By MICHELLE TIO, Rafu Digital Team

Since March, the two organizations Hollaback! and Asian Americans Advancing Justice have teamed up to offer free bystander intervention trainings to combat the recent rise in anti-Asian/Pacific Islander (API) discrimination. This rise in anti-API discrimination has been well documented: in an eight-week time period alone, the Stop AAPI Hate Reporting Center received nearly 1,900 reports of anti-API discrimination due to COVID 19.

I sat down (virtually!) with Emily May, co-founder and executive director of Hollaback!, and Marita Etcubañez, director of strategic initiatives with Asian Americans Advancing Justice, to talk about their work to counter anti-API discrimination. Through their virtual training sessions, Hollaback! and Asian Americans Advancing Justice have educated more than 10,000 individuals

Tell me about the goals of your organizations and your partnership.

Emily: Hollaback! is an organization working to end harassment in all of its forms and to show up as a perpetual affront to harassment wherever it exists. We are very proud to be partnering with Asian Americans Advancing Justice.

Marita: The partnership between Hollaback! and Asian Americans Advancing Justice goes back several years. We are both part of a broader coalition that was put together to address hate crimes and hate incidents coming out of the 2016 election cycle. At this moment, we felt that the fact that the Asian American community in particular has been targeted during the coronavirus pandemic merited greater response. When Hollaback! approached us to adapt their existing trainings for the Asian American community, we immediately said yes.

Why did you decide to adapt Hollaback!’s bystander interventions for the Asian / Pacific Islander community?

Marita: President Trump and other leaders have been pretty vocal in trying to cast blame for the coronavirus on China. And weaponizing that blame — to the point where we feel like it’s fueling a lot of the hatred that’s being directed to the Asian American community. We know that the community has been fearful of being targeted. It’s been part of our work to focus on hate crimes for the past couple of years, mainly to document and support federal legislative solutions. But we also want to provide resources to those who are directly impacted. We felt this was a great opportunity to provide something concrete and proactive that people could do — both to prepare themselves should they be targeted by harassment but also to learn ways they can empower themselves to help others.

Why do you think that bystander intervention is important?

Emily: When it comes to harassment, people often feel powerless, that there is nothing they can do. But that’s not true! 99-100% of the people who leave our bystander intervention trainings say yes, there’s something I can do to address harassment.

Often people think that all interventions for harassment must be direct. But in fact, four out of five of our approaches are indirect! They don’t involve you going up to the person and saying, “Hey you’re racist,” or “That’s wrong,” or “That’s not okay.” Instead, there are less direct ways of really showing up for the person experiencing the harassment and taking care of them.

At its core, bystander intervention isn’t this wild new invention; it has existed since the beginning of time. It’s just this idea of people taking care of people. But when it comes to harassment, so often we freeze. We don’t know what to do. So it’s about overcoming that freezing mechanism.

An infographic detailing Hollaback!’s 5 D’s of Bystander Intervention methodology: Distract, Delegate, Document, Delay, and Direct.

Can you summarize Hollaback!’s methodology — the 5 D’s of bystander intervention?

Emily: Sure! The 5 D’s are Distract, Delay, Delegate, Document, and Direct. The first one is Distract: creating a distraction to de-escalate the situation. Then we have Delegate: finding somebody else to help. Document: creating documentation of the harassment and giving it to the person who was harassed. Delay: checking in on the person after the harassment has happened, either verbally or using nonverbal communication. And then, Direct.

Why is directly intervening the last of the five suggested steps?

Emily: We refer to direct intervention as the last resort partly because the people most likely to intervene are often the most marginalized in our society (i.e. women, people of color, LGBTQ), and there’s a higher likelihood that that harassment is going to turn on to them. The other thing is that direct intervention is just one strategy, and there are other ways to intervene that are not directly confronting the harassment head-on. For example, taking care of the person being directly harassed, which is essential. That being said, directly confronting the harassment front-on can be a really important intervention.

I see that there are three trainings: (1) Bystander Intervention, (2) Conflict De-Escalation, and (3) How to Respond to Harassment for People Experiencing Anti-Asian/American Harassment. Why did you decide on these three trainings in particular?

Marita: We created these trainings directly in response to feedback. People who went through our initial round of bystander intervention training — their response was, “This was great, but what do I do if I am the one who is harassed? How can I help equip other people in my community to respond if they’re harassed?”

For the conflict de-escalation training, we talk about it as a deeper dive into direct intervention. We are very candid that that one is harder and not as universally applicable as bystander intervention training, which is why it’s titled Bystander Intervention Training 2.0, but I think that there are some very useful tactics and strategies that people would benefit from learning about even if they decide it’s not for them.

A presentation slide describing one of Hollaback!’s 5 D’s of Bystander Intervention: Direct.

What is conflict de-escalation training?

Emily: Conflict de-escalation training is best done in a multi-day, in-person event, but we want to teach people the basics through our accessible virtual platform. We want to teach people how to do it safely.

With conflict de-escalation, our methodology is observe, breathe, connect. It’s about observing what is going on. Physically — what are the dynamics? Is their body language aggressive? Are their words aggressive? How escalated are they? Then we have this pyramid of escalation, where we flag: okay, they’re escalated, they’re at peak escalation. Then, the next part of it is breathe.

Breathing is in part noticing where you are in that pyramid of escalation. Recognizing that when we see people who are directly attacking and affronting our human rights; our ability to be in the world; that’s going to have a natural impact on you. It’s about assessing where you are on that pyramid of escalation and then doing the work to see if you can de-escalate yourself to a point to which you’ll be appropriate to step in and do that connecting work.

How does a bystander connect with someone who is saying or doing such painful things?

Emily: It’s hard. To connect with someone who is aggressive towards others means being able to see someone in his/her/their full humanity who frankly does not see you in your full humanity. That is some next level work. But when you do connect to people, it’s about recognizing their feelings without validating their hateful remarks. It’s about recognizing that their hateful remarks are coming from this core desire to be seen, to be heard — but making sure to meet that desire without validating the hate that’s coming alongside with it.

How do you think current conditions of the coronavirus pandemic are affecting the increase in discrimination and aggression?

Emily: I think that in these times, people are stressed. People are grieving. There’s tremendous financial insecurity, food insecurity, housing insecurity right now. The reality is that this is impacting everyone. When we’re in these impacted states, when the world is not going our way, that’s when people tend to be quick to pull out their inner racist, their inner sexist, their inner homophobe into conflict situations. I think that’s part of what’s feeding into the harassment that’s happening right now.

A presentation slide from the bystander intervention training listing common reasons why people don’t intervene when encountering harassment.

What do you want the Asian / Pacific Islander community to know about coronavirus discrimination?

Marita: It’s two parts. We encourage people to talk about the harassment that they’re experiencing, the fears they might have, and reporting it. If they’re concerned about reporting to law enforcement, we want people to know that they can report to organizations like Asian Americans Advancing Justice (AAJC). The more we know, the more we can make the problem real for policymakers who might be skeptical about what’s happening to our communities. Also, we encourage people to participate in the trainings so that they can learn strategies and tactics that will enable them to not only respond for themselves but also to take care of other people in the community should they witness or experience harassment.

What message would you like to share with people outside of the Asian / Pacific Islander community?

Marita: I really think that the trainings have universal applications. They are for everyone. We’re offering these trainings not only for the Asian American community but also to build a community of allies who understand the history of discrimination that our community, other communities of color, and other vulnerable communities in the United States have experienced from the beginning. One of the points we’ve made sure to explicitly include in the trainings is that the safety we seek to build for the Asian American community is the same safety we should be working to build for everybody.

Emily: For me, what I would say to people who are not Asian/Asian American is that this is an opportunity in this moment of history to not just learn about discrimination because it may or may not be applicable during COVID-19 but to really take a second to explore the ways in which Asians and Asian Americans have been discriminated against throughout our history. As we work to undo the harm that is being done to Asian/Asian American communities right now, let’s not just undo it for the moment. Let’s take the time to undo it for longterm. Let’s learn what harassment looks like for Asian/Asian American communities as well as how it may be different for other communities. And let’s put knowledge about how to decrease discrimination into practice in the hopes of having a long-term impact emerge from this really hard moment.

One of the introductory slides to Hollaback! and AAJC’s bystander intervention trainings.

The Hollaback! and Asian Americans Advancing Justice Bystander Intervention Trainings are free and open to the public. To sign up for these training sessions, please visit

To report a hate crime and to check out more resources regarding API COVID-19 racism, go to

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