Through advocacy and celebration, AAPI Montclair builds a unique connection with the community

Lantern Festival for Justice & Remembrance, May 2021. Courtesy of AAPI Montclair.

Leela Ramakrishnan, Staff Writer

In the spring of 2021, while the nation was reeling from the horrific shooting of six Asian women in Atlanta, Georgia, an Asian American student in Montclair, New Jersey was confronted with his own act of racism: he received a comment via his virtual Zoom class with the connotation of “Go back to where you came from.” 

A group of outraged Asian parents formed a FaceBook group to communicate with each other, which led to the creation of the non-profit AAPI Montclair. Their first act as an official organization was to host a Lantern Festival for Justice and Remembrance in May of 2021. It was a solemn event that focused on creating a space for the community to mourn and reflect on the effects that the COVID-19 pandemic had on the perceptions of Asian Americans.

“Since then, it just blew up and we were like ‘What can we do to help the Asian American community locally and in surrounding towns as well?’” said Sumeet Kapoor, Vice President of AAPI Montclair. 

This prompted the formation of the organization’s Advocacy Committee, which sent a letter to Montclair’s leadership that urged the town to address issues relating to racial bias and foster inclusivity. They have also successfully advocated for statewide legislation to require an AAPI-inclusive curriculum in New Jersey public schools. Additionally, they established their own ‘Stop Asian Hate’ campaign around town to help Asian American neighbors feel safe in their community. 

AAPI Montclair began as a gathering of concerned families but has now expanded to become the local go-to for Asian-centric celebrations, and not just for people of the Asian diaspora. AAPI Montclair’s events provide accessibility to people of all races and ethnicities, exposing families to different cultures and building a bridge for Asian Americans to be able to share their traditions with the town.

“So many people learned from our cultural performances this year and they loved it. We had more viewers see what was happening onstage than ever before and they were really intrigued with the colors, the costumes, everything,” said event committee co-chair Varsha Hathiramani, speaking of the 2nd annual Diwali festival, Light Up Montclair, hosted at the Montclair Art Museum. 

Speaking in regard to the diversity of AAPI Montclair’s events, Kapoor added, “It’s never been done before and it’s such a new thing that we want to do going forward.”

MHS students play a part in AAPI Montclair events, too. While many parts of the celebrations are geared towards families, with arts & crafts, picture book readings, and music/dance performances meant to entertain children, teens are an integral part of keeping the lanterns lit. AAPI Montclair offers both volunteer and paid opportunities to high school students in Montclair and surrounding towns. 

“There are many faces we see all the time and it [feels like] this is working, we’re coming together, which is just absolutely wonderful,” said Kapoor, “We’ve had a great response to gatherings where the youth can get together and figure out who they are with the support of their peers.” 

While celebrations and fun events are the more flashy side of the organization,  AAPI Montclair will be leaning more into its advocacy sector in the future. Training sessions for self-defense, first aid, and mental health are active resources. The advocacy committee also led the first-ever AAPI-focused voter canvassing in Montclair for the 2022 midterm elections in an effort to ensure that Asian Americans who are infrequent voters were able to make their voices heard. 

After working to pass the aforementioned AAPI-inclusive curriculum legislature, they are focusing on implementing their initiative Teach Asian American Stories (TAAS) directly into schools, and look forward to working more on education for all ages. 

Learn more about AAPI Montclair here.