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Using Education to Combat Violence

By Alex Saunders

In the confusing first months of the COVID-19 pandemic, Michael Zhang, then a senior in high school, wanted to visit family and friends in Flushing, a section of Queens, New York City, that is vibrant in Asian culture and cuisine. There, Zhang, who lived in Great Neck, New York at the time, dreamed of visiting his old hang outs and enjoying boba and other treats with friends.

However, Zhang’s mother warned him against going due to concerns about a recent outbreak of violence. “I didn’t understand that at first,” says Zhang. “I thought she was exaggerating.” But unfortunately, Zhang soon saw his Instagram feed flooded with horrific scenes of anti-Asian violence spurred by sinophobic misinformation about COVID-19. In multiple cases, Zhang saw locations terrorized that he frequented or knew friends and family to frequent.

Zhang is now a rising sophomore at UNC-Chapel Hill (Carolina) studying public policy and co-founder of Visibility Forward, a project supported by the Robert E. Bryan Fellowship initiative and Projects for Peace. Through its mission, Visibility Forward advocates for the inclusion of AAPI history in U.S. classrooms to promote peace and combat rising violence. They formed in response to a nationwide rise in acts of violence against Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) communities. Learn more about the funding.

“Acts of violence against AAPI communities were fueled by misinformation born out of fears of the then-emerging COVID-19 pandemic,” says Aimee Yan, co-founder of Visibility Forward.

In fact, a January 2022 NBC News article revealed that anti-Asian hate crimes in the United States increased by 339 percent in 2021 compared to 2020 data.

A poster shows the colorful artwork of Amanda Phingbodhipakkiya. There is a colorful red background with blue and yellow diamonds. The illustration features a medium-aged woman with short hair, red lips and colorful circle earrings. She wears a warm yellow jacket and has her arm crossed on her chest. The text over says "We belong here."
Visibility Forward team members are inspired by the work of Amanda Phingbodhipakkiya, featured here.

Yan is a rising junior at Carolina studying public policy. She cites the March 2021 spa shootings in Atlanta as a tipping point for her to advocate against AAPI violence. Eight people, mostly of Asian descent, were killed in those horrific acts. “After Atlanta, I wanted to tackle hatred, violence and anger and pursue a commitment to advancing representation.”

Yan, along with other members of Visibility Forward, are united in their belief that education is a powerful tool in the fight against racism and violence.

“Education is an essential way to curb anti-Asian hate and to dismantle damaging stereotypes of Asian Americans,” says Jimmy Patel-Nguyen, Communications Director of North Carolina Asian Americans Together (NCAAT).

NCAAT collaborates with Visibility Forward to advocate for greater representation of Asian Americans in K-12 classrooms. Patel-Nguyen says that Visibility Forward’s leadership is cultivating peace through culturally representative education to create a positive long-lasting effect on students and the broader community in North Carolina.

“Stereotypes proliferate in the absence of knowledge,” says Zhang.

“We believe that if we start in the classrooms and try to address those stereotypes before they are able to ingrain themselves in people’s psyche and if we can demonstrate and show the ways that the Asian American Community has contributed to the civic fabric of American society, I think we can definitely try to break down those stereotypes and make sure that people are able to see Asian Americans for all their many contributions to the nation that we all live in.” Visibility Forward aims to expose students of all ages to the rich depth of cultures AAPI communities represent and to their countless contributions to both American history and to the history of the south. If stereotypes can proliferate through an absence of knowledge, then a wealth of knowledge can proliferate curiosity, exploration and peace and understanding.

If you are an educator looking for resources in your own classroom, Visibility Forward has put together classroom kits that offer fun, stimulating resources. Check out their resources and lesson plans and see what curricula you will be inspired to develop next.

Visibility Forward is led by co-founders Aimee Yan, Michael Zhang, Pratyush Seshadri and Brooke Chow and project organizer Sarah Zhang.


Robert E. Bryan Fellowships, a part of APPLES Service-Learning program, are designed for undergraduate student teams interested in creating social impact locally and/or globally through the creation of an innovative project that addresses a community-identified need. Teams can receive up to $1,500 in the first year and have an option for a second year of funding for $1,000. Bryan Fellows also participate in the one-semester, one-credit hour PLCY 130: Project Management for Social Change, a course where they learn project management skills and interpersonal and group communications.

Visibility Forward received the 2022 Projects for Peace Award, made in honor of the late Kathryn Wasserman Davis, an accomplished internationalist and philanthropist. With a $10,000 award, Visibility Forward will access resources to develop innovative, community-centered and scalable responses to the world’s most pressing issues. The program enables student leaders increase their knowledge, improve skills and begin to see themselves as agents of change and advance a more peaceful society.

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