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Transformative Solidarity: Bridging Communities Through Vigilant Love

A Vigilant Love rally gathers in the shape of a peace sign in Little Tokyo, Los Angeles.
A Vigilant Love rally gathers in Little Tokyo to form a peace sign in front of the Japanese American National Museum. | Daren Mooko
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On April 29, 2021, over 200 people from not just the greater Los Angeles area, but all over the country, joined a different kind of Zoom event. "Especially during the pandemic, the Iftar kind of creates a space that's unlike any other where we actually feel an intimacy with each other online, and have that experience with so many people… So many people show up to the Iftar, but I feel close to everybody that shows up," said Vigilant Love co-director Sahar Pirzada. A Pakistani-American Muslim woman, Pirzada was referring to the organization's annual "Bridging Communities Iftar" event.

Held in the midst of the holy month of Ramadan, the name of the event "Iftar" refers to the meal eaten by Muslims after sunset during Ramadan. Despite not being physically together as the pandemic continued devastating communities, committed participants nevertheless showed up for one another, celebrating the work they have been doing over the last year in healing trauma and building solidarity across cultures.

Vigilant Love is an inter-spiritual and multi-generational advocacy group of artists, activists, healers, and writers who come together to dismantle systemic Islamophobia, work towards new futures of shared health and safety and build long-term relationships amongst Muslim and Japanese American youth. Rooted in deep cross-cultural friendships, the Vigilant Love team perennially presents an incredible model for reciprocal solidarity between the groups through the arts. The name "vigilant love" connects to the idea that solidarity is an act of shared love.

Vigilant Love community members Kathy Masaoka, traci kato-kiriyama, traci ishigo, Sahar Pirzada pose together for a photo at a solidarity rally.
Vigilant Love community members Kathy Masaoka, traci kato-kiriyama, traci ishigo, Sahar Pirzada stand together at Manzanar Cemetery to inspire solidarity and fight for social justice. | Daren Mooko

As Iftar went on songs, poems and prayers continued to be shared throughout the night. "Even on Zoom, there is a sense of collective reverence, respect and awe for the sacredness of the occasion that is bringing us all together," said Sarah Jacobus, of the experience. The annual Iftar is just one of Vigilant Love's many artistic-activist interventions that aim to create pathways to liberation and healing alongside multiple communities. Their programs include the Solidarity Arts Fellowship, an arts-and-healing based creative organizing program for Japanese and Muslim American college-aged youth; an artist's collective focused on resisting Islamophobia; as well as workshops on building solidarity, direct action and healing justice training. It was Vigilant Love who organized a nonviolent sit-in and rally at LAX, when Trump's now-infamous "Muslim Ban" first went into effect.

Incredibly, Vigilant Love, this multiracial and multi-generational organization is held together though the friendship and leadership of four women and a constellation of collaborators, whose diverse backgrounds but common interests nevertheless led to unexpected alliances.

The Relationship Started After 9/11

"Vigilant Love" comes out of a history of the Japanese American and Muslim communities building a relationship beginning after 9/11," said Kathy Masaoka, one of the co-founding members of Vigilant Love and one of their advisors. "We learned about each other through Iftars and going to Manzanar. We stood together against scapegoating and police surveillance and we supported each other at vigils and protests. Vigilant Love became the way to commit ourselves to continue and grow that solidarity with other communities as one organization."

Masaoka is an activist that has been building solidarity across communities for over 50 years. Born and raised in Boyle Heights, she came of age during the Vietnam War and Asian American Studies movement. She's been an activist in the Little Tokyo community since 1971 advocating for youth, workers rights, low-income housing and redress issues. Besides Vigilant Love, Masaoka is currently co-chair of the Nikkei for Civil Rights & Redress (NCRR), and she works with the Nikkei Progressives Reparation Committee.

We are explicit and unapologetic about our values and those values are what bring the people of Vigilant Love together.
traci ishigo, co-director of Vigilant Love

When Vigilant Love became an official organization six years ago, it was the product of many years of kindred work by Masaoka and like-minded organizations like the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), and the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL). Vigilant Love's co-director Pirzada originally worked with CAIR; while Vigilant Love's other co-director traci ishigo, a Nikkei, Buddhist, queer nonbinary community organizer was with the JACL. It was through these organizations that Pirzada and ishigo met, becoming fast friends and close colleagues in solidarity work around 2015-2016.

Protestors rally against Islamophobia after the events of 9/11.
The rally against Islamophobia in 2002 became the early seeds for Vigilant Love. | Daren Mooko

Shortly after 9/11, the organization Masaoka co-chairs, the NCRR, held a vigil protesting Islamophobia and this led to the NCRR gradually meeting representatives from CAIR. As the organizations continued to be around each other's orbit, the seeds of Vigilant Love began to grow.

In 2002, the NCRR held a Day of Remembrance program that addressed the connection between the Islamophobia after 9/11 and the similar paranoia that emerged in World War II after Pearl Harbor, which led to the Japanese internment camps. On that day, traci kato kiriyama, a queer third-generation Nikkei poet, performer, activist and organizer, performed a poem that spoke of her family's experiences in the World War II American concentration camps and how it linked to the immediate increase in reactions of hatred, fear and Islamophobia that followed 9/11 towards Muslim, Sikh, Middle Eastern and South Asian communities. She soon became the fourth co-director for Vigilant Love.

kato-kiriyama has spent the last two plus decades building community in Little Tokyo through her Tuesday Night Project, an open mic and performance space that she started in Little Tokyo in 1998. Alongside her partners at the PULLproject Ensemble, kato-kiriyama created the acclaimed play, "Tales of Clamor,"in 2019 about her family's incarceration camp experience and she also worked at the Japanese American National Museum. Masaoka has been one of kato-kiriyama's closest collaborators and they both have family members who were held in the concentration camps during World War II.

Though they are a generation apart, Masaoka and kato-kiriyama are close collaborators and share the experience of having family members who were held in the concentration camps during World War II.

Co-directors of Vigilant Love, Sahar Pirzada and traci ishigo are equally close. As four of the founding members of Vigilant Love, they are also grounded in service of each other's healing.

Members of Vigilant Love gather in front of a World War II monument for Manzanar Cemetery.
Members of Vigilant Love gather in front of a World War II monument for Manzanar Cemetery. | Daren Mooko

Abolition, Healing Justice & Community

"I want to see abolition, healing justice, and a community," ishigo shares, "that cares for each other deeply in the face of systemic, cyclical violence. We need each other to achieve all three aspects of this vision, and I'm always learning how our relationships are the lessons and glue to keep us going."

"When I think about the work of Vigilant Love," Pirzada says, "there is truly no other organization addressing Islamophobia in the way that we do. We are explicit and unapologetic about our values and those values are what bring the people of Vigilant Love together. The solidarity and community built in this organization are rooted in some radical shared values of abolition, healing justice, liberation theology, art activism and so much more. It makes sense that we continue to grow and our work continues to resonate with people. Because we are ultimately feeling a void for a space that has needed to exist for a long time in the field of anti-Islamophobia organizing and I'm so grateful to be a part of it."

kato-kiriyama explains more: "As an Agnostic student of Buddhism and an artist/organizer grounded by intergenerational solidarity work, I personally find the annual Vigilant Love Bridging Communities to be enlightening, spiritually-inclusive, and JOYFUL! It's a beautiful gathering that allows community members a chance to celebrate and experience a bit of the important ritual of breaking fast during Ramadan, as well as the multi-layered solidarity work of the organization."

At this year's Iftar, Fatimah Asghar offered the opening Dua. A Dua is an opening prayer of invocation and supplication that is considered a sacred act of worship asking God for help. Asghar is an award-winning poet, an Emmy-nominated screenwriter and co-editor of "Halal if You Hear Me," an anthology of writings by Muslims who are women, queer, genderqueer, nonbinary or trans.

Fatimah Asghar poses around colorful scenery.
Award winning poet Fatimah Asghar collaborated with Vigilant Love by performing a prayer during one of the group's events. | Cassidy Kristiansen

Asghar's powerful prayer-poem set the tone for an incredible evening. Advocating "deep listening to each other" and "how interconnected our struggles are," she celebrated struggles for liberation and how opening wounds can lead to collective healing. She left no stone unturned and helped the event begin in an inspiring spirit.

There was an incredible mix of poetry, music and very specific analysis of policies and issues that Vigilant Love are grappling with like the Mosque to Prison Pipeline, gendered Islamophobia, anti-Blackness and Services Not Surveillance, the campaign to abolish national security from interfering with mental health facilities.

More poetry was shared by Vigilant Love's Solidarity Arts Fellows, whose prowess in prose were trained by kato-kiriyama over Zoom in the last year. It is a role kato-kiriyama has taken on for an additional two years before this. The Solidarity Arts Fellowship has been a long-running program of Vigilant Love, which trains college-age Muslim American and Japanese American youth in creative organization and radical relationship building. In pre-pandemic years, fellows experienced transformative trips to Manzanar Historic Incarceration Site, a Southern California masjid/mosque, the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center's Aratani Theatre.

Members of Vigilant Love hold out posters in honor of the Manzanar Cemetery.
Kathy Masaoka, traci kato-kiriyama, traci ishigo and Sahar Pirzada connected closer together after some vigils and a trip to Manzanar. | Daren Mooko

"When I look back on all the retreats over the past three years with the Solidarity Arts Fellows," kato-kiriyama shares, "I feel overwhelmed by the pictures that appear in my mind — college youth to 80-something camp survivors to all of us in between, in the same room, through such different walks of life. We break bread and excavate memory. We move with differences and connections in myriad spiritual paths. We toil with the deserts of past education on our peoples and self-determine our future narratives. And we get to stand with the brilliant young folks, on the shoulders of two communities who've been building relationships over the past 20 years."

Using Imagination to Align the Heart & Mind

Following a series of poems from the Solidarity Arts Fellows, the debut of the "Khayal-Kokoro Award" occurred with awards going to Nobuko Miyamoto and Assia Boundaoui. The Vigilant Love Instagram page explains the award's name. "Khayal in Arabic means imagination and in Urdu means idea. Kokoro in Japanese is the notion that one's heart, mind and spirit are aligned. The artists honored with this award capture our hearts, minds and spirits with their imaginative art and thoughts."

Kathy Masaoka introduced Nobuko Miyamoto as her "role model and friend." Miyamoto was born in Los Angeles in 1939 and has had a long storied career as a singer, dancer and activist. She acted in the 1961 film "West Side Story," but really found her calling as a singer and activist in the Asian American movement. Miyamoto, Chris Iijima and Charlie Chin started a group called "Yellow Pearl" and they created what's considered the first Asian American folk album in 1973 with their record, "A Grain of Sand: Music for the Struggle by Asians in America." Smithsonian Folkways did a reissue of the record and released a new album of Miyamoto's, "120,000 Stories." Miyamoto's memoir "Not Yo' Butterfly" is being published by the University of California Press in June.

Singer, dancer and activist Nobuko Miyamoto holds her hands out.
Singer, dancer and activist Nobuko Miyamoto remains an influence on Vigilant Love member Kathy Masaoka for her work with poetry and social movements. | Michael Becker

Beginning in 2012, Miyamoto and the Grammy-Award winning band Quetzal have done a collaborative series of cross-cultural performances at the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center called FandangObon celebrating Mexican son jarocho (music with African roots), African music and dance, and also observing Obon, the Japanese day of honoring ancestors. The musician, author and fellow Angeleno native Rubén Guevara was asked by Miyamoto to write a poem for FandangObon. His cycle of haiku authored for the occasion capture the zeitgeist of both FandangObon and the trajectory of Nobuko's lifetime of work. Here are the last two stanzas:

Fandango Obon
Poly-cultural remix
Jammin' a prayer

Angelino souls
Transforming ethnic worlds
Birthing a new world

Birthing a new world is what Nobuko Miyamoto has spent a lifetime doing. Guevara himself has an equally prolific track record. Though they are a few years apart, they grew up in the same neighborhood both attending Berendo Middle School around Olympic and Normandie, in a section of Koreatown that was once called "Uptown." "Nobuko is a national cultural treasure," Guevara says, "a warrior for cross cultural unity through the arts." In the process of accepting the award, Miyamoto mentioned her son Kamau who is Muslim and she lauded the Vigilant Love team for their important work of "bringing people together from different cultures."

I was learning about critical race theory and counternarratives and I saw poetry for and by AAPIs as a form of telling counternarratives.
Taz Ahmed, poet

The second Khayal-Kokoro award was given to filmmaker Assia Boundaoui for her investigative documentary film, "The Feeling of Being Watched." Boundaoui was introduced by Shakeel Syed, one of the planning committee members and an important contributor to the Vigilant Love team. A winner of multiple film festival awards, Boundaoui's film examines rumors of surveillance in her Chicago neighborhood, uncovering one of the largest FBI Terrorism probes conducted before 9/11 and shows its lasting effect on her community.

Filmmaker Assia Boundaoui stands in front of a yellow backdrop.
Filmmaker Assia Boundaoui was recognized for their documentary that explored the mental health impacts of state violence and surveillance. | Courtesy of Assia Boundaoui

The film unveils the trauma and mental health impacts on communities experiencing state violence and surveillance. The links made in the film were perfectly aligned with the Vigilant Love Services Not Surveillance campaign. It is rare that Muslim American filmmakers are given space and praise for their powerful art — and even rarer when they focus on the harms of state violence.

Counternarratives & Close Friendships

The Vigilant Love team sees the arts as an integral component of their activism. Their use of the arts is also combined with their deep friendship with one another. Take for example, the friendship of the poet, storyteller, podcaster and political strategist Taz Ahmed and kato-kiriyama. Known especially for her popular podcast, "Good Muslim, Bad Muslim" is another core artist within the Vigilant Love's galaxy. Ahmed and kato-kiriyama have been writing poems together and to each other for several years. They have an ongoing series of seven poems back and forth together and one day plan to publish a collection of their collaborative work.

"I credit traci and Tuesday Night Project for my poetry writing," Ahmed says. "The summer between grad school when I was in 26, I think, I started attending the Tuesday Night Cafe series — that's where I first met traci. I had been writing poems on my own for myself but didn't realize there was a space to perform poetry out loud to an Asian audience."

"I was learning about critical race theory and counternarratives and I saw poetry for and by AAPIs as a form of telling counternarratives." Ahmed started performing that summer and hasn't stopped since. "I always give a shout out to TNP and traci," she declares, "for giving me the space to find my poetry and performance voice. I'm so grateful to her for making these spaces for community building."

Vigilant Love community members Brother Shakeel Syed, Kathy Masaoka, traci kato-kiriyama, traci ishigo and Sahar Pirzada prepare for a Bridging Communities Iftar at Higashi Buddhist Temple.
Vigilant Love community members Brother Shakeel Syed, Kathy Masaoka, traci kato-kiriyama, traci ishigo and Sahar Pirzada prepare for a Bridging Communities Iftar at Higashi Buddhist Temple. | Sahar Pirzada

Their collaborations have led them to perform their poems together at Reed College in Portland, Oregon and the Smithsonian Asian American Literary Festival in Washington D.C. "One afternoon we were able to take a tour of the Smithsonian History Museum and look at all the [Japanese American] internment artifacts that they had in the museum," Ahmed says. They have a deep friendship rooted in shared experiences, their mutual commitment to justice and love of poetry.

Ahmed's poem, "If Our Grandparents Could Meet," epitomizes both their friendship and the reciprocal solidarity that Vigilant Love embodies. Here it is in its entirety:

If Our Grandparents Could Meet

By Taz Ahmed

Maybe our grandfathers could have shared notes
about the type of barbed wires that spiraled around
and kept them caged in like animals.
Was it jagged aluminum or razor-ed steel or broken glass?
Maybe they'd talk about how the moon light through the barred windows
shined stripes on dirt floors
about the blandness of the food they were fed
devoid of the flavors of home
about how they went quietly, without putting up a fight
how they were taken on a long ride across the desert
in the middle of the night.

Maybe my grandfather's camp outside of Lahore
had taken notes from the camps of Manzanar
on how to make enemies of innocent citizens.
Maybe war is tripped on a universal language
and stifling independence is shot with the same brand of bullets.

Maybe our grandmothers could have hugged
over longing and long lost loved ones
they could have traded notes
on how to raise children with stability
when the future is uncertain.
Maybe they could have traded motherland seeds
and tips on how to bring to life the tropics in desert sands
and recipes on rations
maybe curry.

Maybe they all could have whispered meditations, prayers and duas
that were said to keep them alive and safe
maybe they could have traded protection amulets and lucky charms
maybe they wondered why it wasn't enough
maybe they'd joke about the improbable places they found beauty
or maybe they'd block the memories
and ached muscles remembered what they tried to forget.

Maybe we are the same.
At least same-same
our legacy liberations
on parallel paths.
And what might happen now to me
is what happened before to you
is what happened before to me
and so on, and so on…
We walk in each other's shadows
and maybe together we can stop it
from happening anymore.

As Ahmed's poem so poignantly captures, the Vigilant Love team walks together in solidarity in the spirit of eradicating injustice and creating a new world. As the event came to a close, Mehak Anwar, another core team member came on-screen to speak. Anwar's family had come from Pakistan to the Seattle area in 1999 and she remembers being racially profiled after 9/11 and the spike in Islamophobic violence around their community through the early 2000s. When she was seven years old, one of her school counselors pulled her out of class to ask her if her mom knew where Osama Bin Laden was. These experiences led her to growing up with lots of questions.

For Anwar, who joined their team in May 2019, the liberation work that Vigilant Love engages in has been transformative. Vigilant Love is the vision she wants to see for the world. The theme of this year's Iftar was "A Journey Through the Night," and for Anwar, Vigilant Love has provided the light she has needed to see more clearly and find clarity. It is a community of aligned values she can believe in. And like Ahmed's poem suggests, when they walk in reciprocal solidarity with one another's shadows, they just might be able to create a new world.

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