The W.O.W. Project: Reimagining Cultural Identity
Asian-Americans in the United States began experiencing the effects of the pandemic long before cases began to spike in places like Seattle and New York City— and quickly became targets of pandemic blame shifting and anti-Asian hate crimes became more prevalent, instilling a sense of fear in the Asian community. “Chinatown was hit a lot earlier than other neighborhoods in New York due to the xenophobic sentiment. It started in January with the decline of business and that has accelerated since the stay-at-home order,” said Mei Lum—W.O.W.’s founder and Executive Director and the fifth-generation owner of one of Chinatown’s longest-established businesses. “It’s a very complex mix of emotions right now, it’s just wanting to survive and stay safe with your loved ones, but also wanting to overcome that and feel that we can outwardly say that we’re an Asian community that’s resilient.”
The W.O.W. Project is a Chinatown-based organization that channels the power of art into acts of “resistance, recycling and regeneration”. It engages young Chinese American women and gender-fluid individuals in artistic projects through which they can explore such complex issues as collective migration, diaspora, daughterhood, cultural continuity, and societal bias. W.O.W. ‘s particular approach and activities proved exceptionally relevant as the Federal Administration under Trump began characterizing the COVID pandemic in maliciously racist, anti-Asian terms.
“Art became a way for our participants to counter the mounting xenophobia with their own narrative of who they are and what our community represents,” explains Mei Lum. “We had to do everything remotely, of course, but young people seem to adapt to all that very well. We sent supplies to their homes, and they transformed them into works that expressed fortitude against the mounting hatred. They then shared those works with one another in an act of powerful mutual reinforcement.”
The NYC Fund for Girls and Young Women of Color was one of the W.O.W. Project’s first funders and remains its largest single source of support. The Foundation’s multi-year approach to grantmaking, its willingness to provide extra support during the COVID crisis, and its ongoing and frequent encouragement proved vital to W.O.W.’s ability to remain strong, flexible and accessible to participants in a time of acute community crisis.
“We had a significant increase in program applications during the pandemic,” Lum concludes. “The New York Women’s Foundation support was really important in helping us continue offering our young people a viable path for resistance.”