Queens Leaders Push for Federal Recognition of Diwali

Over a dozen local officials and community leaders expressed their support for the legislation during the Zoom conference.

By Iryna Shkurhan | ishkurhan@queensledger.com

Congresswoman Grace Meng was joined by local Queens pols and advocacy leaders on May 26 to announce her introduction of legislation to make Diwali a federal holiday.

If passed, the Diwali Day Act will give students in public schools across the country a day off from school and become the 12th federally recognized holiday in the nation.

“A federal holiday for Diwali would give millions of families the time deserved to celebrate together, as well as educate others about the history and significance of this auspicious day,” said Congresswoman Meng during the virtual press conference on Friday afternoon.

Diwali, which is also known as the Festival of Lights, is celebrated for five days by South Asians, Southeast Asians, Indo-Caribbeans and by Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, and Jains. It usually falls sometime in October or November, depending on the Indian calendar and the new moon.

Diwali signifies the spiritual victory of light over darkness and goodness over evil. It is one of the most important festivals for religions prominent in India and also marks the beginning of the fiscal year in the country.

Meng chose to announce the initiative during Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, instead of in the fall when Diwali is celebrated, to showcase the diversity of Asian Americans. She also mentioned that the introduction of the bipartisan bill is early enough for it to pass in time for the holiday.

“It is high time to recognize Diwali as a holiday in U.S. public schools,” said Dr. Neeta Jain, Founder and President of the International Ahimsa Foundation. “Our children should be treated equally. As our children celebrate other cultures, others should celebrate and learn about our culture as well. This is the only way we can teach children to have mutual respect, mutual understanding and mutual acceptance.”

More than one legislator pointed out that Asian Americans are the fastest growing ethnic group in the United States. According to Pew Research Center, the Asian population doubled between 2000 and 2019, and is projected to surpass 46 million by 2060.

According to the Asian American Federation, in both Brooklyn and Queens, the Asian population increased by over 120,000 in the past decade.

Meng also mentioned that she is pushing similar acts for Eid, which signifies the end of Ramadan in Islam, and Lunar New Year which is celebrated by several different cultures.

“Today the congresswoman has taken a historic step toward honoring the communities who celebrate Diwali, not only in our city, but all across the country,” said Chancellor of the NYC Department of Education, David C. Banks, during the Zoom conference. “I think that’s a huge, huge deal.”

City Councilwoman, Linda Lee who represents swaths of eastern Queens, recently initiated and passed legislation in the council to make Diwali a school holiday in NYC. In the fall of 2023, Diwali will be a holiday for NYC public schools.

“Given the rise in hate crimes that we’ve seen over the years, I’m hoping that bringing these holidays into our schools will really help at a very young age, teach our children the importance of the diversity of the city and how wonderful it is to celebrate all of these different cultures in our schools,” said Councilmember Lee.

So far, 14 members have already signed the legislation. Meng says that at this point in the process she is working to collect as many cosponsors as possible across the political aisle.

“We didn’t get here overnight. Even a few years ago when someone even mentioned the word Diwali. People were confused,” said Assemblyman Ron Kim, who represents Flushing .”But now we are at a point of ‘Oh, It’s not a holiday yet?’ And it’s because of the normalization.”

Variety Boys & Girls Club & Magnolia Gardens Awarded $1M by NYSERDA

Governor Kathy Hochul announced a round of New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) buildings awards this month, two of which were given to Queens-based projects.

$13.5 million was awarded to 14 projects throughout New York State through the third round of the more than $48 million Buildings of Excellence Competition. These awards recognize the design, construction and operation of clean, resilient and low-carbon or carbon neutral multifamily buildings.

The Variety Boys & Girls Club of Queens (VBGCQ), located on 21 Street and 30th Road in Astoria, has received a NYSERDA Buildings Award of Excellence and a $1 million prize for its $225 million expansion project.

Rendering of the expanded Boys & Girls Club of Queens. Groundbreaking is set for 2024, with notable features of the building including a planetarium and a pool.

The project includes more than 200 units of affordable housing and an 110,000 square foot club expansion, which includes two swimming pools, a planetarium, a 1,000 seat multi purpose sports arena, a theatre, STEM Lab, Teaching Kitchen and education space.

“A non-profit and business incubator/lab and club operated retail space on 21st street is also part of the plan,” according to Costa Constantinides, CEO of VBGCQ.

MEGA Development Corp. is the developer partner while Ettinger Engineering Associates is the lead engineering firm on the project. ICL is the housing development partner.

According to Constantinides, the list of firms partnering with the Boys & Girls Club in the development project is growing.

“The investment in our children by the corporate community is impressive. These companies are investing in our capital project as well as funding programming for the 16,000 children we will serve each year for the next half-century,” he said.

GrubHub is investing $1.25 million for the Teaching Kitchen. Hydro- Quebec is investing $1.25 million for the Renewable Energy Learning Lab. Attentive One is investing $1.5 million for the Teen Academy and Equinor Beacon Wind Technology is investing $1.75 million to build as well as help operate and support the Media Center.

“It’s an extraordinary project that will revolutionize learning in Astoria and Long Island City,” continued Walter Sanchez, president of the Board of Directors at Variety.

Representatives from Variety Boys & Girls Club of Queens, MEGA Contracting, Ettinger Engineering Associates and ICL receive buildings award at NYSERDA event on March 21 in at the American Institute of Architects Building in Manhattan. A $1 million Grant was awarded to the development for meeting the highest standards of developing to carbon neutral standards.

NYSERDA pointed out that the awardees not only offer affordable housing but also are all-electric and carbon neutral at their core — with no use of fossil fuel combustion in daily use — making them highly efficient.

“We are also including solar energy with the caveat of having a hands-on educational component for the children we serve, to be able to learn about how our geo-thermal energy source works,” said Sanchez. Groundbreaking is planned for spring of 2024.

An award with a $1 million Grant was given to Flushing-based Magnolia Gardens. A first-of-its-kind for New York City, Magnolia Gardens plans to offer 90 modern apartments of transitional housing and offer Asian language services for families in the development, which is intended for families with at least one child under the age of 21.

Families will stay there for a year before moving to permanent affordable housing. Magnolia Gardens is at 133-04 39th Avenue in Flushing and is developed by Asian Americans for Equality and Urban Resource Institute. Groundbreaking was set for the fall of 2022, but has been postponed for environmental remediation and other requirements. The public will be notified of the groundbreaking when a date has been confirmed.

NYSERDA pointed out that the competition supports the State’s Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act goals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 85 percent by 2050 and ensure at least 35 percent, with a goal of 40 percent, of the benefits of clean energy investments are directed toward disadvantaged communities.

Rendering by Urban Architectural Initiatives

The awards event took place at the AIA Building in downtown Manhattan on Tuesday, March 21. “We congratulate today’s winners” said NYSERDA CEO Doreen M. Harris at the event, “and are particularly proud of their commitment to advancing low-carbon building design that sets a new standard for climate-friendly construction and operation. These awardees join a group of thought- leaders that are paving the way to tackle one of the highest greenhouse gas emitting sectors in the state by demonstrating that building with a low carbon footprint is profitable and in-demand.”

Funding for this program is through the State Clean Energy Fund and is part of NYSERDA’s more than $165 million investment in new construction and gut rehab projects in the multi-family building sector.

Vigil honors slain food deliveryman Zhiwen Yan

Last week, the Forest Hills community came together for a candlelight vigil in front of Great Wall Chinese Restaurant to honor Zhiwen Yan, a food delivery worker who was killed at the end of April.

Yan, who lived in Middle Village, was fatally shot on the night of April 30 while riding his scooter on his way to deliver food in Forest Hills.

He was 45 years old, and leaves behind a wife and three children.

Ethan Felder and Donghui Zang organized a candlelight vigil to honor the life and legacy of Zhiwen Yan.

“He was a kind and beautiful soul. And to think how he did everything right in life as an immigrant: he worked three jobs and he leaves three children behind. He epitomizes what we all strive for as Americans,” said Ethan Felder, a labor lawyer and candidate running for NYS Assembly District 28, who co-organized the vigil. “The fact that he had that all taken away two weeks ago… it really strikes at the heart of who we are. That is why we had to memorialize his life and what happened to him and his family, and to our community.”

Zhiwen Yan’s wife, Kunying Zhao, was comforted by the community during her time of grief, and spoke out about how she feels and what the city should be doing to help.

“New York City, you owe me a life. You owe me a husband. You owe an explanation to the Chinese community,” she said through a translator.

She emphasized that Yan and his coworkers had been threatened for months prior to his death, and said that police could have taken protective measures to prevent the worst from happening.

“He should have been able to watch his children growing up, but everything ended,” she continued. “We want New York City to give us an explanation.”

Kai Yang, manager of Great Wall, shared a powerful speech with attendees, demanding justice for his former employee.

Yan was a beloved member of the community, best known for his signature greeting, “Hello, my friend.”

Several residents took turns with the microphone to share their stories about him.

“I knew Mr. Yan for over 25 years. He was the best delivery guy you can ever ask for,” one resident, Ariel, said.
“If you ordered from Great Wall when he was alive, you got your food in 15 minutes or less — no matter how far you lived, or how much food you ordered,” he continued. “I’m so heartbroken.”

“This is a terrible loss to the entire community. He reached so many different people, and I think that just goes to show by how many people showed up to the vigil,” another resident, Michael, said.

“I have met many people over the past several days on my walk to Walgreens, saying they would see him on his scooter, always working,” he added. “He was the hardest working man I know in the neighborhood.”

Kai Yang, the manager of Great Wall who worked with Yan for more than 10 years, shared a powerful speech with attendees, demanding justice for his former employee.

“He was taking care of the neighborhood, delivering to the neighbors who needed food. And then without any notice, that guy came out and shot him. His blood is spilled at the crosswalk of the streets in this neighborhood,” Yang said through a translator.

“This is an insult to the city, and something we need to look into and take care of,” he continued. “My workers and I are still working in fear. We are in fear for our own lives and safety working here every day.”

He addressed the racism against Asian Americans that came out of the pandemic, which has affected the success of his business, and resulted in his workers being verbally assaulted with racial slurs.

Community members from all walks of life stood beside Yan’s wife to support her

“We deserve safety. We deserve peace so we can make our living and we can make this city somewhere worth living,” he said.
Donghui Zang, a candidate for District Leader of the 28th Assembly District, said that despite Yan’s death taking place nearly three weeks ago, his family has still not secured a place to bury him.

He said that he and the community are doing what they can to help them with this process, along with help from Uber Eats, where he also worked, and other Asian community leaders and elected officials.

“Saying ‘stop Asian hate’ is not enough. You need to prosecute and charge the criminals to the maximum extent of the law,” Zang said. “The penalty is too low so it doesn’t scare off the people who commit crimes: murder, robberies, and shootings in the subways. It’s still not enough, and we have to revise the law so people can feel safe and restore the peace.”

Second annual AAPI heritage month fun run held in Bayside

In celebration of Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, the second annual AAPI Heritage Month fun run was held Sunday in Bayside.

State Senator John Liu and over 100 runners joined the 4.8-mile run on Joe Michaels Mile from Fort Totten to Northern Boulevard and back.

Liu noted a great turnout, where the first 100 runners received a free bright orange t-shirt and a healthy dose of exercise.

“Thank you to all the runners of all ages and backgrounds who ran, jogged, and walked with us as we enjoyed a fun-filled day celebrating Asian American heritage and community,” Liu said.

Group celebrates $20M investment for AAPI communities

As the AAPI community continues to be targeted as a result of the pandemic, a local coalition celebrated a big win for the community last week.

In the spirit of AAPI Heritage Month, the AAPI Equity Budget Coalition, a coalition of over 50 AAPI community leaders and organizations, commended a historic $20 million investment in AAPI communities in the Fiscal Year 2022-23 state budget.

This investment is significant because the dollar amount in state funding has doubled since last year’s first-ever allocation.

The AAPI Equity Budget Coalition is jointly led by the Asian American Federation (AAF) and the Coalition for Asian American Children and Families (CACF).

“The $20 million allocated to Asian-led and Asian-serving organizations that provide essential services and are critical lifelines for our community is another step in the right direction,” Ravi Reddi, associate director of the Asian American Federation, said in a statement.

“We will rely on our state leaders to ensure that the Asian community has access to these funds and that there are further allocations made that will consider that 1-in-4 Asian Americans in New York State live in poverty and that the COVID pandemic combined with anti-Asian hate proved catastrophic for Asian Americans,” Reddi continued. “The work has only just begun, but we’re grateful to have electeds fighting for our community in Albany.”

The AAPI Equity Budget Coalition was founded with the goal of combating anti-Asian hate, the disproportionate impacts of COVID-19, and the historic underfunding of AAPI communities.

The coalition also seeks to expand programs and services related to AAPI education and awareness, as well as create an AAPI State Commission, which would serve to advise the governor’s office on the needs of the AAPI community and examine critical issues like language access among state agencies, departments, and commissions.

“In the face of our communities’ growing challenges impacting the AAPI community, New York State’s commitment to AAPI New Yorkers is a crucial step towards ensuring that our diverse communities are no longer overlooked and under-resourced,” CACF’s Co-Executive Directors Anita Gundanna and Vanessa Leung said.

“Our community organizations know best what our communities need to recover and heal. We are confident that this investment, as shaped by our AAPI coalition, will prove critical in promoting the health, wellness, and safety of our communities.”

The AAPI Equity Budget Coalition also advocates for community issues including gender-based violence, healthcare, senior and youth programs, research, advocacy and legal assistance, as well as multi-service programming such as housing assistance, benefits navigation, small business support, workforce development/job training, food services, legal service, mental health support, violence intervention and prevention, aid to homeowners and tenants, and safety-related services.

Pols host vigil to remember AAPI hate crime victims

Last year, eight victims, including six Asian women, were killed when suspected gunman Robert Aaron Long opened fire in a shooting spree targeting three spas in the Atlanta area.

One year later, elected officials in Queens held a candlelight vigil in their memory. The event was co-sponsored by New York City Councilwoman Sandra Ung, Councilwoman Linda Lee, Councilwoman Julie Won and Queens Borough President Donovan Richards.

Participants held up candles, white flowers and photos of the victims—Xiaojie Tan, 49, Daoyou Feng, 44, Hyun Jung Grant, 51, Suncha Kim, 69, Soon Chung Park, 74, Yong Ae Yue, 63, Delaina Ashley Yaun, 33 and Paul Andre Michels, 54—as speakers addressed the ever-present violence against Asian individuals in New York City.

“He deliberately sought out these businesses because they were owned by Asian women. Make no mistake, this was a hate crime,” Ung said.

“Just this week, an elderly woman was punched 125 times simply because she was Asian,” Ung continued. “Every week, we hear of new accounts of Asian women being attacked, including the recent deaths of Christina Yuna Lee, Michelle Go, and GuiYing Ma.”

Ung expressed how she fears for her safety as an Asian woman walking in the streets of New York City and taking public transportation. She also said AAPI children must be given a sense of dignity and seniors a sense of security.

“No one should fear for their life simply because of the color of their skin, their religion or who they love,” she said.“So many New Yorkers face intolerance and bigotry, and because of that, we won’t stop fighting to make New York a welcoming place for everyone.”

Lee, who became the first Korean-American elected to the New York City Council, said that a multi-prong approach with more culturally competent services is necessary to combat Asian hate.

“We need to make sure that there is teaching of acceptance in schools, and that Asian Americans are not seen as outsiders or others. We also need to continue to work with our public safety police officers and community liaisons so we can advocate and work together,” Lee said. “We need to make sure that we are actually increasing services and resources into the city as well, so people who are homeless have places to go, that the mentally ill are getting services that they need, and that our community groups have enough funding to be able to hire staff that speak in-language.”

Queens Borough President Donovan Richards addressd the crowd, saying: “an attack on us is an attack on all of us.”

During the vigil, Lee also shared that she was disappointed that a self defense instructor she recently met has a lengthly waiting list for classes geared specifically towards Asian seniors.

“They’re targeting women and seniors because we are more vulnerable,” she said. “We need to do as much upstander and bystander training as possible, and look out for each other and be there as a community because it takes all of us.”

Councilman Shekar Krishnan also spoke at the event, emphasizing that violence and discrimination against the AAPI community is not a new phenomenon.

“Hate against Asian American communities goes back generations where we have been invisibilized as communities—where we aren’t seen, we aren’t heard and many of the stereotypes and prejudices about our communities must be shattered,” Krishnan said.

“This invisibilization has meant that the fears and genuine safety concerns of so many seniors and Asian American women have not been recognized for so long,” he added. “To come out and to solve and eradicate this hate, the one thing that’s required first is to listen to the voices of our Asian American communities.”

NYC Councilwoman Linda Lee holds up an image of one of the victims of the Atlanta spa shootings.

Other elected officials who showed their support at the vigil, include NYC Comptroller Brad Lander, State Senator John Liu and Assemblywoman Nily Rozic.

“There have been nearly 11,000 anti-Asian hate crimes across the country in the year since those beautiful souls in Atlanta were lost,” Lander said. “We cannot tolerate that in our city and we must find ways to work together to make it safe. Asian New Yorkers, all New Yorkers, deserve to be able to walk around their city without feeling like they might be targeted for violence just because of who they are.”

Many of the evening’s speakers cited the statement made by BP Richards in regard to Queens. He said, “an attack on us is an attack on all of us,” symbolizing the diversity and sense of unity that is present in the borough.

“How many times must we stand here? We’ve been here too many times,” Richards said. “Almost every single day, we hear news of another Asian American being accosted or attacked, targeted for who they are and what they look like. Asian Americans right here in New York, of all places, have felt the sting of racism and violence.”

“I wish these were isolated events, but they are not. Crimes against Asian Americans have skyrocketed nationwide by nearly 350 percent. We must continue to stand in solidarity with them against this pandemic of prejudice,” Richards said. “Pfizer, Moderna, or Johnson & Johnson don’t have a vaccine for this virus… All of us standing here today are the cure.”

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