Bruha Spotlight: Cathy Dang
Cathy Dang, Executive Director, CAAAV Organizing Asian Communities - With roots in New York City and Los Angeles, CA, Cathy has been a community and worker center organizer leading campaigns for just living and working conditions in immigrant and communities of color for over a decade. She is originally from Ridgewood, Queens and Los Angeles, California, and a daughter of Chinese-Vietnamese refugee parents who raised her in their nail salon in Downtown Brooklyn.
How do your identity/identities shape the core of your life and work? My identity has changed over the years. While Asian American Studies, Women’s Studies, and Ethnic Studies shaped my understanding of race, my family’s experiences with poverty, war, refugee resettlement, and post-traumatic stress disorder has helped me build a deeper connection with working-class struggle and having strong feelings from experience about U.S. imperialism and capitalism. I don’t have a strong identity as an Asian American, more so someone who was raised in New York City and Los Angeles in my parents’ nail salon and later Vietnamese restaurant. What also has shaped me is my lived experiences of growing up in New York City around working-class African American, West Indians, Latinx, and Eastern European immigrant communities. My parents owned a nail salon called, Long Nails, in Downtown Brooklyn and I spent much of my childhood going to the salon and helping. It was one of the first salons to open in New York and did acrylic nails and double tips so it was very popular from 1986 to 1999. The clients were mostly Black and the workers were all Chinese, Chinese-Malaysian, and Vietnamese. My parents were very close to the workers and are still friends with them today. They also knew their customers very well and some of the clients still recognize my mom if they see her around the City. It’s these experiences that have shaped my commitment and need for multi-racial solidarity, organizing for improved conditions, building community resilience, and organize from the grounded understanding that capitalism is the root the world's problems. How do you use your work as a tool of empowerment My work is to facilitate people’s understanding of their individual power and our collective power. Organizing is how we change the systemic and institutional injustices that impact all of us in different ways. What’s essential to this organizing is our recognition of our need to build together and that our individual struggle isn’t any more important than the collective struggle. Rather, it is our individual stories/experiences that connect us with others to build power with those with shared struggle. I believe that it is important to reflect and dig into our emotions (pain, sadness, happiness, joy, etc.) that is connected to our everyday interactions with the world. It is those emotions that propel us to act and build with others for change. My everyday work is being the Executive Director of CAAAV Organizing Asian Communities. We organize low-income Asian immigrants and youth to fight for racial, gender, and economic justice towards systemic and institutional change. Our base are Chinatown rent-stabilized and Queensbridge public housing tenants and youth. We organize them to fight for improved conditions, community-led planning, an end to displacement, and engage our base in larger fights around racial and economic justice. What does Hip Hop Bruha mean to you? Growing up in Queens and spending my childhood in Downtown Brooklyn at the nail salon in the 90s, hip hop raised me. Hip hop raised me and my love for dance, movement, drums, and storytelling. The mission of Hip Hop Bruha to recognize in which ways Asian American and Pacific Islander communities have been complicit with structural racism and challenge that is much of what I believe and act on. I also think it is just as critical to organize directly impacted people within our AAPI communities to change the conditions that impact us – low-income/poor, immigrant/refugee, Muslim, disabled, queer/trans/gender non-conforming, elderly, young, exploited workers, undocumented, tenants, etc. When former NYPD Officer Peter Liang was indicted and convicted for the killing of Akai Gurley, an unarmed 28-year old Black father/son/nephew/partner/cousin/brother, he was being held accountable at a time when white cops weren’t. CAAAV as an organization worked to support the family of Akai Gurley to make sure they had support because it was their family who lost a loved one, not Peter Liang. I was really frustrated with the local and national organizing to support Peter Liang who declared him a scapegoat. It was masses of people who were being manipulated by the ethnic media and a small handful of Chinese American and white men who had political aspirations. At the same time, we all have agency to see justice for what it really is. It was important to: 1) challenge the pro-Liang supporters who misguidedly demanded charges be dropped against him, 2) support the family of Akai Gurley within the larger Black Lives Matter movement, and, 3) move in the direction to strengthen our own base of working-class and poor immigrant tenants who have some shared struggle with working-class Black tenants who experience poor living conditions and push out from their greedy landlords. It is when we organize our people to do political education through workshops and trust build through direct action and community building with Black and Latinx tenants, that is how we can prevent what happened around the Akai Gurley case from happening again. And it is Hip Hop Bruha’s mission that speaks entirely to the experience I had during the time CAAAV was organizing for justice for Akai Gurley. Who or what inspires your work? My niece and nephew are my lifeline. They make me want to fight for a better world for the future of humankind and to make sure that I leave this world and this earth in a better place for them. In times of despair and hardship where everything seems impossible, I remind myself of two things to ground me: 1) I read about past struggles like the revolution in Vietnam and Cuba to remind me that we are part of such a long history, and 2) that many people like my parents and CAAAV members have to work 60-70 hour weeks in poor conditions, don’t have health insurance and have to fight diseases like cancer, addiction, and literally have to fight to survive each day, and they do and sometimes even do it with laughter. These two reminders are what keep me steadfast in my work. But what’s critical to remember is that we can’t just dream of revolutions and talk theory and we can’t just fight for short-term victories like a policy change or a union contract, that gets our movement stuck at a standstill. We need to learn from the past, learn from today, and build for tomorrow. What is something everyone should do right now? Work with others who have your same desire for change – organize. Actively and critically think about what it is you want for the future, and work actively to build up towards that with your community, however you define your community. And it is crucial that we do this with principle, humility, love, and laughter.