At this year’s Dragon Boat Festival at Sloan’s Lake, amid the races, food and festivities, Mehgan Yen, smiled cheerily from a booth. Mehgan identifies as a Taiwanese American woman and grew up in a predominantly Asian American part of Los Angeles; one she describes as a very unique part of the United States. After graduating from college, she spent time living in Taiwan. She says that when she moved to Denver, she noticed a lack of representation for AAPI (Asian Americans and Pacific Islander) girls and women and this lack of belonging led her to co-found Asian Girls Ignite.
“We are a nonprofit focused on AAPI girls and young women, particularly high school and middle school aged. That is what sets us apart in Colorado. I think we’re one of the only nonprofits focused on that segment of the demographic,” she says. We are focused on shared stories. Storytelling is a signature part of every event and program that we have.”
One proud member of Asian Girls Unite, Janelle, said, “I would love to know about other AAPI girls’ growing up experiences, challenges that they had to face, and past thoughts they may have had during these experiences and challenges. I believe that by sharing these experiences we can all learn new things and grow. I love hearing these stories and really feel so inspired by hearing these stories.”
Hate crimes against the AAPI community are increasing, both nationally and throughout the state. Finding safe and accepting spaces in American cities is often hard for Asian Americans; Denver included.
Anti-Asian hate crimes rose by 339% in the U.S. last year and those figures were even higher than the 149% increase seen in 2020 (link here). In Colorado, 44 hate crimes against the AAPI community were documented between March of 2020 and February of 2021 and Asian owned businesses saw massive decreases in patronage (link here).
Making matters worse, a great deal of hate crimes end up never being reported, so the data may only represent the tip of the iceberg. From being verbally assaulted in the streets to having property vandalized and receiving vicious phone calls, some AAPI individuals have had to deal with a lot in Denver over the last two years (link here). That context is what makes Asian Girls Ignite so important and powerful.
At the Dragon Boat Festival, the rowing teams were like microcosms of community that Mehgan was describing. While watching one of the boat races at the festival, a father could be heard explaining to his young children, “When the rowers row at the same time, together,” he said, “the boats can go faster. The more in sync the team is, the more likely they are to win.”
What Mehgan and her organization do is help make sure that individuals don’t get left behind, ignored or hurt. In this way, she saves and strengthens the individuals, but in doing so builds up and helps sustain the community as a whole.
Another member of AGI, Katie, said, “After joining AGI, I began to realize the depth of my Asian heritage and the importance of being an advocate for Asian women and girls everywhere. I have truly found my voice and became so passionate about advocating for the rights of women and girls of color. I am so connected with everyone at AGI and I believe that we have all collectively learned to advocate for our rights and stand up for ourselves together.”
“Now more than ever, it is important to be aware of the issues the Asian American community is facing; especially with all the hate and racism happening because of Covid, says Mehgan.”
Mehgan inspires by helping young girls find their strength and power through community identity and representation.
“Just being here can be a huge emotional and psychological support that many need. I would love to send a message to all who identify as AAPI girls that there is a space for you to belong. There is a space for you to feel safe and there is a community here for you.”