By Derek Dizon and Evalynn Romano
In 1995, the murders of Susana Remerata Blackwell, her unborn baby Kristine, and her friends Phoebe Dizon and Veronica Laureta Johnson, among countless other cases of family harm, propelled organizers to mobilize in support of survivors of violence. The API Women and Family Safety Center and Chaya, both created in the mid-1990s, addressed gender-based violence in a culturally and linguistically responsive way. This is the origin story of what is now API Chaya, a merger of these two organizations.
Each year, API Chaya organizes a vigil to mourn the loss of Susana, Kristine, Phoebe and Veronica, and to uplift their story of collective survivorship and community support. For the last decade, this space has been led by Derek Dizon, son of Phoebe, who uses a personal tragedy to care for others, and contribute to their healings. It is a ritual to honor all lives lost to violence, to find connection through the shared experience of loss, and to allow grief to transform.
In 2021, we adapted our Vigil to a virtual format of four different gatherings, which attracted nearly 2,500 viewers. The theme was transformation: the ways in which grief transforms us as individuals, as a collective, and as a movement. The pandemic intensified the challenge of honoring the loss of loved ones, and sometimes made it feel impossible to remain connected with others.
The vigil offers an opportunity to grow connection during isolating times, and to reflect on our own experiences of violence, harm, grief, and loss as we listen to the stories shared in the space. Through talk story, we came to several understandings: grief is grounded in relationship and connection; grief is intertwined with assimilation (e.g., separation from homeland, language, culture); grief contains pieces of our own identities; grief lives in our bodies; and grief changes shape over time.
As an organization made up of survivors ourselves, API Chaya believes healing practices are central to our organizing, and long-term vision of liberation. In February 2020, API Chaya partnered with the Journey Program at Seattle Children’s Hospital in response to the growing need for grief support services for families of color, particularly Asian and Pacific Islander families. The partnership came together organically between conversations around the intersection of grief and anti-violence work, and its connection to API Chaya’s legacy of responding to traumatic death and grief in the community.
This collaboration has deep roots. Alice Ryan, Seattle Children’s lead for the Journey program, is a former API Chaya board member. Derek Dizon, API Chaya lead, is a long time staff member, and son of Phoebe Dizon, community member whose life was taken in 1995 and is central to API Chaya’s origin and our vigil.
Thus, the Kapwa Companioning program was born. In Tagalog, kapwa is to understand oneself in connection with others. It is this shared sense of self and loss that can lead to transformation in a healing process. The program sees grief work as violence intervention and prevention. It breaks isolation through grief support groups, offers practices and skill-building to regulate emotions in healthy and choiceful ways, and ultimately breaks cycles of personal and generational violence.
The Kapwa Companioning program serves families, high school students, and Filipino youth. It is also an emergent program, ready to meet needs as they arise. For example, we offered a monthly virtual drop-in space to high school students, many of whom experienced sudden, traumatic loss. Those closest to the problem are closet to the solution, so we invited in API Chaya’s Filipino Youth Reunite to Elevate (FYRE) when tending to Filipino youth, and adapted curriculum to weave in Filipino food, language, culture, storytelling, and music as pathways to explore and express grief.
The offerings provided by the vigils and the Kapwa Companioning program inspired the theme for API Chaya’s 27th Annual Vigil, Kapwa: Grief is a Movement Feast. This year’s vigil invites attendees to be in connection with one another through the nourishment of body, through movement, through sharing of food, and through storytelling.
Derek Dizon, LSWAIC is the lead clinician of Kapwa Companioning offering grief support to individuals and groups with Evalynn Fae Taganna Romano, LSWAIC. Special acknowledgement to Alice Ryan, LICSW and Sassia Nelson, OT.