Part I of 3: Building Asian immigrant refugee power through storytelling & organizing
a conversation with APEN’s Christine Cordero on the importance of changing narratives around Asian immigrant refugee communities and environmental justice.
As NCRP begins to build its climate justice and just transition (CJJT) movement investment project work, we recognize and honor the intersecting paths of this work across a number of existing frontline communities.
This Asian American and Pacific Islander [Asian immigrant refugee] Month, we are excited to be sharing expertise from Filipino-American climate justice frontline leader and Co-Director of the Asian Pacific Environmental Network (APEN), Christine Cordero. In this first of a series of three blog posts, NCRP’s Senior Movement Engagement Associate for Climate Justice, Senowa Mize-Fox sits down with Christine to discuss the connection between narrative change and organizing and why it’s such a key part of APEN’s strategy in bringing about a healthier planet for all and a regenerative economy.
Senowa Mize-Fox: Christine, you come into this role at APEN deeply rooted in narrative strategy and change work, could you elaborate on why this is so important to building power on the frontlines? In Asian immigrant refugee communities specifically?
Christine Cordero: Narrative strategy is important only inasmuch as you have the organizing strategy, the people, and infrastructure to carry it out. Why is narrative strategy important for building power on the frontlines? Because when it comes to climate and environmental issues, these things feel really, really big. Often people’s entry point into climate is either individual action or all the ways we are going to die. Neither of those things actually lead to what we need, which is systemic solutions and collective action.
So, the power of narrative strategy is about how you tell the story. Not just the story about the things we are fighting against, but also the things we are building towards. For example, what would it actually look like to live in a world based on a regenerative economy that works for all people?
Historically, BIPOC communities have been the environmental justice sacrifice zones for an economy that benefits a few people at the expense of our lives and our health. For Asian immigrant refugee communities, this is a narrative that you don’t often hear—at least in the US. However, when you do this work, you start to understand the bigger picture around these extractions. Whole regimes created war, colonialism, and imperialism to extract the resources of resource-rich places, which for a lot of Asian immigrant communities were our ancestral homelands. War was made there to facilitate economic extraction and exploitation.
A lot of folks in APEN’s member base are refugees of wars or economic exploitation in another region. This global extractive economy is why our people have largely been driven into the US or used in the labor of building this “nation state”, and why we still bear the brunt of current injustices. It’s not hard to imagine how people are reminded of these injustices on a day-to-day basis. The real health dangers of the pandemic, the crisis moment around racial injustice in this country, and the anti-Asian hate that was stoked by Trump for years, all echo and perpetuate the violence that people have experienced before. It is very easy to despair, to feel isolated, and to think we can’t do anything about this.
This is where narrative strategy, in combination with organizing, can help. When I think of organizing, I think of any of the actions we take with regular people, community members, using our own agency and power to shift something. Those two things – our community’s vision of what we want the world to be like and doing something every day to move towards that vision – provide the path for building real power for the frontlines.
This system was built to keep us isolated and alienated to make it difficult to change our conditions. Narrative strategy and organizing together build power on the frontlines to get to the real solutions that will benefit all of us. When you protect the frontlines, you protect everyone.
Vision & Trust
Senowa: I really love how you frame that and how it is just kind of the building blocks every day you have to do in service of that vision. It’s a good reminder that it doesn’t happen in a day. Things don’t get scaled in a day. It takes a really long time to build this power and a lot of trust.
Christine: It’s about having a long-term vision beyond the current moment or problem.
I grew up in Pittsburg, California, which is in Contra Costa County. It’s a place that has five oil refineries and all the corresponding chemical and energy plants that go with that. Back around 2011, before I was at APEN, I got involved with an effort to stop the building of a crude oil depot there, which would have transported crude oil on trucks and rail through our neighborhoods.
Pittsburg is a small, working-class suburb. We actually were successful in stopping the oil depot, and I remember being at a meeting and we were all super excited. ‘Great! We stopped the oil depot!’ And then I was like, ‘What do we want in its place? Because this is gonna be whack-a-mole. They’re gonna want to put something else in that’s just as bad.’
And then I remember the dead silence in the room.
I think we were all just stunned that we won. None of us actually had been given the opportunity — nor did we have the muscle – to think about what comes after. We have to be just as, if not more, rigorous in our practices to build the world we want as our opposition is about exploiting and destroying our communities and the earth. That kind of rigor for what we envision and what we want is actually a skill, a muscle. And a lot of our communities don’t have the time to learn and master it.
Hope is a discipline, right? Or rather, as Sendolo Diaminah, Co-Director of the Carolina Federation, often says, how can we think of less discipline and more devotion? So, I think about hope as a devotional practice. Like, how can we be devoted to the faith and hope of our people?
Because our ancestors already went through so much. That’s why we’re here, right?
Senowa: I love what it sparks. I think that that’s really important. And it’s also just such a good lesson that a just transition doesn’t just mean stopping the bad, right? It’s also about building the new. And when you have communities in survival mode, I can imagine, right? It’s a hard muscle to grow.
So, thank you for elaborating on that. I really appreciate it.
Look for Part 2 of our “Celebrating Asian immigrant refugee Contributions to Climate Action Series,” when Christine delves into what funders and organizers can learn from APEN’s history and the wisdom of Indigenous Asian immigrant refugee and Hawaiian Pacific Islander peoples.