April Joy Damian

April Joy

April Joy Damian is the founder of South of Market (SoMa) Scholars, a one-on-one mentorship program matching college students with low-income adolescents of color, the creator of Eat Your Heart Out: Addressing Heart Disease and Diabetes in the Filipino Community of San Francisco, and a 2008 Young People For Fellow at City College of San Francisco.


Location: San Francisco, CA, United States

    Issues Areas:
  • Health Equity
  • Racial Justice

Campus: City College of San Francisco - San Francisco, CA

Fellowship Class Year: 2008

    Fellow Groups:
  • Leadership Academy

Blueprint: Filipino Health Initiative

April Joy worked to increase the Filipino community of San Francisco's awareness regarding health concerns affecting them, and assist them in overcoming the mindset of poor health being inevitable in order to work towards healthier lifestyles.

Featured Fellow Spotlight

April Joy, what do you stand for?

I stand for various issues stemming from my personal experiences. As a woman of color I recognize how I come from various marginalized communities: women, Filipino, Spanish and Chinese. I’m Catholic, which can have its own negative stereotypes and stigmas. Neither of my parents attended college, so I come from an educationally disadvantaged background.

My background allows me to empathize with marginalized communities, so while I do not affiliate myself with the […] LGBTQ communities, I can still empathize with them because of my background.

Tell me about your Blueprint for Social Justice.

My Blueprint for Social Justice addresses diabetes and heart disease among the Filipino community of San Francisco. I recognize that it doesn’t seem the most conventional progressive issue, because public health — or even the field of medicine — seems to be at odds with the progressive movement at times. Those in the science world don’t always understand those in the progressive world, or they have their own stereotypes that keep the two fields from talking with each other.

That being said, in my Blueprint I emphasize how nutrition and exercise are both public health and progressive issues, because if people don’t feel good about their bodies or good about their health, it impedes them from realizing their full potential. So I recognized how health disparities such as heart disease and diabetes affect my communities — Filipino, low-income, immigrant communities. How their health and wellbeing affects how they view themselves and therefore the kind of lifestyle they are able to carry out.

At the same time, in medicine there are these shortcomings, which is why I’m very excited to be part of the progressive movement, [which] science has overlooked. They focus only on the physical aspect of the patient’s health.

In my Blueprint I combine my identity as a progressive social activist with my interest in medicine by saying, “Look, this isn’t just a person with diabetes — the health issues they face are changed by their access to healthcare, their access to higher education, or their economic barriers. Their food selection is impacted by how much money or [resources] they have access to.” In San Francisco, some neighborhoods have more liquor stores than grocery stores, so how does that come into play in terms of what kind of foods are eaten at the table? So in my Blueprint, I put public health with progressive twists.

What actions are you taking in your Blueprint?

I’m starting my Blueprint this summer, in August. We’re doing a pilot program […] starting with a group of twelve Filipinos who are working with faith-based organizations in San Francisco, since faith is a large factor in the Filipino community. We’re doing nutrition and cooking demos and combining that with group exercise activities.

My participants [live] in an environment not necessarily conducive to outdoor exercise. I know some people have the privilege to live near parks, or they can feel perfectly safe walking around their neighborhood. In contrast, the people who live in the inner city in San Francisco don’t necessarily have access to parks and safe neighborhoods — besides that, some people don’t like exercising by themselves and Filipino culture [is more] family and community oriented, so we’re having group exercise activities which will be youth-led and we have the older generation leading the cooking demonstrations.

I know I’m not going to go in there and say, “You have to change your diet because it’s bad for you.” [I need to] work with them so it’s more of a horizontal relationship. Youth, who tend to be more physically active, are able to lead these group exercises while collaborating with older generations, particularly women who enjoy cooking — not to put gender roles on it, but that’s how it works in Filipino culture, women really run the show.

So we have both the diet and the exercise, but we’re leaving it open to see what other ideas are out there. I know I’m just one voice and I have one set of experiences, one set of ideas, but this is something that should be owned by the community. I can initiate it, but I understand I’m not the only person who has an opinion and I should be still open to and humbled by those in the community.

What have been your biggest struggles as a progressive leader?

Given my complex identity, I can’t see the world in black or white, because my identity is not black and white. It’s hard to project that concept to others who are only able to see the world one way. Not necessarily to speak in a condescending voice like I know everything, but let them know that there are other opinions out there.

Another concern I have as a progressive is being able to integrate my interest in medicine and public health with my social activism. A lot of my time is spent in the medical sector, where we don’t really discuss progressive issues. Science — biology, chemistry, physics are already complex in themselves, and sometimes [scientists] don’t have time, or say they don’t have time, or think social justice issues just aren’t a priority. So for me, I have to move beyond that field and realize I have allies beyond that field who are addressing the issues of the same communities. [It’s important] for me to not just [work in] one sector or another, but to serve as a bridge.

What have been some of your biggest successes as a progressive leader?

One thing I pride myself in is getting people involved in the movement and taking ownership of it. When I was an undergrad at Berkeley, I began a mentorship program called SoMa scholars — South of Market scholars. South of Market is a district in San Francisco, predominantly a low-income immigrant community, mostly financially and educationally disadvantaged backgrounds. When I started the mentorship program, it wasn’t about me having a great idea and saying I want to change the community I came from. It was getting other college students who shared my background of being the first in their family to go to college — getting them excited about reaching out to those who are still left behind and have potential to go either way in their life: to either be someone and go to college, or fall through the cracks and be another statistic. So being able to rouse up that college enthusiasm and that passion that’s based in personal experiences.

At the same time, it wasn’t just about working with college students, it was about working with communities — getting families involved, getting teachers involved, getting religious leaders involved, and getting others excited about taking ownership of the program. So it wasn’t just about college students coming down from the ivory tower and saying, “We can help you.” It was saying, “We have some ideas, and you have some ideas, so let’s try to work together.”

So knowing I was a part of that and knowing I didn’t have to take credit for it, even if a lot of credit was attributed to me, and knowing that it was sustainable — even when I’m no longer there, people in my community and my alma mater will keep it going. I think that was an eye-opener to me, to see that if something is important and a community is willing to take ownership of it, they don’t need to count on one person.

What’s an approach or strategy you’ve found didn’t work so well?

With my background I have gained access to different circles. By different circles, I mean that I’ve met with people in Washington — the big boys, so to speak — and being a woman of color and being young, there are all these stereotypes that are already in their minds before I speak. So for me to be tough and be confident in my own skin and prove myself — that’s one role. But sometimes I have to take off that role and put on the role of being one with those around me, not having to prove myself but being humbled and understanding that I’m just one voice.

Sometimes I forget that what works in a corporate atmosphere shouldn’t be the same approach I take when I’m working with community leaders, when I’m working with young people, when I’m working with seniors — especially in the Filipino community, where we talk about respecting our elders. I know that that’s not necessarily a value that’s practiced widely in the U.S. In Filipino culture we talk about respecting our elders, learning from their wisdom and understanding they have experiences we can learn from — that said, if I take the same approach that I take when I’m entering a [Washington] meeting, it’ll come off like I think I’m better than them. So I need to understand what roles and what attitudes are appropriate in a given situation.

What inspired you to apply for the YP4 fellowship?

I recognized that my role as a progressive leader is not something that I do for four years in college and then I leave. It’s not something I’m fired up about because everyone in my community or college is fired up to be progressive or addressing social justice issues. Especially at Berkeley… or just the Bay Area, it’s generally a very socially conscious environment. But what got me excited in YP4 is its mission of lifelong leadership in the progressive movement, that it’s not just about four years in college, it’s not just about while we’re still young and have this excitement. It’s about multigenerational coalitions and alliances and looking long-term about how we can continue to work in this movement. Yes, we might have gotten excited about it when we were in college, or in an experience prior to college… but even in our 40s, 50s and 60s, we can still continue our work in this field. I think that with YP4, yeah, it’s “Young People For,” but when you look at the larger umbrella, I see there are older people of past generations who continue to believe in young people, who continue to contribute to the progressive movement.

I knew that YP4 would recognize my ongoing role as a progressive leader even after college, even after I’m [no longer] a quote-unquote “young person,” and [YP4 would] expose me to a network of support, because it can get lonely to be a leader in the progressive movement. But I know I can continue to be strengthened by other leaders of the movement who share my difficulties and challenges, and we can also breathe and laugh and motive each other.

What has stood out to you about the program so far?

Some progressive organizations put an emphasis on young people at the expense of old, or [act like] older people are the enemy… they have a more negative approach to older generations. What’s stood out to me about YP4 is how much respect there is for past generations. Yes, the focus is on young people, but it’s also saying, “Hey, let’s work with the older generations.”

It’s not just in terms of practicality — in terms of financing our ideas, because face it, college students are pretty broke and we need the older generations to support our ideas financially — but YP4 has stood out in acknowledging that we can build mentoring relationships with the older generation and it supports that rather than create an “us-versus-them” dynamic. That fire that young people have is one [shared] by the older generations of past movements.

How would you like to see the progressive movement change for the future?

My background is in ethnic studies, [where] you look at race, class and gender […] from a multi-identity approach. So I think a weakness of the progressive movement is the tendency to say this is a minority issue, this is a people of color issue, this is an LGBTQ issue, and this is a working class issue. I think an important thing is to build coalitions across these issues and show that it’s not just a […] brown issue; it’s a human rights issue.

I think in my own community, we get so caught up in our own issues we fail to see we share that marginalized identity with someone else. So a person of color might be so caught up in minority issues that they fail to see they share marginalized identity with someone from the LGBTQ community. So I’d like to see people in the movement being able to move from our own comfort zones and our own identities and reach out and say “You’re facing this issue because you’re an ethnic minority, and I’m facing this issue because I’m from a working class background, can’t we work together? Can’t you support what I do, and I can support what you do. Hopefully people will see and treat us as human beings, together.” I think that’s what the progressive movement is all about, restoring the humanity, restoring the dignity that’s been taken away from people.

What’s next for you?

I’m currently in the process of applying to medical school for an MD/MPH degree, which means going to med school but combining it with a degree in public health.

Long-term, I want to work with low-income communities of color and address their healthcare needs. But I understand that I’m not going to limit myself to the public health sector, but continue my work in the progressive movement and continue working with progressive leaders such as those at YP4, seeing what opportunities there are to bridge the gap between progressive social activists and medicine/public health and see if I can rouse up more people in the sciences to work on social justice issues. Because health disparities are a social justice issue, access to health care is a social justice issue, and both sides care about that.

I want to get progressive leaders more cognizant of people in the sciences, because there are scientist stereotypes — all we do is study, we’re socially awkward, you don’t see us at parties, the first time you see us is at graduation and it’s just school, school and school.

(cough) Dorks. (cough)

Exactly! But me coming from an ethnic studies background, not from the sciences, has been a blessing, because I’ve been able to expose myself to both worlds. If both worlds could see that they both share that passion for people, and if I could serve as a bridge… serve as a facilitator to get the two worlds to talk to each other.

Plus, you know how to party.

(laughs) You need to know how to relate to people to be in the progressive movement, because the movement is all about people.