Need a chaperone? Self-defense lessons? A San Gabriel group fighting anti-Asian hate wants to help

A man carrying a water bottle and three women walk along a neighborhood sidewalk alongside mature trees.
Kevin Holmes, left, Phoebe Gallo, and Brittney Au, of Compassion in SGV, chaperone Janet Setsuda on her morning walk in Pasadena on June 18, 2021.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

Good morning, and welcome to the Essential California newsletter. It’s Thursday, Oct. 20. I’m Anh Do, and I cover Asian American issues as we work to further diversify our Metro section.

Every week, I’m alerted to new situations where members of the communities I monitor have been attacked because of their race or ethnicity. On the streets, at schools, on the job, at church or while dining, they’re the subject of slurs. They’ve been robbed. Beaten. Threatened. They’ve been assaulted while roaming in their neighborhoods. They describe being mercilessly taunted — some of it captured by cameras.

The anti-Asian violence that existed long before the pandemic has intensified during this time, as evidenced by incidents in California. Groups have emerged in the state with the aim of protecting the elderly. The younger generation began offering an older generation protection as seniors carted home groceries or waited for a bus or walked to their destinations. The spa shootings in Atlanta in spring 2021 spurred the formation of Compassion in Oakland, then Compassion in SGV, a grass-roots spin-off I first shadowed last year, trailing the founder as she shared the urgency of having a team of chaperones on call for safety.

Graphic designer Brittney Au launched the group, and her artistic skills proved valuable in its marketing and promotion. She said she could picture her “grandmother’s face in the faces of those hurt.” She could not let go — and part of her efforts are for “my grandma’s memory” after she passed away at almost 100.


Au, 31, and close friend Phoebe Gallo delved into community organizing and trained with Be Boldly, public relations experts who helped them pro-bono. Jason Pu, then a San Gabriel city councilman, went with the group in 2021 to talk to merchants at popular Asian retail areas and tout Compassion’s services and to speak at an anti-hate rally. And he said something struck him at the time: “I looked around and saw what a multiethnic effort it was, and it was heartwarming. It’s allyship — Asians and non-Asians joining together.”

There they were — college students, some of their parents, 20- and 30-something professionals, portfolio managers and the like, often showing up to volunteer, motivated by Gallo and Au. At San Gabriel Square, Au and others in the group stopped at Kee Wah Bakery, Boba Ave, Vege Paradise and Yang’s Braised Chicken Rice. They weaved in between the workers picking up HungryPanda meals for delivery. They moved on to more popular Asian retail areas, passing out multilingual fliers, which translated their message to Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Vietnamese.

In the early months, some residents reacted with joy, thanking the volunteers for their foresight. Others responded with surprise. “Why would we need this?” they asked. “How do we know you’re honest and helpful?”

“Seniors don’t always want a stranger next to them. People had trust issues,” Au recalled. “They still do.”

Calls to the free service picked up by the end of last year, with the San Gabriel City Council lauding the group’s mission. Meanwhile, Stop AAPI Hate data showcased how much their work is needed, supporters said, citing the nearly 11,500 hate incidents reported to the nonprofit between March 19, 2020, and March 31, 2022.

This fall, outreach for service has slowed, and volunteers face a shortage of labor and burnout. To help compensate, the group switched gears, hosting a food drive with the Asian Youth Center as well as free self-defense classes in Rosemead, Rowland Heights and San Gabriel. They distributed safety kits, tucking in personal alarms, pepper spray and flashlights. The gatherings are led by a kung fu instructor, held outdoors at a park to reduce COVID risk. More will be scheduled, due to demand, as Au seeks beefed-up funding and manpower.

“It’s really hard to retain volunteers ever since the world opened up again,” she said. “A lot of people have returned to their new normal lives, believing there’s nothing to fear when it comes to illness or safety. But that’s not true.”


There are people “who think, ‘Look at where we live, everybody’s Asian. No one will harm us,’” Au said. But “when you look at the statistics, when you hear the tragic stories,” she added, “you know people who appear Asian are getting clobbered and shot,” at times blamed for causing the pandemic.

Janet Setsuda, 88, who still taps Compassion in SGV for services three times a week, said she discovered the group through her son, who got a tip from his hairstylist. He worried for his mother’s daily well-being and told her to “call now.”

The longtime SGV resident had walked three to five miles regularly — alone. She’s no longer on her own. She described the volunteers as “wonderful companions — they mirror the name of their group. They’re so compassionate.”

And now, here’s what’s happening across California:

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L.A.’s love of sprawl made it America’s most overcrowded place, and the poor have paid a price. My colleagues launched a must-read series with terrific photos, documenting a “calamitous pattern” — how people in severely overcrowded homes have experienced COVID-19 death rates that are at least twice as high as those with ample housing. More homes are overcrowded in Los Angeles than in any other large U.S. county, a Times analysis of census data found. It’s a situation that has endured for decades. A story in the series explores why it’s so tough to fix this crisis; another spotlights the desperation of a family of five to escape their 350-square-foot studio apartment; and yet another shares with readers how we reported this issue. Los Angeles Times

A communal method for controlling rent. Speaking of housing, this tale unites three people — Faith, daughter Noa and their housemate, Sally — who have formed a community bond at their Spanish-style abode, intent on attacking the skyrocketing cost of living. The trio became housemates to have more room and to cover monthly mortgage payments. In the process, they developed something they’d lacked — a “circle of women.” Los Angeles Times

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What San Francisco can learn in the aftermath of the L.A. City Hall meltdown. Among the reform-minded questions posed in this opinion piece: Can officials install a fully independent commission to oversee the redistricting process? Can the size of some city councils increase? Something must be done to allow voters to “make their own efforts to protect democracy,” says writer Justin Ray (whom you may remember as former host of this newsletter). San Francisco Chronicle


Protesters decry incident in which ex-Fresno principal allegedly struck student. The mother of a special-needs child whom Brian Vollhardt allegedly hit at Wolters Elementary says she wants to make sure he never works with youngsters again. “I don’t want this to happen to nobody else’s kids,” said Ann Frank of the June 7 incident, which was filmed. She appeared at a demonstration organized by a civil rights advocate and church leader. Fresno Bee

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Across our Golden State, the poison from the wildfires lingers. “Millions of people now live where smoke regularly makes breathing unhealthy,” according to a Stanford University team. “That includes 21 times more Californians than a decade ago, scattered among vulnerable communities from the Oregon border to the foothills of the Sierra Nevada and down through the Central Valley.” Researchers studied five of the largest fires in recorded history, all burning uncontrolled for weeks in 2020. They found that “once-rare smoke has become almost routine. A decade earlier, about 200,000 Californians a year lived in areas where they were exposed to extreme smoke days. By 2020, about 4.5 million did.” KQED

For future populations, restoring water where it dried up. “Rivers and streams throughout California are fought over with just as much passion and vehemence as the Kern River has seen from the 1880s to the present. But opposing parties on some of those rivers have found their way to compromise. The Putah Creek in Northern California is one such stream.” A river roundtable, hosted by Bring Back the Kern, will focus on how folks found “if not harmony, at least detente,” and if there are lessons for stakeholders battling over the fate of the Kern River. Bakersfield Californian

At Google, transformations continue. Construction crews began their multimonth task of demolishing buildings and clearing land for the first phase of the search-engine giant’s “game-changing” transit village in San Jose. Homes, offices, retail shops and stores will be included in the Downtown West neighborhood. Mercury News


The importance of remembering their toil. A “Los Braceros” exhibit seeks a permanent spot in Monterey County, in hopes of highlighting the plight of Mexican laborers who came to America as seasonal agricultural workers under the bracero program started in 1942. The U.S. was at war and, at the time, in urgent need of bolstering its labor force. Black-and-white images reveal the historic role of the farm workers on the Central Coast, where they worked alongside immigrants including those from Japan and the Philippines. The Salinas Californian

Tuna-cutting show? World-class sushi? I’ll be there. The O.C. Japan Fair, starting Thursday and continuing through the weekend, is expected to draw plenty of aficionados. Going to these festivals is one way I meet potential sources. Plus, roaming the fairgrounds in Costa Mesa, you can visit anime and cosplay booths; experience a pop-up version of the famous maid cafés of Akihabara; and watch kabuki-style music, taiko drummers and Bon Odori, originally a folk dance to welcome the spirits of the dead. The Rafu Shimpo

A-haunting we will go. Seventh-grader Elliott Arnold is turning his Woodlands Hills home into the creepiest of haunts for Halloween, and you can visit. It opens to the public Oct. 28 and features his younger sister Evelyn, who promises to be “a mummified killer,” chasing visitors around. The boy spent countless hours devising the theme and design of the project he calls “Deadly Attempt Haunted House,” plotting a spooky maze and playing with lighting and sound effects. “The rest was up to his imagination — and those of who dare to enter the garage, which now doubles as a three-room journey into the abyss of zombies, dead human creatures, sawed-off arms, spiders, human skulls and bloody knives.” Cool (and free). Los Angeles Daily News

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Los Angeles: 87, partly sunny and real warm. Anaheim: 88, partly sunny and very warm. Fresno: 90, partly sunny and super warm. Sacramento: 88, mostly sunny and quite warm. San Diego: 81, slightly sunny and not as warm. San Francisco: 70, a bit sunny and not so warm. San Jose: 84, partly sunny.


Today’s California memory is from Richard D. Chapek:

I grew up in the San Gabriel Valley of the 1960s. Most afternoons from May through October, the nearby majestic mountains would disappear from sight as a noxious bank of smog would roll in on the breezes from the west. Our out-of-state guests would oft-times have to be told there were actually mountains just a few miles away. Outdoor exercise was often prohibited on my grade school playground. When I visit that area today, I marvel at the improvement of the air quality and the beauty of those grand mountains.

If you have a memory or story about the Golden State, share it with us. (Please keep your story to 100 words.)

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