Pro Bono & the AAPI Community: A Conversation with Christina Yang of Advancing Justice – LA 

Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders account for 7.2% of the U.S. population, and are the fastest growing ethnic population in the U.S. In the last few years, there has been a significant increase in hate incidents targeting the Asian American community. PBI’s Corporate Pro Bono project recently joined Christina Yang, General Counsel and Pro Bono Director at Asian Americans Advancing Justice – Los Angeles (Advancing Justice – LA), in conversation to learn more about the challenges facing the AAPI community and what pro bono lawyers can do to help.

Yang joined Advancing Justice – LA over seven years ago as Pro Bono Director, and eventually took on the role of the organization’s first General Counsel. She was a litigation fellow for the organization after graduating law school before returning to the firm that funded that fellowship. Yang kept Advancing Justice – LA in mind, jumping at the chance to return. Her initial role focused on coordinating and centralizing pro bono opportunities before expanding to act as both General Counsel and Pro Bono Director, which she describes as a “natural evolution” as she “built systems and processes the organization never had.” Yang’s role continues to grow and evolve as the AAPI community’s legal needs shift, something that our conversation homed in on.

Changing Legal Needs in the COVID-19 Pandemic: Trainings, Housing, & Health Access
There was a significant rise in the number of hate crimes against the AAPI community over the last several years, which necessitated Advancing Justice – LA to be reactive in its work. Ms. Yang says, “We were really focused on providing direct support to clients and other community members that were reporting these incidents to us, which either they themselves experienced, or family members or friends. And we are still providing those direct services and because that spike has decreased somewhat, we have been able to also look more broadly to areas like policy reform, to address those root issues and of course, continue to focus on things like our Bystander Intervention Program, so that if people find themselves in a position to safely help someone who is experiencing an incident, then they will be equipped to do so.”

The Bystander Intervention Trainings were created in partnership with Hollaback!, a nonprofit working to end harassment in all its forms. Although Hollaback! has done these trainings for quite some time, this is the first iteration that includes the history of AAPI discrimination. These trainings are intended for those who wish to be allies to the AAPI community but may not know how to be the most helpful. Advancing Justice – LA offers the training free of charge in multiple languages: English, Cantonese, Mandarin, Korean, Vietnamese, and Tagalog. For a fee, law firms and corporations can host additional closed trainings for their employees as well.

Housing is another area where Advancing Justice – LA has increased its focus because of increased community need during the pandemic. Although there is an eviction moratorium in place in California, the expectation is that it will unfortunately be lifted within the calendar year. Advancing Justice – LA has therefore been conducting know-your-rights clinics in which staff attorneys and pro bono attorneys answer tenants’ questions about how to address landlord harassment and other related concerns such as what to do about back rent.

Advancing Justice – LA also conducts outreach to the community in Los Angeles and Orange County through its Health Access Project. Yang said: “We have been doing outreach work around COVID vaccination uptake in AAPI communities, other communities of color, and underserved communities.” Interested volunteers can find more on how to get involved with these ongoing outreach events here.

Yang describes citizenship work as “one of the bread-and-butter ways of serving a large number of clients and involving volunteers.” Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Advancing Justice – LA has seen fewer AAPI clients seeking citizenship because it seems like other hardships in daily life are understandably taking priority during these difficult times. However, she expects that the number of clients needing these services will increase this year. Each application is an incredible way for a volunteer to connect with an individual client and make a difference. Advancing Justice – LA welcomes volunteers (right now, especially those who are bilingual in Thai or Tagalog) to provide citizenship application assistance, translate, and more.

Civil Rights & Collaboration
Advancing Justice – LA works closely with multi-cultural coalitions to achieve many of its goals. Recently, Advancing Justice – LA witnessed a “really exciting” policy victory in California – the passing of the API Budget, which allocates over $150 million to support community-based organizations focused on community and victims services, violence prevention, restorative justice in K-12 public schools, and more. Advancing Justice worked with 150 organizations to advocate for the passage.

Yang described further collaboration in our conversation: “We have been working closely with other AAPI CBOs (community-based organizations) in southern California that traditionally are grassroots organizations or service specific geographic areas or communities. Because we’re a larger nonprofit, we’ve been trying to work in a more deliberate way with those smaller organizations, to provide us referrals to individuals who might need help, or for us to provide them funding to partner on things like bystander intervention training. We currently have some CBO partners who are providing staff to serve as trainers to deliver our intervention training in different Asian languages, and that’s something we want to continue doing – amplifying these AAPI organizations that are working alongside us.”

Other Ways to Get Involved
In addition to the many ways for pro bono attorneys to get involved described above, there is value in specific expertise like plaintiff-side employment work. Advancing Justice – LA is also always looking for more attorney and non-attorney volunteers for virtual and in-person opportunities like consulting in their all-purpose legal clinics, issue clinics, and longer-term cases. There is a particular need for volunteers proficient in South Asian and Southeast Asian languages (e.g., Hindi, Vietnamese, Thai, and Tagalog). There are myriad ways to volunteer and to support the AAPI community; Yang says, “We’re definitely always looking for folks who are willing to be a little creative with their skills and expertise and willingness to work with us.”