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AAPI Heritage Month: Keeping Our Communities Safe

May is Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, and as we celebrate the beauty of the different cultural traditions and historical contributions of our communities, we must acknowledge the ongoing issues they face today.  

Violence comes in various forms – from the rise in hate crimes to the erasure and underrepresentation of identities, from how COVID-19 has disproportionally impacted our communities to the rate of gun violence in our country, and much more – all are connected to how systems of oppression allow for these to persist while giving rise to social injustices that deeply affect our communities.  

The YMCA of San Francisco stands against violence and is committed to being an anti-racist and anti-oppressive organization that builds spaces for our communities to have a sustainable and equitable future. We recognize that to work towards this future, we need to collaborate with our communities to understand where support and resources are needed to advocate against these injustices such as providing classes, hosting workshops, or putting together events that raise awareness, address safety and bring change. This month we will be highlighting a few YSF branch and partnership events that speak to these issues in our communities. -APILN (Asian Pacific Islander Leadership Network)

Asians Are Strong

“For the Asian community, respecting elders is sacred.” -Hudson Liao, Founder and Executive Director, Asians Are Strong 

Last month, on April 20th, the Chinatown YMCA held a self-defense class for our Active Older Adults (AOA) with the local nonprofit Asians Are Strong. Founded on March 17, 2021, after a group of friends got together to discuss the escalation in anti-Asian hate crimes, a movement was born when they decided to stand up, speak out and take action after attending the “Asians Are Strong” rally. NBC News, VPRO (Netherlands media company) and our Marketing and Communications (MarCom) team were invited to learn more about the class and why the organization feels it is both important and needed that our AOA members defend themselves.

Born and raised in San Francisco, and having grown up in Chinatown, Hudson Liao, founder and Executive Director of Asians Are Strong, recalls having dealt with racism; however, the growing attacks on Asian and Asian American women and the elderly were new to him and his friends, and they felt a moral barrier was crossed. From the 2021 Atlanta Spa Shootings to the various individualized violence, these events sparked the movement for them to gather their physical skills and knowledge to teach and empower our communities directly. Ranging from training in martial arts to ex-military experience, the team would research and test training for their online videos and in-person classes while incorporating ways to improve physical safety. While they understand that anti-Asian hate is a complex and layered issue, the organization wants to provide a solution and focus on rebuilding confidence within our communities through safety, education and community organizing – a reminder that our communities are stronger together. To learn more about Asians Are Strong, visit their website at or follow them on Instagram @asiansarestrong.

APILN Self-Defense Workshop with Leslie Lew

“[We] can’t protect our communities if we can’t advocate for ourselves.” -Leslie Lew, founder of Reclaiming Your Courage 

Last week on Tuesday, May 9, MarCom attended a 2-hour workshop that our APILN ERG hosted at the Stonestown Family YMCA Annex from 6:30-8:30pm with Leslie Lew. She is the founder of Reclaiming Your Courage, a trauma-informed self-defense coach, international best-selling author, speaker and podcast host. She is a second-generation Korean and Chinese American, San Francisco native, mother of two and wife as well as a two-time black belt and has been a martial artist for over 20 years. At the start of the pandemic, Leslie was deeply impacted by the rise of anti-Asian hate crimes and therefore, is dedicating her life to the Stop Asian Hate movement and strengthening her community by helping Asian women and allies find their voice and not fall victim to being perceived as easy prey.

A group of nearly 20 Y staff and community members filled the main room, gathering together over food, a raffle and conversation before taking their seats. Once settled, Leslie went around asking each person to briefly introduce themselves (who they are, their background and why they’ve decided to attend the workshop). There were a range of different reasons - from wanting to learn to react faster in a situation to slowing down an attack, wanting to learn self-defense through words and action to helping friends and family, wanting more information about safety to making themselves look less of a possible victim.

Leslie gave a brief introduction before moving onto what she would be teaching that evening. She talked about how everything is rooted in intergenerational trauma and that it isn’t enough to talk about the systems of oppression as someone who experienced trauma at a young age and who has been attacked herself. With this, Leslie asked some important questions for the group to think about: 

  • How do we create safe spaces for people? 

  • What’s happening right now? Whose voice are you hearing? 

  • How do you think the way you identify intersects with the way an attacker perceives you? 

  • What made you take this workshop? Was there a particular incident that happened recently?

After a few folks dived deeper answering some of the questions and giving examples, she moved on to showing items to carry every day for safety and, in the event, an attack happens. She explained the 4 stages that comprise the psychology of an attack before teaching step-by-step stances on how to get away from an attacker that involved using one’s body weight, movement and quick hand strikes as well as creating boundaries using one’s voice. 

At the end of the workshop, the group gathered back together in a circle to review what Leslie taught them. People learned that: 

  • Self-defense isn’t “fancy” 

  • Brute force isn’t necessary 

  • It’s good getting practice for if something happens 

  • We must step up to step in 

These reiterate her holistic approach which is rooted in love and courage and is important when we navigate how to protect ourselves and one another from the violence that persists in our communities. To learn more about Leslie’s work, visit her website at or follow her on IG @reclaimingyourcourage.