By Marielle Rodriguez, Social Media and Brand Design Coordinator, Triple-I
To celebrate Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month, we spoke with Joann Wang, Co-Founder and Director of Operations of East Side Stories (ESS), a NYC-based non-profit organization dedicated to sharing the AAPI experience through film, media, and education. ESS brings together local talent, AAPI creatives and filmmakers, AAPI-owned businesses, and other community organizations to create meaningful storytelling and conversations around the AAPI experience.
We spoke to Wang on what inspired her to found ESS, how her crew prepares for pandemic-related liabilities on a film set, and the dogged resilience and solidarity of AAPI small businesses and their supporting communities.
Let’s talk about your background. What inspired you to found East Side Stories (ESS)?
I’m Taiwanese-Mongolian, and I’m a full-time school counselor and a part-time vocational counselor. Shane, our freelance filmmaker, and I started ESS as a passion project. We started doing our “Stories From the Heart” series and interviewing more than 50 Asian Americans on love and what it means to them. We met tons of great people during that project which was back in February 2020. Shortly after, a lot of the hate crimes against Asian Americans really sparked. We saw so many people who were really upset wanting to do something about it. During that time, because of COVID, we had not done anything with ESS. It was still just a YouTube channel.
We had decided to make ESS into a nonprofit organization because we felt that it would be a great way for people to channel their energies and what they want to do to tell Asian American and Pacific Islander stories. You can’t always rally or protest, but you can channel your feelings into a creative project and create something more meaningful, and we figured a nonprofit would be the best way for people to do this.
What is the mission of East Side Stories? What do you hope to achieve and inspire in others through your organization’s work?
ESS’ mission is to serve our creatives and to serve our community through education and storytelling. We hope that ESS is not only going to be a platform where we can spread education and information about being Asian American and Pacific Islander, but that it could be a meeting point for creatives to learn and share information and resources, and to connect with the community. A lot of businesses we see are not able to market themselves, so that’s where ESS would love to step in — “Let’s help you create a fun video to market your business. Let’s tell your story because you’re someone that’s doing amazing work for the community.”
What are some liabilities to think about when working on a film set and working in media production? How do you prepare for these liabilities for your crew and your organization?
We must make sure that our crew members are safe especially because of COVID liabilities, health liabilities, and any type of commercial liabilities. ESS currently operates as a volunteer-based organization so we’re all very bare bones right now. We’ve been using a lot of liability waivers to cover for ESS, but we hope to have more substantial compliance documents in place in the future.
Our Health and Safety Compliance Officer, Tori Wong, is a nurse foremost, and she’s an actress who works in media a lot and is a COVID compliance officer for other big sets. We worked together and created the health and safety protocols, so we follow a lot of what is recommended for standard businesses. For every single shoot that we have, crew members must check in with somebody on set that does COVID compliance. We have COVID compliance officers that go through training. Everyone must wear masks and do temperature checks, and there are particular zones that both talent and crew must stay in.
I know nonprofit insurance and liability is big, but because our organization is so young, and this is all our first time making a nonprofit, it’s been a lot of reading and learning. Taking a stab at the insurance part hasn’t come up yet, but I know it’s coming. We’re still in the process of getting our foundation set up, and then slowly rolling all the compliance into place.
2020 has been a rough year for small business owners, especially those in the Asian American community. Through your encounters and conversations with small business owners and other non-profits, in what ways have AAPI small businesses and the AAPI community demonstrated resilience and solidarity during the pandemic?
We’ve already collaborated with so many organizations and met so many people, and they’re all doing amazing work and bringing together businesses, for example, Welcome to Chinatown, Soar Over Hate, and Asians Fighting Injustice.
AAPI businesses have a fight in them and a huge will to live. That is why we’ve survived for so long, and ESS just wants to capture that. If we don’t amplify what everyone has been doing, people aren’t going to be able to see all the amazing work being done. It will inspire even more organizations to pop up.
Also, no one is afraid to share resources. I can message one organization and say, “Hey, I am trying to connect with someone with an organization who can do XYZ” and they will automatically help me get in touch with them. No one is gatekeeping, and that’s beautiful. That’s what community is about.
Let’s talk about ESS’ upcoming short film “An Essential Delivery”. How does this film capture the challenges and resilience of those working in AAPI small businesses and the gig economy?
This story is about a young woman who lost her marketing job and has to pick up a job as a food delivery worker, and she hides it from her mom, which is not the typical “model minority” story. The film is about essential workers. Shane was the one who came up with the idea after seeing videos of food delivery workers and their hardships. We put together a crew, and for a lot of them it was their first time working on a short. I saw people coming together, and I was blown away by the patience they had and in teaching the newer work crew members. We did it on a very small budget because all the people donated their time. We had around five restaurants that donated their space for us to shoot “An Essential Delivery,” so that was amazing because they didn’t even ask anything back from us.
Let’s talk about your TogethernESS program and your AAPI Community digital series. These provide an opportunity to engage and collaborate with AAPI businesses, organizations, and figures to share their stories. Can you give us insight on the work you do for these?
The TogethernESS program is something that we’re doing for the community. Organizations reach out to us when they want to create something, like a video or graphics, or attain any type of creative service. We can provide them with our nonprofit rate, or we work on a sliding scale with them. We’re still trying to build in a model where we can perhaps provide pro bono. We also want to be able to pay our creatives for their hard work. The TogethernESS program also includes work that we do with Soar Over Hate for their Care Fair event and Asians Fighting Injustice and their rallies. It’s been great so far.
The AAPI Community digital series lives on our YouTube channel. That series is focused on profiles of community members and organizations. When someone on our team has a particular person that they want to do a profile on and it aligns with our mission, we go and cover their story.
What are your goals for ESS in 2021 and beyond? What projects do you have in the works and is there anything you’re particularly excited to share with your audiences?
This year, we’re doing a feature length film documentary on Ace Watanasuparp, the owner of Spot Dessert Bar. Typically, our schedule is three short films a year, and we’re also launching our mentorship program. These are things I’m really excited about for 2022. This year we’ve been shooting a lot of the feature length film, and it’s been really cool to see and connect with all these awesome people. Other than that, just watching the organization grow and seeing and meeting people has been nice and heartwarming.