In February, after a number of anti-Asian attacks in the Bay Area, Jess Owyoung’s sadness quickly turned to outrage.
“I felt like it could have happened to my grandparents,” said Owyoung, 37, a fourth-generation Chinese American who lives in the Bay Area.
She already felt traumatized by news stories she’d seen about the nationwide rise of anti-Asian hate crimes, and knowing that similar violent acts had happened just a few miles from her home left her with a sick feeling, she said.
“I felt an urgency to do something,” Owyoung said. “But what?”
A few days later, she found the answer online when she spotted a social media post by Jacob Azevedo of Oakland, Calif. Azevedo, 26, had offered on Instagram to bring his dog and walk with anyone in Oakland’s Chinatown neighborhood to help them feel safe.
Owyoung said she immediately reached out and offered to help Azevedo coordinate a team of volunteers to accompany Oakland-area Asian Americans to and from work, doctor’s appointments and the grocery store.
She wasn’t alone — several others in the Bay Area had offered to help, too. After meeting online, Owyoung and three others came up with the idea for Compassion in Oakland to protect people in Chinatown and beyond from anti-Asian violence.
So far, more than 2,000 people have applied to be volunteers, Owyoung said, and the group has received hundreds of requests for chaperones from Asian Americans of all ages.
“A lot of people are feeling scared right now, and it’s awful that they have to worry about being attacked,” said Owyoung, who also works as a college mental health counselor.
“We want them to know that there are people who care and are out there doing good things,” she added. “And we also want to change what our world looks like and open up some conversations about what it means to be Asian American.”
Compassion in Oakland is just one of many grass-roots organizations that have sprung up in response to the rise in anti-Asian violence. Since the onset of the pandemic, hate crimes against Asian Americans are up 150 percent. And with many still reeling from the March 16 Atlanta-area spa shootings — which left eight people dead, among them six Asian women — some feel there’s never been a more urgent moment to act.
“I was feeling the same as a lot of people — I was traumatized by the shootings and feeling really helpless,” Owyoung said. “So working now to help keep people safe has been personally therapeutic.”
For about two months, Compassion in Oakland volunteers have worked in teams of two or three to fill walking-chaperone requests that are submitted online. And on weekends, group members meet in Oakland’s Chinatown to get the word out about their free service and offer encouragement to Asian American business owners and street vendors.
“We call it ‘Feet on the Streets,’ ” said Katrina Ramos, 26, one of Compassion in Oakland’s co-founders. Although she grew up in San Jose, she has fond memories of going to Oakland’s Chinatown to shop and have dinner with her parents, she said.
“My dad is from the Philippines and my mom is Chinese from Vietnam,” Ramos said. “I was raised to always respect my elders — that was a big value in my family. To see people now getting attacked while they’re out shopping or going to the bank is really unacceptable and upsetting.”
Ramos is currently between jobs in the tech industry, so she’s been devoting about 10 hours a day to Compassion in Oakland, she said. In addition to coordinating volunteers and doing community outreach work, she also regularly hits the sidewalks as a chaperone.
“It’s rewarding to walk with people and hear their stories and to help them feel safe as they go about their day,” she said. “A lot of people live alone and haven’t been out much during the pandemic. This might be the only interaction they have all week.”
While Compassion in Oakland said they can handle most of the chaperone needs in the city, there is also an option for Asian Americans who need to venture further afield or are unable to walk.
Kye Perrot, a small-business operations consultant from Santa Clara, Calif., recently launched Cali Kye Cab on Instagram for those who don’t feel safe taking public transportation and can’t afford a cab.
Perrot, 39, is Korean American and said she was inspired to launch a fundraising effort for cab fare by New York City’s Maddy Park, who has received national attention for her work. With $2,000 of her own money, Park started helping pay for cabs for Asian Americans who felt unsafe, then raised $100,000 in two days on Instagram to pay for the cab rides of older adults and women.
With Cali Kye Cab, Asian Americans who need a lift in the Bay Area can fill out a request for a cab and are then reimbursed through Venmo, Perrot said. She used $1,000 in savings to get started and is now accepting donations.
“When I started hearing the stories of these attacks, it broke my heart and I wanted a personal way to pay it forward,” she said. “This could happen to any of my friends when they’re out walking in San Francisco. I wanted to do what I could to help a vulnerable community.”
So far, Perrot said she’s paid for more than 100 taxi rides and has been flooded with emails from people who are happy to donate to her cause.
“My goal was to let people know they’re not alone — that there are people who care,” she said. “I don’t want to fight hate with more hate. To me, this is about solidarity and unity. We’ll get through this tough time together.”
With anti-Asian attacks continuing to rattle communities nationwide, Perrot and volunteers with Compassion in Oakland know their work isn’t done. Because Ramos has heard from some elderly Asian Americans that they’ve been harassed while riding the city bus, Compassion in Oakland is now considering having volunteers ride along on routes, she said.
“What’s happening in America right now is absolutely awful, but we’re determined to get people safely from Point A to Point B,” Ramos added. “I’m really proud of the work that we’re doing.”
She and other volunteers are humbled, she said, when they read the comments on social media from grateful Bay Area Asian Americans.
“I was chaperoned home this afternoon from my grocery shopping trip to Chinatown,” wrote one woman. “I am very appreciative of the volunteers named Michael and Adley who walked home with me, and the conversation about jobs and lifestyles. They even offered to help me carry my bags of groceries.”
Owyoung said she would be honored to walk again with any of the people she has met through Compassion in Oakland.
“A lot of the elderly Asian people I have met are survivors,” she said. “They’ve been through many rough things in life — racism is not new to them. The conversations I’ve had with them are honest and rewarding, and it’s uplifting to help them.”