Cathy Dang: Organizing with Discipline, Rigor, Love and Revolutionary Heart
Interview and Editing by May Chen
Cathy Dang grew up in her parents’ nail salons. They were refugees from Vietnam, arriving in 1979. Cathy was born in Ridgewood, Queens, NYC. The family eventually moved to LA, where she worked continually in the family’s nail salon.
College is where her political consciousness began, at Loyola Marymount in a class called “Women of Color in the U.S.” with Prof. Dionne Bennett. She became deeply aware of the exploitation of blacks, Latinx, and Asians, and workers. As a college student, she volunteered with the hotel union (Local 11 UNITE HERE), and she supported the campaigns of car wash and domestic workers.
Cathy Dang. Photo: Enbion Micah Aan.
Moving to NYC, Cathy Dang has worked for five years as the Executive Director of CAAAV Organizing Asian Communities (caaav.org). CAAAV was formed as a Coalition Against Anti-Asian Violence in 1986 and evolved into a grassroots community organization engaged in direct organizing. CAAAV organized taxi drivers and car wash workers – who now have their own strong groups. CAAAV has devoted recent decades to organizing tenants and working on housing issues.
In one of many eloquent posts on Facebook, Cathy recounts the refugee story of her family.
VT 668, the name of the boat where my parents just closed their eyes, took all their prayers to Buddha and Kuan Ying and prayed that they will make it to a camp, ANY refugee camp. VT 668 holds a million stories for us.
It is the story of how my dad’s parents begged him not to leave Vietnam, but he did because he wanted to see what other opportunities there could be for him, my mom, my older siblings and his future children (me). And my grandfather, whom I’ve never met, was so sad about him leaving, that he died 2-3 years after my dad left from sadness… and then my grandmother whom I also have never met died after he did.
VT 668 is the story of how my mom and my uncle were captured in their first attempt to leave the country and went to jail for 3 months. They slept in small rooms and didn’t get to eat much. And my uncle was an avid smoker, and the minute he was released, the first thing he did was smoke a cigarette lol. When the Communist Party decided to let everyone leave who wanted to leave, my mom and uncle were released in the morning and they attempted to leave again that NIGHT. If that’s not bravery, I don’t know what is.
VT668 is the story of when my older siblings tried to make their first attempt with my dad on another boat, and when they got on, there was a gaping hole and water flooded in. So they rushed off to get back to land, and when they got back to land, and turned around, they watched the boat sink…the boat they could have all died on.
Cathy Dang at her parents’ nail salon. Photo courtesy of Cathy Dang.
VT668 is the story of how my parents learned to live life in the U.S. with such boldness and taking sometimes too many risks. I am for risks, but the risks they took put my family sometimes into harm’s way. But when you lose everything, your family, your belongings, your history… you think you can gain even more so their mentality was…why the fuck not?
VT668 is the story of Long Nails, one of the first nail salons in NYC that started acrylic tips and double tips and where my parents became a trend setter starting an industry in NYC. It is where we built family with the customers and 60 workers who are still in touch with us with today.
VT668 is the story of how my parents had to send money back to Vietnam to my aunts, uncles and cousins buy homes and gain stability.
VT668 is the story of how kids of refugees hung out with each other, had our own culture and our parents’ “why the fuck not” mentality transferred to us which got us into a lot of trouble. How Viet youth were profiled as gang members and how some of us got out of it and some of us didn’t.
VT668 is the story of how my sister met my brother-in-law and gave life to my precious niece and nephew. It is the story of how I met the love of my life, Ajahne, and our future and our children.
VT668 is the story of my complex understanding of my history – a family who has been in Vietnam for almost 100 years after migrating from famine in Guangzhou, China to now holding stories of transnational families.
VT668 is the story of how I am still trying to unravel my politics as a socialist and how I see that the Communist Party was trying to win Independence after centuries of colonialism and how the country is now working towards socialism. I asked, why did my family leave? Why did we not stay to help re-build the country? And when I went to the War Remnants’ Museum in Ho Chi Minh City, I was reminded of the multitude of atrocities the U.S. committed on Southeast Asia. And how afraid my parents must have been hearing bombs every night for decades and of the uncertainty of the most basic thing as food. During war, most people don’t talk about the extreme famine the country faced because they couldn’t import or grow food in the fields that were being bombed and sprayed agent orange.
VT668 is the story of how my parents returned home to Saigon in 2010, after not achieving their “American Dream,” losing everything they ever worked for here because capitalism will always have a one up on you. But they are finding peace with their return home even though they don’t get to see their kids and grandkids as often as they would like.
And on world refugee day, I am reminded of what my dad said. He said that we were lucky that we got sponsored and that there are so many countries today where this administration is rejecting their entry, deporting people and causing disasters and not letting people come to the U.S. But really, it’s because people fought for us and fought for an end to the war and now we have a responsibility to fight for others.
For all the folks who’ve crossed deserts on foot, crossed borders, taken a raft or a boat, overstayed their visas, work in the shadows to support their families, you are the bravest people. And for all the thousands of people who did not make it…. you all are a reminder of our continued fight towards humanity.
Thoughts about ACTIVISM:
Activism means you are activated, and you put your words into action. It’s not just re-posting something on social media. It means you’re showing up at trainings, know your rights trainings, rallies, signing petitions – not just being a bystander. That what activism means – you have to be actively intervening in situations. It’s different from what we do in organizing – in which we believe we have to move people in our communities towards a common understanding and common goal with demands, where we change the structure of our system of white supremacy, capitalism, patriarchy, homophobia, transphobia, and the classism within our communities or xenophobia. So there’s activism and there’s organizing which is what we do and we believe both are important and both play a role in our work.
Cathy Dang at a rally in New York.
CAAAV always had a left anti-capitalist framing. One of the main challenges I have confronted is the tension between 2nd generation Asian American politicized activists and 1st generation immigrants. The 2nd generation politicized activists will have left anti-capitalist or anti-racist views, but we have to be moving an older immigrant membership base on those views. One of the main lessons of recent years is the importance of moving the base who can be and are pulled by apathy or right-wing forces.
I get that with each generation, we want to do better than the last. But sometimes it’s not such a bad thing to get dirty and do the grimy work of our working-class parents – dirt and dust won’t kill you as long as you’re not exposed to too much of it over time. I don’t know, but maybe being exposed to and touching acetone and chemicals and dust from acrylic from age 2 to 20, doing pedicures, and cleaning nasty stuff in restaurants as a young adult probably gives me a different understanding of what we should be okay with. All I know is that we can’t claim to get down and think we are too good for the laborious hard work our ancestors and parents have had to deal with.
Thoughts about WOMEN LEADERS:
Our movements complain about how we lack working-class women of color and TGNC (trans/gender non-conforming) folks in leadership positions. And yet when working-class women of color and TGNC folks take on these roles, it becomes the impossible. We don’t want to replicate the same hyper masculine or toxic masculine ways of leading that is hurtful to our practice, and we are expected to be understanding, warm caretakers, and loving all the while expected to build winning campaigns and strong politics. But when we hold people or coalitions accountable or do what it takes to build strong politics and winning vehicles, we are labeled a bitch, hard ass, strict, we don’t listen, we don’t affirm (all stuff I have heard from other women leaders). Working-class women of color and TGNC folks are unfairly projected by folks in our movements to be mothers or caretakers, but when we want to hold a line and mark something as mediocrity, sloppy, unacceptable and detrimental to our collective (think extended movement fam), we are stopped in our tracks. So much of this is indoctrination of hegemony and patriarchy adopted by people of all genders. I think people aren’t used to it so they don’t know how to handle love and rigor at the same time and act out.
The Climate Justice March 2014.
It’s so easy to critique when you haven’t had to build something really substantive or transform toxic cultures in our movement spaces. I often ask myself now, how have I been hurtful/unhelpful to this work that prevents us from building the Left, and especially in working-class Asian spaces? How have I not been supportive of those in leadership? I’m most definitely not bought into charismatic leadership and do not think an individual will save us, but I do believe that we need to follow and lead and lead and follow, setting aside any kind of expectations of my own individual desires cuz. it. ain’t. about. me. It’s about us. And if we want to keep asking for working-class TGNC folks and women of color to lead, then our movements need to honor and respect their leadership, especially when they truly try to do something completely different from the hyper masculine normative ways of leading.
Lead with discipline. Lead fiercely. Rigor with love. Love with rigor. All can be true.
Thoughts about SOLIDARITY:
There’s solidarity within our own communities that I think we are at a different juncture in our organizing. We’re part of a national alliance called Grassroots Asians Rising, consisting of several groups: DRUM and CAAAV in New York, PrYSM in Rhode Island, CPA in SF, Asian Pacific Environmental Network of Oakland and Richmond, and AYPAL in Oakland. Creating this formation in the last decade, there were rifts within APA communities, over who’s in the community and who’s not in this community; and who’s being represented and who’s not being represented… I think first and foremost, there’s a need for solidarity within our own communities. Our comrade from Freedom Inc in Wisconsin would say this: how do we stand up Asians for Asians…Southeast Asians and South Asians especially in this moment, and Pacific Islanders around the detention to deportation pipeline, Muslim surveillance, the school to prison pipeline for Pacific Islanders, and we’re at that moment where we’re reaching more clarity around what solidarity looks like and we need to put that into practice.
And there’s also solidarity outside of our communities, where we have to see our struggles and liberation inter-connected. How does a grandma in Chinatown connect to a black homeless man? And the grandma who’s being displaced by her landlord could end up homeless, and that means we have to stand with black folks who experience homelessness in New York at much higher levels. And we have to see the connections between the different systems. And we stand in solidarity with different communities and change the system with each other, and solidarity is necessary for us to win in our own communities.
7/22/18 with immigration rally photo-Facebook
Photo from the march against family separation and detentions from a few weeks ago. Donald Anthonyson of Families for Freedom leading the way. Our contingent of 150+ people called for more than an end to family separation in the sea of 30,000 people. We call for the end of family imprisonment of Mexican and Central American immigrant families and made connections to the history of U.S. colonialism’s separation of indigenous people, mass incarceration of Black folks breaking apart families, and wars that separate families.
Rally for Immigrant Rights with Donald Anthonyson in the center of the photo. Photo courtesy of CAAAV.
Thoughts about CHALLENGES today:
It’s different today because there’s so many problems…two things in particular. One, academia trains activists coming out of college in a certain way on how to view solidarity and especially solidarity between Asians and black communities. The call out culture in second generation Asian American activists can be detrimental to how we want to build and organize. How do we move the aunties and uncles and grandmas in our communities to build solidarity? So that’s something we’re working through.
Alex Tom says it best; he has this whole blog, noticing how purism, pessimism and perfectionism have infiltrated our work now, and how much all of that together creates a toxic movement. How do we come out of that and move towards protagonism and being positive with one another and believing. So that’s one thing we have to undo and work towards. I think some of it comes from academia, I don’t know…
The second thing that’s different is a wave of conservative Asian immigrants who are wealthy, and don’t want to build solidarity with other communities and want to maintain the white supremacy structure and benefit from it when it comes to affirmative action or owning businesses. They want to benefit from it, and so that’s a different time from back then when we talk about third world solidarity. We’re faced with these challenges now that I don’t think OGs experienced before. We’re trying to figure that out right now, how do we work through all these forces?
We supported the family of Akai Gurley because of our history and because it was the right thing to do and because we have a clear understanding of white supremacy and capitalism and how it works, and how policing has been used as a tool for displacement, no matter where you are. We will see police here trying to displace long-time Chinese residents if they don’t follow a vacate order, and we’ve had to do education with our membership base. So, we stood with the family of Akai Gurley because of our history: we supported the family of Yong Xing Huang (a young boy playing with a toy gun who was shot and killed by an NYPD officer) in the 1990’s and Saleem Osman who was a driver with CAAAV who was brutalized by the police. We had a long history of supporting immigrants who were attacked by the police.
During the Peter Liang case, we tried to move folks within our community to support the Akai Gurley case in New York, and nationally. We tried to have a clear message that we have to hold all cops accountable, and they are part of a system. We have to change the system and structure. Yes, it’s unfair that a person of color was indicted because other white cops haven’t been. But it only means that we stand together to hold white officers accountable too. We got flack and a lot of backlash from more conservative Chinese immigrants across the entire country. I personally don’t regret what we did at all, no matter how hard we got the backlash. But, it really affected our organization: half the board stepped down and almost the whole staff stepped down because they were tired or frustrated. But the lesson learned is that we did the right thing, but we needed to be committing much more time and resources to moving the older immigrant working class base, because that is the base that gets moved very easily by the wealthy, conservative Asians in the community. So what are our investments to make sure that we do political education and make sure there’s class consciousness among the working class members of our organization, that we really do political education to see that our liberations are connected to one another. That is the biggest lesson learned, and I think that before our time, nobody could have projected this wave of conservative Asians and their nationalism.
6/7/18 Facebook: Lessons learned from taking on Liang 1.0 (excerpts):
* Decision makers do get confused by folks from immigrant communities who are calling for a more conservative agenda, so they don’t know where to stand (for example, DA Ken Thompson, though he also cared about a re-election). They assume all immigrants are politically aligned and we are not. So, what can be done to lessen that confusion?
* This is a chance to move on the offensive. No one knew 10 years ago that there would be Chinese for Trump and Hindus for Trump. While our communities are still largely liberal or progressive, we must continue to move more progressive and radical values and politics among our communities rather than defensively responding to situations.
* “you are racist” “you’re a capitalist” “you exploit” – will not work. The narrative has to be creative and nuanced to move moderate or conservative factions within our communities. I made mistakes in my word choices during the #AkaiGurley fight that didn’t move certain audiences in Asian communities.
* There has to be an ecosystem of groups and organizations beyond your typical ones on the left to tackle the issue. I’ve been following the issue in LA’s Koreatown where conservative Koreans are fighting the opening of a shelter and saw comments about how it can’t just be Korean Resource Center speaking for progressive Koreans and it is true. CAAAV in NYC was one of the few groups with a Chinese base who took on the issue as we did. We did have a broader AAPI united position and fight, but CAAAV alone could not pull off more effective support for the family of Akai Gurley. And the grouping of folks should enter it together, so opposition can’t single out and target an organization.
* It is important to recognize when to speak and when not to speak, moving aside for directly impacted communities to be on the forefront.
* There have been historical examples of united fronts and partnerships that should be uplifted more. We didn’t do enough of it. We talked about the case CAAAV worked on supporting the family of #YongXinHuang who was killed by the NYPD in 1995 and how we brought together his family along with the families of #AnthonyBaez, #HiltonVega, and #NicholasHeyward to fight together. CAAAV holds long-time relationships with organizations in which we bring together working-class Black, Latinx, Asian, and White tenants to fight for a common shared goal of protecting our working-class communities from gentrification. Critiques alone are insufficient, and we can do a better job of giving models and examples of successful unified fights.
Thoughts on how “OG’s” be helpful to young activists today:
There’s a certain level of discipline, rigor, and revolutionary heart that we inherited from the OG’s and need to transfer to our work today. I really appreciate the OGs taking us under their wing, sharing perspectives and stories, but please make space and affirm that it’s a different challenge for us! I think that during the organizing of the 1960’s and 1970’s, there was a lot of sectarianism from what I hear. But there was so much more ideological clarity they were trying to get people to. Right now, I don’t know where we are. Please be sharp and push us, push me in my political line, push me in my ideology, so that we have more clarity.
My experience with the OGs has been positive. It’s been about pushing with love. I grew up in a working class neighborhood and studying was not my thing. I’m lucky I made it to college. But it was OGs who kept prodding and poking me to study – you need to understand the history of organizing and the capitalist framework and socialist experiments around the world. Because of that, I actually take it seriously now.
Thoughts on a new East Wind:
I remember reading East Wind in college, and many people like me still enjoy reading magazines, newsletters, and paper publications. A new East Wind could have broad mass appeal by using social media, for example, posting something on Facebook for viewers to click for the whole story. There are so many new communications tools today…
May Chen bio
May Ying Chen is retired. She served as an adjunct professor at CUNY’s Joseph S. Murphy Institute and coordinates the US-China Exchange Program – Advancing the Field of Labor Relations from 2009 to 20015. Until her retirement in 2009, May was the Manager of Local 23-25 Workers United/SEIU and Vice President of the International Union. Chen graduated with a BA from Harvard-Radcliffe and a Masters in Education from UCLA. She enjoys being a grandmother and continues her social/political activism.