A national rise in anti-Asian racism, fueled by the Coronavirus pandemic, has prompted California officials to commit hundreds of millions of public dollars to a fund to support local community groups statewide.

Dozens of them exist in Orange County, and their leaders say the newly-available state dollars may also hold a rare shot at bridging the quality of life disparities facing local Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders on a daily basis.

For example, language barriers – an issue that hinders a resident’s ability to report a hate crime in Orange County – also fuels stark health care gaps in the community.

The effort to measure someone’s mental health is often limited to communication.

Thus, a person’s words can factor heavily into the type of care they ultimately receive.

“It’s one of those fields where language is critical,” said Ellen Ahn of Korean Community Services, a community-driven social services and outreach provider in Orange County, during a Thursday phone interview. 

So how do members of Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) communities – those with limited or nonexistent English speaking ability – communicate their symptoms and struggles to get the help they need in a place like Orange County?

They largely don’t, Ahn said. 

She notes that mental health issues confronting elderly, immigrant, and working-class AAPI community members on a daily basis often go underreported due to a “dearth in services” that are actually provided in their spoken language.

It’s something that long beset Orange County’s public anti-hate group, the Orange County Human Relations Commission, which struggled to make hate crime reporting accessible in languages like Vietnamese – spoken by the county’s largest Asian sub-group.

In an effort to rectify such issues, county supervisors last month unanimously approved a $1 million contract with the group which operates the commission to expand its work.

Now factor in recent hate crimes like the March 2021 killings of eight people – six of whom were Asian women – in Atlanta, Georgia, or an anti-Asian letter that was left for a Seal Beach widow in the Leisure World retirement community that same month.

“I don’t want people in the throes of depression or mental illness to be triggered by the recent anti-Asian hate. A lot of these resources currently aren’t available to them. This kind of help is rightfully theirs.”

Ellen Ahn of Korean Community Services, a community-driven social services and outreach provider in OC

Applications for the state money were due Dec. 17, for a slice of a total of $20 million available this fiscal year under the “Stop the Hate Program” administered by the California Dept. of Social Services. 

The groups that applied for it now await an announcement on the selected awardees.

The funding comes from the state’s API Equity Budget, a three-year investment of $166 million – and  by Sacramento’s API Legislative Caucus.

One group eyeing the money is the Orange County Asian and Pacific Islander Community Alliance (OCAPICA), which seeks to be a regional lead for the program dollars, meaning it would qualify for a larger allocation and could then distribute it to smaller community groups in Orange County when they need it.

So if one community group doesn’t get any money directly from Sacramento, they could still ask for it from the more-proximate OCAPICA, said the organization’s founder and executive director, Mary Anne Foo. 

“We would coordinate with everyone and release the funding to them,” Foo said in a Friday phone interview.

With that kind of money, Ahn of Korean Community Services says she could hire more bilingual specialists to help community members in distress navigate the U.S. health care system and connect them with the resources they need, in their language.

Such an opportunity hasn’t always existed. 

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Across the U.S., philanthropic foundations have consistently overlooked nonprofits that serve AAPI communities for funding and donation support. 

That was the finding from a report released last year by the Center for Effective Philanthropy, a nonprofit organization that compiles data and researches trends around donors and philanthropy funding, across four research studies the group says it conducted over two years.

“Oh yeah,” Foo said. “We’ve been aware of that for a long time.”

Orange County-based groups pushing community-driven social work include The Cambodian Family, which formed in the 1980s when a large wave of Cambodian refugees fled from the Khmer Rouge regime “killing fields” and into the U.S.  

In Orange County, many settled into crowded apartment complexes in the Minnie Street area of Santa Ana. The group’s website tells the story of how a handful of them pooled resources to aid other Cambodians in the neighborhood with free English classes, adjustment counseling, and emergency translation to their monolingual neighbors.

The organization expanded as time went on, and currently offers a cadre of resources and programs for local youth and families. 

For Ahn, the efforts to win some of that newly-available – and coveted – state money are “near and dear.” 

“Because of all the things that make me…me,” she said. “Professionally, and personally.”

Correction: A previous version of this story misspelled Ellen Ahn’s name. We regret the error.

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