Joanne Alcantara, API Chaya’s executive director. • Photo by Anakin Fung

Joanne Alcantara’s passion for community organizing and advocating for social justice started early in her life. When she was four years old, Alcantara and her family moved to the United States from Davao City, Mindanao, in the Philippines. Their decision was sparked by the violence both of her parents witnessed in their highly militarized neighborhood during the Marcos dictatorship.

“There was one incident my mom was with a friend of hers and someone they knew was shot in front of them,” Alcantara said. “The violence escalated to a point where they said, ‘This isn’t safe. This isn’t safe for our family. We need to get out of here.’”

Now, Alcantara serves the local API community by providing a safe space and resource center for domestic violence and sexual assault survivors. Starting after college, Alcantara was an AmeriCorps volunteer for API Chaya, which was then referred to as the Asian Pacific Islander Women and Family Safety Center. She became interested in the organization while doing research about human trafficking.

“As immigrants, we don’t want to call the police,” Alcantara said. “As immigrants, we are not often interested in accessing the same mainstream services as other people are interested in.”

Things have come full circle for Alcantara as she now serves as the executive director of API Chaya. API Chaya is a nonprofit organization that provides resources for Asian, South Asian, and Pacific Islander survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault and their families, as well as human trafficking survivors from all communities. API Chaya advocates provide referrals to shelters, medical clinics, and counseling services, as well as to legal and immigration resources.

In addition to her volunteer work with API Chaya, Alcantara was also a founding member of GABRIELA USA, the first overseas chapter of the Philippine-based organization, which raises awareness about gender discrimination, violence against women, and women’s reproductive rights.

“I was born in the Philippines so I was looking for organizations that spoke with my identity and that I could relate to,” Alcantara said. “GABRIELA was so powerful because of the connections back home with political organizers and being able to relate them to the struggles facing immigrant women here.”

As Executive Director of API Chaya, Alcantara sometimes acts as an intermediary between people who have committed acts of domestic or sexual violence and people who have survived domestic or sexual violence. As a survivor of sexual violence herself, she described this as the most challenging part of her job.

“I think for me, the most difficult thing has been being in a community with both people who have done harm and who have survived harm, and sometimes it’s the same person in one body,” she said.

When Alcantara’s family moved to Seattle, adapting to another country and culture was difficult. She said despite the prevalence of labor union organizing in Seattle during the 80s, her parents felt very detached from the rest of the community. They were wary of American culture and prioritized the safety of their family.

“We were just a small immigrant family just trying to survive,” Alcantara said.

She decided to explore beyond Seattle and moved to Middletown, Connecticut, where her passion for advocating for women’s rights and social and economic justice evolved. Alcantara graduated from Wesleyan University with a degree in women’s studies. In a city with a low Asian population, she experienced a culture shock when she realized that many of her classes lacked the perspectives of women of color.

She helped change the one-on-one curriculum for women’s studies so that it reflected a more global perspective and included voices of women of color. Coming back to Seattle, she wanted to translate her experience from college to improving the lives of women with whom she shares a similar personal experience of sexual assault.

“I’m not a person who carries a lot of regrets,” she said. “I believe every failure or every challenge is just an opportunity to learn. My proudest moment is definitely reconnecting with the founding mothers of the agency. I feel really honored to have their support as I take on this new role and I’m so grateful for all the hard work that they poured into this agency for our community.”

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