A Black woman and Asian man stand with a microphone in their hands with balloons in the background.

‘Without other people understanding, not a lot is going to change’

Serica Initiative executive director Daniel Tam-Claiborne weighs in on how he uses storytelling to affect change

The "Bridging the Divide" episode of "Between Black & White: Asian Americans Speak Out" focuses on the relationship between the Asian and Black communities.

Still frame from "Between Black & White: Asian Americans Speak Out"

Words by Samantha Pak

As executive director of New York-based nonprofit The Serica Initiative, Daniel Tam-Claiborne focuses much of his work on telling stories about AA+PI communities.

And in the last few years, he and the organization have partnered with PBS and WNET, the broadcaster’s flagship station in New York, to produce a number of digital series that dive into different aspects of the AA+PI experience. From our histories of dealing with racism and discrimination, to how we interact with other BIPOC communities, the goal of these programs is to look at some of the challenges we have faced throughout our history in the United States, with the hope of addressing them and creating change.

“It's this weird intersection of advocacy or activism, the arts and identity representation,” Tam-Claiborne says, “and the way in which that interesting mixture of the three can be used as a force for catalyzing change and also for education, to the extent that these artifacts can be useful for people to improve their capacity for empathy for within and outside the community.”

I recently spoke with Tam-Claiborne about these projects, be/longing: Asian Americans Now and Between Black & White: Asian Americans Speak Out (the third episode of which was recently screened at the Seattle Asian American Film Festival), as well as what Serica has in store for the future.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Samantha Pak: Tell us a little about what Serica is and what you guys do.
Daniel Tam-Claiborne: We were interested in using education and programming to better advance public awareness of what China is doing, its impact on the world, and the ways in which individuals, philanthropists, foundations can be involved in that process. Over time, the mission has enlarged and changed. The conversation around the U.S. and China melded into the way Asian Americans were seen and treated here in the U.S.

We decided that we would still have a core part of our mission based around the U.S. and China, but another big piece was around advocating and advancing Asian American inclusion and representation. We decided to do that through narrative change and storytelling.

SP: The partnership with PBS and WNET began in 2021 and through their Exploring Hate programming. What was the result?
DTC: That first partnership resulted in a series called be/longing: Asian Americans Now, the thought being that we wanted to understand how prominent Asian Americans across the country, in different industries, have been responding to instances of hate against themselves as individuals, but also as it affected their communities. We tried to better understand their position in the work that they do, and how they've been able to show resilience in the face of some of those acts of violence. That aired in May of 2022.

And then in the latter half of that year, we wanted to do a follow up about the ways in which that conversation had again continued to shift around allyship and the ways in which the Asian American community intersects with other communities of color and how Asians have either showed up or not shown up for those communities and vice versa, and what the underlying historical challenges may have been towards solidarity.

That was a production that aired this past May 2023. That was Between Black & White: Asian Americans Speak Out and it's focused on three stories about Asian Americans and their relationship with other communities of color. One is the Latinx community, one is the Black community, and one is the Jewish community.

Writer Viet Thanh Nguyen sits at a desk looking at a laptop while a cameraperson records him.

Writer Viet Thanh Nguyen was one of the people interviewed for the "be/longing: Asian Americans Now" series.

Courtesy of Daniel Tam-Claiborne

SP: What were some things that you learned, meeting and talking with these people and hearing their stories and about the work that they're doing?
DTC: I was really grateful. Viet Thanh Nguyen is one of my personal heroes and someone whose work I really admire. The opportunity to interview him and speak with him about these issues was something of a dream. You could ask him anything and his responses were so measured and articulate, and so rational. I was constantly worried about making some horrible mistake.

There was a lot about the Hmong American community, so many facets of that experience that were new to me. Similarly with George Takei, even though his story is relatively well known, just his own personal experience and relationship to the Japanese internment, to hear him say it in front of me was also really, really affecting. It was really a privilege to get an insight into these people's lives and the work that they're doing to show up and empower their communities.

SP: Where did the idea for the second series come from, to look at the relationship between Asian Americans and other BIPOC communities?
DTC: There was a lot of discussion in the news and a way in which violence perpetrated against Asian Americans became a hot-button issue. The initial thought behind the series was really trying to debunk and contextualize whether or not some of those depictions were actually accurate. What were the underlying historical circumstances and challenges that made that narrative so easy to tell—this idea that Black Americans are perpetrating crimes against Asian Americans? In each of the dynamics that we explore, there's different layers of the Asian experience that get highlighted.

This seems to be kind of trite, but there's so much that can be gleaned from individuals who oftentimes aren’t given a platform to tell their stories. Media, for better or worse, is interested in things that are very attention grabbing, headline grabbing—not necessarily insidious, but I think there's an excitement that comes with fraught narratives of combativeness or aggression. And equally, we see the power of when communities come together. There's something equally newsworthy to say about that.

Oftentimes, the people who are involved are unsung heroes and in a lot of ways they do this work quietly and in the background, without expecting a lot of fanfare. There’s something really beautiful about that. There's a lot of things that we all do, myself included, where we are responding to events that are happening in the world and we're wanting to change our behaviors and change our perspectives around that. But there are a lot of people who have been doing that from the jump.

A woman stands at a table with a large scroll unrolled in front of her.

In "A Seat at the Table," "Between Black & White: Asian Americans Speak Out" explores the relationship between the Asian and Jewish communities.

Still frame from "Between Black & White: Asian Americans Speak Out"

SP: Do you have any plans for future shows or with this partnership with PBS?
DTC: We're actively working on our third season together now, which is a two-part collaboration. The first one is focused on AA+PI climate artists. That’s going to hopefully air around Earth Day. And so again, we’re broadening our engagement a little bit. We're moving from the Exploring Hate initiative that we've been previously embedded in at WNET, and are now working with a new group called ALL ARTS, which is a much larger division within WNET. As their name suggests, it's programming that touches on all aspects of arts: Performing arts, literary arts, visual arts.

The second part is going to be for May 9, for AANHPI Heritage Month. That's going to be a live session that's going to be filmed and broadcast in New York. That will be a conversation around AA+PI artists and this inflection point that we're experiencing with the dual forces of anti-Asian hate and the pandemic casting Asian Americans in this negative light, while simultaneously, especially over the last year or two, there’s been a really strong celebration and an outpouring of attention for Asian American cultural products in the entertainment field, in the literary field. And so really trying to interrogate, “Where are we right now? What does this representation mean for our community?”

An older Asian woman sits in a yellow sweater with records in the background.

Patricia “Miss Pat” Chin is the subject of one of the episode "From Kingston, Jamaica to Jamaica, Queens" of "Between Black & White: Asian Americans Speak Out."

Still frame from "Between Black & White: Asian Americans Speak Out"

SP: For all of these projects, it's quite the range in terms of topics and the folks you’re talking to. What do you hope people get out of these different series? Both from within the AA+PI community and from outside of the community?
DTC: One of the big focus areas is thinking about how to broaden the viewership. We've seen a steady increase in viewership going from the first season to the second, and we're hoping that there'll be another jump for this third. I think part of that is also broadening out the issues that we focus on.

In some ways, it's a little bit sad, right? Because it feels maybe we're diluting the content or the stories. On the other hand, I think it's great for us to know these things intimately for ourselves, but without other people understanding, not a lot is going to change. Minds and hearts won't be moved necessarily. We want to better contextualize why these challenges exist and what individuals can do to improve or combat them.

Published on April 4, 2024

Words by Samantha Pak

Samantha Pak (she/her) is an award-winning Cambodian American journalist from the Seattle area and assistant editor for JoySauce. She spends more time than she’ll admit shopping for books than actually reading them, and has made it her mission to show others how amazing Southeast Asian people are. Follow her on Twitter at @iam_sammi and on Instagram at @sammi.pak.