for the work that you’re doing?
To reimagine what the American dream looks like, start to heal generational gaps, and respect our elders while guiding our community to a future of justice and equity. To give others the privilege of dreaming bigger dreams than just getting food on the table or just putting their kids through school through their physical labor. To give us all a view of the bigger picture, too.
What’s your bigger picture vision of community work look like? How did Lily’s make you feel?