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Pan-Asian American Community House, or PAACH, is one of Penn's cultural centers. Credit: Maria Murad

Penn's task force to combat the recent increase in anti-Asian discrimination on campus resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic has received positive feedback since its inception in April.

The Task Force on Supporting Asian and Asian American Students and Scholars at Penn, which was launched by Provost Wendell Pritchett in April, has held monthly discussion series and restorative practice circles for undergraduates, graduate students, post-docs, faculty, and staff. The programming is intended to create a space for members of Penn's Asian community to educate themselves, let their voices be heard, and heal from discrimination they have personally experienced, Pan-Asian American Community House Director Peter Van Do said. 

The task force’s goal to support members of the Asian and Asian American community is broken down into three components: coordinate support for Asian and Asian Americans at Penn,  signal the University’s commitment to combat discrimination, and provide a platform for outreach, Associate Vice Provost for Global Initiatives Amy Gadsden and Director of Operations for the Division of Public Safety and Chief of Staff Kathleen Shields Anderson — both co-Chairs of the task force — wrote in an email to The Daily Pennsylvanian. 

Immediately after the task force’s first meeting in April, the group launched many of its major initiatives such as raising awareness of University resources and supportive messaging to “flatten the hate.” 

Many Asian and Asian American students, particularly Chinese international students, have expressed increased anxiety about experiencing anti-Asian discrimination and violence since January, Van Do said.

 Penn students recounted instances of verbal harassment, spitting, and bullying to Van Do. Some students admitted they were too scared to leave their dorm rooms due to discrimination they had faced by fellow students on campus.

One student reported that a peer defended the use of terms such as “Chinese Virus,” a term which has been used frequently by 1968 Wharton graduate and President Donald Trump.

Some stories he heard from students were more subtle but equally hurtful, Van Do said.

“There's been cases where [students were] studying at the libraries, and people whisper and move out of the way or go away,” he said.

In addition to anti-Asian sentiments at Penn, in late March the Federal Bureau of Investigation warned of an increase in anti-Asian hate crimes across the United States due to the nationwide spread of COVID-19.

In April, Vice President for Public Safety and Superintendent of Penn Police Maureen Rush issued a similar warning about discriminatory attacks against members of the Asian and Asian-American communities in Philadelphia.

"We are also aware of other incidents of bias-motivated street harassment that have occurred to members of our community and throughout the nation," Rush wrote. "Naturally, Penn students, staff and faculty are feeling anxious about these reports."

Gadsden and Anderson wrote that the task force was created in response to faculty, staff, and students who experienced various forms of anti-Asian behavior, including slurs and verbal harassment.

“Unfortunately, some of this behavior isn’t new, but it increased markedly after the start of the pandemic," they wrote.

Members of the task force include stakeholders from different offices and entities across the University such as Penn Global, International Student and Scholar Services, PAACH, and the Asian American Studies Program. 

The group began its monthly discussion series co-Chaired by Van Do, Stopping the Hate and Starting to Heal: Living With and Through the COVID-19 Pandemic, as well as restorative healing practice circles in June, Gadsden and Anderson wrote. 

Since its initiation in April, Van Do said the task force has received very positive feedback for both programs. Two hundred participants attended the first discussion series event and there has been consistent attendance of 20 people at the restorative healing circles, he said. 

“We are tackling a problem that has deep roots, as many of our public events highlight,” Gadsden and Anderson wrote. “In terms of success, we’ve gotten some good feedback as well as constructive suggestions for improvement.” 

Van Do said he plans to continue the discussion series through the fall and extend the healing circles to more members of the Penn community once the semester begins. 

“We look forward to working with all who are willing to join us to flatten the hate,” Gadsden and Anderson wrote. 

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