Kalaya'an Mendoza, director of mutual protection for Nonviolent Peaceforce, a global civil society organization. Photo: Cole Witter

A range of friends and neighbors—Jews, Muslims, turbaned men and East Asians among those I am hearing from—are under assault. How can we stay safe? How can we protect each other? 

I spoke to Kalaya’an Mendoza, who is the director of mutual protection for Nonviolent Peaceforce, a global civil society organization. He’s been hosting bystander training and community safety workshops across New York City. I turned to him for advice on how we can all navigate this moment together, and I asked him to particularly focus on the mental and physical health of our children. 

What I love about Mendoza’s approach is that it’s not one-size-fits-all. Staying alive and getting to a safe place are worthy goals, usually better than getting even or delivering a witty comeback. Key takeaways: 

  • Make sure the targets know the hate is not their fault. 
  • Center your own safety. That can help you make decisions, from what to wear or whether to engage haters. 
  • There are roles for passersby and bystanders to play but we should take our lead from the person being affected. 

Edited excerpts of our conversation are below. 

I want to center what young people are going through right now. I am hearing from children that they are being called names at school, that they are being harassed and picked on. Does this sound familiar? 

KM: When we did a training in Midwood for Muslims in the South Asian community, a young hijabi woman shared with us that people have tried to pull off her hijab. The first thing I said was, ‘This is not your fault. We should not be living in a world where you have to look over your shoulder. We should not be living in a world where people have to go through these trainings that we deliver in conflict zones all over the world.’

The U.S. has always been in a conflict. Let’s be clear about that. But first, I want to approach people from a place of psychosocial safety and security and let them know that this was not their fault. This is a failure on the part of the government, on the part of institutions, and the best thing that they can do is to keep themselves and those that they care about safe. 

But first, take that step and recognize that as the survivor, this is not your fault. 

How can we better arm ourselves for these conflicts? Is there anything preventative to do, for example? 

KM: Some of the tools that we provide folks range from situational awareness to de-escalation, to understanding your survival responses and survival tools. 

Situational awareness, in essence, is understanding what’s happening in your environment and what’s happening within you. If you go to a party and something’s telling you that you need to get out of there, that’s your situational awareness at work. Those are your ancestors telling you to get out of there. Your body’s processing both conscious and subconscious information all around you. Trust yourself to understand what’s going on in the situation. 

That means being observant to what’s happening around you, not having your headphones on and not having your head down. 

Folks need to be constantly practicing what we call the OODA Loop. It stands for: 





Then there’s practicing situational awareness, just very basically to understand your survival responses and survival tools. Survival response is understanding if you are a fight, flight, freeze or fawn person. 

If violence happens to you, where do you go directly? I personally am a fawn type person, I know that I’ll try to practice diplomacy or even people-pleasing in order to keep myself safe. Whatever has kept you safe is the correct response. 

Some people are like, ‘I wish I was a fight person.’ No, no, no. You, your lived experience and your ancestors have brought you to this point to keep yourself alive and safe. And that’s something that needs to be honored. 

There’s two primary survival tools. There is the understanding of your activation points, otherwise known as triggers. If I hear yelling or anti-Asian sentiment, automatically I go into activation mode. Then there’s understanding your anchor points. What are the things that keep you cool, calm, collected, and connected where you can think clearly?

Understanding yourself is really the first key, and that will help inform how you move forward because you can only really de-escalate yourself and those you have a relationship with. 

Some parent groups are wondering if their kids should continue to wear outward symbols of identity, say a Jewish star or a hijab or a turban. Others say our names and faces give our identity away. What’s your take on that? 

KM: That’s an individual decision, right? For someone who is visibly Asian, I haven’t been able to turn off my Asianness these last four years. 

What it calls us is to think about: How do we build safety infrastructure that is community led? Jo-Ann Yoo, executive director of the Asian American Federation, once said: There will never be enough police officers to protect all of our elders but there will always be community. 

That is the one thing that we’ve always found to be the foundation of safety: knowing your neighbors, having that relationship and building city infrastructure from the grassroots up. 

What can we do to foster that sense of community? 

KM: Some basic grassroots organizing, one-on-one, and bringing together a group of folks, whether it’s moms, parents, or other folks that are concerned. Have a neighborhood block party, just come together to check in with one another. Start from those foundations and then assess what you need to build safety. 

Some folks may be wanting to have healing circles to talk about restorative justice. Other folks might want to have protective accompaniment teams, walking folks from one point to another. 

Is this time feeling worse because of social media? 

KM: There have always been fractures here in the United States, right? This country was built on the genocide of Native Americans, enslavement of Africans, and the exploitation of people of color. It’s disingenuous to just think otherwise.

I’ve been talking to a lot of friends about 9/11, what happened after Sept. 11th and what’s happening now. The difference is that we are seeing both the stories and the reporting of what’s happening in Gaza in real time. Because of social media, we have more direct information. That changes the dynamic in how people are perceiving reality. There is more trust in community and in one another than there is in the institutions.

I remember after 9/11 it very much was an uphill battle to cover hate crimes. But I did. Now I’ve seen Muslim people saying antisemitism is not okay. Jewish people saying Islamophobia is not okay. Full stop. So it does feel like there is a little bit more of what you’re describing in terms of publicly standing up for the other. 

KM: We moved from a charity framework where it was like ‘I’m going to help you because you’re sad’ to a solidarity one. Our community has a responsibility to care for one another. So I think solidarity is no longer a buzzword. 

Is it okay for me to ask you about bullying or anti-Asian hate in your own life, whether it’s as a child or till now? What was your response and what have you learned from that? 

KM: I learned basic community organizing from my mom. I just saw the way that she operated. At the start of this pandemic in April 2020, I was on my way to Hell’s Kitchen, and everyone had their masks on. There was one older white guy without his mask on, and he kept on looking over at me. I clocked that immediately. And I knew that I’m going to need to move around him. I’m going to need to keep him within my line of sight. So as we approached the 50th Street Station, I was going to exit as quickly as possible. He looked at me dead in the eye, spat at me, and called me a ‘dirty chink.’ And my first response was, ‘Oh, I’m sorry.’ I don’t know what he was expecting, but hearing that created that moment of pause and I was able to get out of there. Looking back, folks think, ‘Oh, I should have done this. I should have done that.’ Whatever has kept you safe and alive is a correct response. 

I wanted to shift to bystanders and what we can do. And also, do we have an obligation to get involved as we’re seeing this shit go down? 

KM: Safety is holistic. It’s physical. It’s psychosocial. It’s all the things.

It’s important, especially for folks that survive through violence, to never second guess themselves and whatever they need to do to keep safe. That includes maintaining their dignity if some folks need to yell and do that. There’s no judgment. 

For bystanders, we do have an obligation. More importantly, I think everyone is wired to want to protect one another. There is only one reason that we’ve survived this long—by building these communal bonds with each other. 

I know for a fact that people want to intervene, but they just don’t know how. It takes just one person to say ‘this is wrong’ for other people to be like, ‘okay, I needed to hear that.’ 

The first thing that you do is you check in with the survivor and say, ‘Do you need support?’ Allow the survivor to dictate and to direct what that support looks like. 

One time I saw someone in trouble and I immediately made a beeline for her. I yelled really loud and was super sugary. The person that was having a mental health episode immediately stopped. And then I went up to this person and said, ‘I can walk with you this way. Let me know what I can do to support you.’

She was like, ‘Okay, can you just, like, stay with me for a little bit?’

I said, ‘I’m happy to stay with you. Do you want me to call someone? We can move this way.’

Number one, check in and get consent to support. Sometimes it might be just a quick head nod. You don’t want to swoop in, that’s more detrimental than anything else. And then really centering on the survivor in terms of what their needs are. Do they need space? Do they need you to stay with them? And everyone can do this, everyone has the ability to intervene when violence happens. You don’t have to put yourself in danger. There’s ways to do it. Yeah. 

So  how did you get into this type of work? What inspired you? 

KM: I always say it’s because of my ancestors.. I grew up in California,and, you know, we are immigrants to the U.S. and nothing is never guaranteed. We always prepared for the worst, especially for earthquakes and everything else. One thing that I always saw was even in times of distress, it was a community that came together to protect one another. I’ve always seen my social justice activism and my safety work as something intertwined because it’s the one thing every single person can agree upon. 

There are different ways to get there. For me, it’s bringing in a collective approach. It’s bringing an analysis that looks at the underlying factors in terms of risk to communities. Lastly, it’s about building community from the grassroots up. 

What did I forget to ask you? What do you want to make sure you get across? 

KM: We are in scary times. I love the Mr. Rogers quote his mother shared in times of distress: “Always look for the helpers.” There will always be helpers. And I think if we see ourselves as part of a collective, we are reliant on everyone else. And regardless of identities, we all have a place in safety, just like we have a place in social justice and social good. I want to invite folks to think about ways that they can show up for their community and themselves from a place of reimagining safety when it doesn’t come down the barrel of a gun. 

S. Mitra Kalita is a veteran journalist, media executive, prolific commentator and author of two books. In 2020 she launched Epicenter-NYC, a newsletter to help New Yorkers get through the pandemic. Mitra...

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