It was on the heels of a tragic incident in Atlanta and an array of hate crimes throughout the country and in town that Asian American and Pacific Islanders in Montclair were brought together: AAPI Montclair was started in 2021 to uplift that community in the face of adversity.
It began with a lantern festival that was quickly put together but drew a crowd of 1,000 and since has catapulted into multiple communitywide events. Since its inception, the nonprofit has put on celebrations of cultural holidays, including Diwali, Lunar New Year, Holi and Songkran, bringing an array of cultures, colors and cuisines to the community.
Now, with AAPI Heritage Month coming up in May, it has no intention of slowing down.
AAPI Heritage Month was officially declared in 1992 by Congress. May was chosen to honor the immigration of the first Japanese person to the United States, on May 7, 1843, and also commemorates the Chinese immigrants who worked on and completed the transcontinental railroad in May 1869, according to asianpacificheritage.gov.
This May, AAPI Montclair has events for youths and for residents of Montclair and nearby towns. The organization has partnered with elementary, middle and high schools in the area to offer assemblies about Chinese, Filipino and Korean culture.
Alongside educating and providing representation for young people, AAPI Montclair is hosting cultural events, including a Bollywood dance party, and is partnering with local businesses, like APEM Creamery and Butler and Board, for discounts and special products.
“It’s just wonderful being part of a community that’s doing this,” Winnie Wu, a member of AAPI Montclair, said. “We’re investing in our community.”
AAPI Montclair also will be partnering with the Montclair Art Museum for a panel discussion and art exhibition called “Passages Taken” that will explore the “transcultural influences and the role of faith and community in art,” said Mona Shah, AAPI co-lead of events and a board member.
AAPI Montclair’s most recent event, the Color Run at Brookdale Park, brought out 1,200 people.
Shah said the month of May sees a culmination for the nonprofit.
“We’re kind of bringing all these different things together, we’re bringing the arts, we’re bringing food and culture, we’re bringing the assemblies, you know, we’re bringing everything together in one month to really highlight and celebrate,” she said.
AAPI Montclair does more than host events. It recently concluded its Love Your Lunch initiative, a campaign to fight the shaming that kids in the AAPI community sometimes face when they bring their traditional dishes to school.
“When you do surveys and when you talk to people growing up Asian in this country, there’s this common story of them being shamed for the kind of food they bring in to lunch because it smells and tastes and looks different than what we consider American food,” said Lavanya Raghavan, another member of AAPI Montclair.
For the initiative, members Roslyne Shiao and Sumeet Kapoor put together an art contest for which students drew their favorite lunch. Local restaurants not only displayed the art but also were encouraged to create a meal inspired by the artwork as a special menu item. AAPI included a donation of books about lunch shaming to schools around New Jersey as part of the campaign.
Although members like Raghavan spend all year being involved in planning events for AAPI Montclair, she said it was her daughter who made her aware of AAPI Heritage Month.
The initiatives that the group holds during the month center on youth, and because of this Raghavan couldn’t be more proud.
“What it means to me is that it’s just wonderful that kids see all this happening in their schools and not just it being celebrated at home,” she said. “But it’s celebrated visibly in a mainstream way. They can sit with their non-Asian peers and watch a play that addresses issues in the Asian American community. It’s incredible. It’s what we need.”
People like Wu have always been involved in AAPI initiatives at work, but prior to joining AAPI Montclair, she said, there was no community outlet or advocacy that allowed her and her family to celebrate her culture.
The organization allowed Wu to not only find a cultural community but also find comfort in knowing that people are eager to learn and listen to the hardships that those in the AAPI community face.
“At the same time it’s really rewarding for us just to find allies, you come to these different events, and it’s not just Asians and East Asians that are at these events. It’s the diversity, you just feel a sense of allyship and community,” she said.
The Montclair Lantern Festival for Justice and Remembrance will be held on Sunday, May 21, from 6 to 9 p.m. at Edgemont Park, with a rain date of June 4. Visit aapimontclair.org for more information.