APEN - The Laotian Organizing Project

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Historical Essay

by Stephanie Giles, Jerilyn Wu, Ji-Yoon Han with Maribeth Côté and Marissa Friedman, July 2014


The formation of the Asian Pacific Environmental Network came out of national efforts to address environmental racism and the need for representation of Asian Pacific Islander communities within the environmental justice movement. A successful APEN campaign in the Bay Area involved building political and activist leadership in the Laotian refugee community living in the toxic hot spot of Richmond.

In 1991, the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit in Washington DC brought together community leaders of color from across the country to discuss the issue of environmental racism. This event is considered to be an important early milestone for the emergence of the environmental justice (EJ) movement. Despite having 350 grassroots leaders from across the U.S. attend the conference, only a handful of organizers represented the Asian Pacific Islander (API) community. This small group of API delegates (many of which were from the SF Bay Area), recognized the lack of Asian representation at the Summit and came together to discuss the need to establish a network to represent API community interests in environmental issues.

Building upon this collaboration at the Summit, a small group of passionate Bay Area organizers set out to create the Asian Pacific Environmental Network (APEN) in 1993. Over the next two decades, APEN would establish itself as one of the most respected and effective API-focused environmental justice organizations in the United States. APEN’s initial vision was to build a united network of grassroots organizations in API communities which focused on environmental justice issues within a larger multi-racial movement (Kong & Chiang, 2001, 3). According to founding member Francis Calpotura, APEN did not evolve in a traditional or “organic” sense. Instead of organizing in order to combat a specific problem, APEN started with theoretical frameworks and sought to find problems in the community that aligned to the organization’s ideology. They saw that base building was therefore a way for APEN to start “where people were at” in terms of engaging with people around the conditions of their daily lives. This approach led APEN to launch local organizing projects in Richmond and Oakland, California.

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Vivian Chang, APEN Co-founder, discusses APEN's early efforts to organize community. Interviewed in May 2014

Located in West Contra Costa County, Richmond has long been recognized as a toxic “hot spot.” According to Maria Kong and Pamela Chiang, “Over 350 industrial facilities encircle Richmond, including hazardous waste incinerators, oil refineries (such as the Chevron plant, one of the major polluters in the San Francisco Bay Area), dry cleaners, pesticide, fertilizer, and other petroleum-based chemical manufacturers. Many of these industries closely neighbor schools and homes. According to a 1989 report by Communities for a Better Environment, at least 210 different hazardous chemicals are stored and/or released into the Richmond environment.In a pattern consistent with established findings about the disproportionate impact of environmental hazards on communities of color, it is mostly low-income African Americans, Latinos, and a growing but hidden population of Asians and Pacific Islanders who live in the heart of this toxic area. Among the most vulnerable are Laotians, who are further economically and politically marginalized due to their linguistic and cultural isolation and lack of access to information, services, and decision-makers as a refugee community" (Kong and Chiang, 2001). While APEN initially focused on small-scale initiatives targeting local problems such as lead paints, subsistence fishing, and toxics, the organization still envisioned creating a larger impact with greater community building and engagement. So in 1995, APEN formed the Laotian Organizing Project (LOP) with its primary mission to build political and activist capacity and leadership among adult Laotian refugees living in Richmond (LOP: 2005, 3).

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Pamela Chang discusses Laotian community and APEN organizing.

LOP’s efforts to organize the Laotian community in Richmond, however, were met with many challenges and they soon understood the importance of establishing trust, building inclusive leadership, and crossing generational boundaries in order to be effective in the community. LOP organizer, May Phan, explains how organizing the Laotian community was their first major challenge because the majority of the community members were “people who came from war country…so it has been difficult for them; [finding people] who they feel they can trust and can work with, and can talk openly with” (LOP: 2005, 1). With these histories of trauma, immigration, ethnic and tribal diversity, and language barriers, LOP understood the need to have a go-slow approach and connect with established community leaders to bring diverse populations together for a common cause.

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Chevron Oil Refinery Explosion August 2012

Photo: Flickr user Michael Moore

LOP’s first major success came in their grassroots campaign against the Chevron Oil Refinery explosion that occurred in Richmond in 1991. The chemical explosion was followed by two consecutive leaks, which directly impacted the environment and daily life of Richmond community members. Because they could not leave their homes due to the pollution, residents were prevented from attending school or work. This incident revealed Contra Costa County’s inadequate emergency response system and the daily health risks faced by residents living in this industrial zone. Many of the residents in the area were poorly informed of emergency safety procedures including the “shelter-in-place” information, and among those most impacted were limited English-speaking residents and children (LOP: 2005, 2). The Laotian Organizing Project launched a successful campaign targeting Contra Costa County’s Health Services and the Internal Operations Committee of Contra Costa County’s Board of Supervisors in order to set up a city-wide phone alert system that would provide immigrants information in the event of another catastrophic industrial accident in their native language (LOP: 2005, 2).

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Francis Calpotura on identity and environmental justice.

Video by Stephanie Giles, Jerilyn Wu, Ji-Yoon Han

The success of this campaign did much more then provide a sense of security to the Laotian neighborhood. It helped to create a bridge from the Asian Pacific Islanders to the political and business leaders in the community. Over the years this connection has strengthened, and the Laotians’ voice in their community has grown louder (LOP: 2005, 2). Since successfully starting the first multi-lingual warning system in 2005, LOP has also stopped the expansion of the Chevron Oil Refinery, provided multi-lingual information on proposition votes, and in 2012 helped pass the Richmond General Plan which will help address issues of housing, transportation, community land use, and economic development. (United States Environmental Protection Agency).


“Developing Leadership and Political Capacity Among Laotian Refugees” Laotian Organizing Project. LOP, (2005): 1-5. Web.

Kong, Maria, and Pamela Chiang. Fighting Fire with Fire: Lessons for the Laotian Organizing Project's First Campaign. Rep. Oakland, California: LOP/APEN, 2001. Print.

United State Environmental Protection Agency. 2014.