Impact: Agents of Change

Written by Anh-Minh Le | Photography by Craig Lee

The rise in anti-Asian racism spurs six friends, including three locals, into collective action and activism.

During a barbecue at his Atherton home last summer, David Ting and longtime friend Norman Chen were discussing recent events. Ting described waiting for takeout at a Thai restaurant in Redwood City when, unprovoked, a food delivery driver shouted racist remarks at him and the establishment’s owner. Around that same time, a video had gone viral, showing a waitress at Carmel Valley’s Bernardus Lodge intervening as a diner harassed an Asian family celebrating a birthday. “I thought, ‘What the hell is going on?’” recalls Ting, a serial entrepreneur. “People were attacked just walking down the street.” Unfortunately, the problem — fueled in part by racist rhetoric about the origins of the coronavirus — stretched well beyond the Bay Area. From March 2020 to March 2021, the San Francisco–based nonprofit Stop AAPI Hate (which encourages the Asian American Pacific Islander community to report hate crimes they have experienced firsthand) documented 6,603 hate incidents nationally, up from 3,795 the previous year.

Although Ting, who is in his mid-50s, had encountered racism before, he was dismayed that it continues to be so prevalent. He also worried about his son and two daughters: Would their generation still be treated like outsiders? What could be done to create awareness about the concerns of Asian Americans?

“These things that were happening were a downer,” he says. “We wanted to do something positive for the [betterment] of our community.” Within a couple of months, he and Chen, an entrepreneur and investor, formed LAAUNCH (Leading Asian Americans to Unite for Change) with four equally passionate friends: financier Ed King, who, like Ting and Chen, lives on the Peninsula; Ting’s cousin in New York, Richard Ting, a director at Twitter; and twin sisters Ming and Wah Chen, the Hong Kong–based chief culture officer at EF Education First and the Los Angeles–based co-founder of real estate company InSite Development, respectively. “Our mission is to engage and empower Asian Americans to fight racism, increase representation and share community resources,” says Norman Chen.

Through Zoom calls last fall, they homed in on their first goal: drive more Asian Americans to the polls during the 2020 election. “As a nonpartisan organization, we weren’t telling people who to vote for,” says David Ting. “We were encouraging them to get out and vote — to make sure that their voices were heard.” Historically, voter turnout among AAPI communities has been low, with language barriers as well as a lack of outreach and Asian American candidates as possible contributing factors. LAAUNCH worked with APIAVote to fund campaigns on social media, targeting swing states in particular. In the eight states where the campaigns ran, they garnered close to 25 million impressions. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the turnout rate among Asian Americans jumped 10 percentage points between the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections — the biggest increase of any racial or ethnic group.

By the numbers: LAAUNCH’s social media channels feature survey results, graphics and messages intended to educate and inspire.

Next, the LAAUNCH board — comprising all the founders except Ming Chen and now also including Facebook executive Eric Toda, who resides in the East Bay — created a survey called the STAATUS Index (Social Tracking of Asian Americans in the United States), which collects data on perceptions of Asian Americans and is intended to help address the root causes of racism and discrimination. It was a meticulously coordinated endeavor. To craft the questions, they consulted with Asian American academics and enlisted a survey consultant with 20-plus years of experience from Research Rockstar. Savanta Research designed and conducted the online survey, while data visualization experts The DataFace analyzed and presented the information. Ona Creative assisted with branding, and a web design specialist designed an entirely new website. And finally, the Edelman San Francisco team spearheaded publicity for the STAATUS Index, generating widespread media coverage that included a segment on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. Nearly all of the firms worked pro bono or at a discount. (LAAUNCH’s early initiatives were backed by its founders, with later contributions from East West Bank, BTIG and individual donors. Donations to the nonprofit can be made online at laaunch.org.)

The inaugural STAATUS Index surveyed 2,766 adults in all 50 states, with the weighted sample reflecting the U.S. population (for parameters such as race, age, gender and education). The report was released in May to coincide with Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. One finding was especially startling: When asked to name a prominent Asian American, 42 percent responded with “Don’t know.” When they did provide a name, 11 percent answered Jackie Chan, and 9 percent Bruce Lee. Noting that Chan is a Hong Kong actor and Lee has been dead for close to 50 years, David Ting attributes the lackluster responses to the invisibility of AAPIs.

Another key takeaway: Almost 80 percent of Asian Americans believe they are discriminated against in the U.S. In light of the data gathered, LAAUNCH is now focused on increasing awareness of AAPI issues through traditional and social media; building relationships with other ethnic communities; supporting stronger laws against anti-AAPI crimes; and promoting education of AAPI history.

Peninsula friends Ed King, David Ting and Norman Chen (left to right) joined forces with three others last year to create LAAUNCH.

Jonathan Greenblatt, the CEO and national director of the Anti-Defamation League, describes LAAUNCH’s efforts as critical. ADL, the oldest anti-hate organization in the country, has conducted “attitudinal surveys of the American Jewish community — and about how non- Jews think about the American Jewish community — since the 1960s,” he says. Greenblatt notes, “You need to understand the extent of the problem in order to develop the right solutions to address it.”

In partnership with the Asian American Education Project, LAAUNCH recently commissioned award-winning Boston-based comic book author Amy Chu for a graphic novel about Asian American history, aimed at fifth to eighth graders. David Ting points out the need for educational tools like this to bring attention to historical landmarks such as the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which prohibited the immigration of Chinese laborers to the U.S. and was not repealed until 1943. Slated to come out this fall, the novel’s publication roughly aligns with Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, Marvel’s first film centered on an Asian superhero, hitting theaters September 3.

“Unless people understand our history, they cannot appreciate where we came from, what our challenges are, and where we hope to go in the future,” Norman Chen explains. “Utilizing our entrepreneurial spirit, we strive to create a better future for Asian Americans via innovative research and impactful programs.”

Indeed, the founders’ professional acumen and experience may prove to be one of their greatest strengths. “I am impressed by the commitment of the leadership who don’t come from the nonprofit world or field of advocacy, but have shown a kind of dedication, focus and smarts that we don’t see frequently enough,” says Greenblatt. “They aren’t just lamenting the problem; these individuals are applying their business skills to solve it.”

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