Community Spotlight: Sakhone Lasaphangthong
Photo of Sakhone by Carolyn Fong
We sat down with Sakhone Lasaphangthong, director of housing services at Family Bridges and an Oakland Chinatown Community Ambassador. We spoke to Sakhone about his new business as well as Family Bridges’ newly relaunched Chinatown Ambassador program, which launched the week of July 29th. If you supported our May fundraiser, you helped support this program!
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Cut Fruit: First of all — how are you? How are things going for you right now?
Sakhone: I’m doing well! I recently started my own power washing business, API Unity Community Services. Power washing is really needed in the Oakland Chinatown community right now. The city doesn’t clean the sidewalks of Oakland Chinatown, so it’s been a long time coming. People in Chinatown are so grateful after I power wash the sidewalks. Elderly folks will come up to me with prayer hands in gratitude after I clean the sidewalk.
I chose to name my business API Unity to express my desire to support others and the community. Even though API stands for Asian and Pacific Islander, it also stands for” All People Included” as well. Through my company, I want to create opportunities for the unhoused and formerly incarcerated.
Cut Fruit: Wow! Congrats on the new business. In addition to your power washing business, you’re also the director of housing services at Family Bridges AND a community ambassador. Can you tell me a little bit more about the work you do at Family Bridges?
Sakhone: In terms of the Ambassador Program, we sweep and clean the streets, do graffiti abatement, and help organize volunteers for community cleaning. We also engage in outreach to the unhoused in and around Chinatown to help them access services and resources.
Family Bridges runs a program called Oak Street Community Cabin. We help unhoused folks get off the street, obtain necessary documents, and connect them to MediCal and health care. In addition, we help them access social security benefits with the goal of getting them housed. Currently we are very successful — in June, we got 7 people housed.
We’re able to use the Ambassador Program to help unhoused people get jobs and also do job training. We’ve also hired formerly incarcerated folks as part of the Ambassador Program.
Cut Fruit: We love how the Ambassador Program and the Community Cabin go hand in hand. What would you say are the goals of the Ambassador Program?
Sakhone: The main goal is to restore hope in the community. Together, we can create our ideal community. A community that is clean and thrives through the prosperity of everyone — merchants, customers, residents, visitors, tourists — everyone. We want to beautify and uplift Chinatown for a safer, cleaner Oakland.
Cut Fruit: That sounds amazing! Can you delve into the specifics of what the Ambassadors do and don’t do?
Sakhone: It’s not a patrol based program. I don’t think it’s very useful to patrol in large groups and take up room on the sidewalk. I once even saw an elderly person have to step off of the curb and into the street to make room for a group that was walking by. It’s clear to me [from recent violent attacks] that walking around in groups is not a deterrent to crime.
My main job is to de-escalate and do harm reduction. None of us Ambassadors have formal training in de-escalation, but we know how enough through our past and lived experience. For active situations, we try to contain the situation, de-escalate, and engage in harm reduction until a professional (such as mental health services) arrives. Oftentimes this means providing food or water to the individuals involved, and just chatting with them to keep them calm.
We also clean and sweep the streets, report instances of dumping to the city, and do graffiti removal. This happens everyday from 6:30 a.m. through 9 a.m..
Cut Fruit: Has the program had to change at all with regards to the recent violence?
Sakhone: We’ve definitely had to adjust. It used to be more chill. I used to listen to music while doing the morning street sweeping and cleaning. Now we have to be more careful and attuned to the community and be more vigilant. I’ve had to sharpen my de-escalation skills as mentioned before.
Before the relaunch, our focus was mainly on cleaning and outreach to the unhoused community. Now the focus has shifted to harm reduction and de-escalation.
Ultimately, safety for self and others is our top priority.
Cut Fruit: Thank you for sharing with us and thank you for doing such important work. Do you have any advice to people outside of the Oakland Chinatown community on how they can help?
Sakhone: Yes! Volunteer! Please contact Family Bridges or APEN. The more folks we have, the more area we can cover. Right now, the program is still in pilot stages so we don’t have as much staff and we can’t cover as large of an area as we would like. (Cut Fruit would like to mention that you can also donate to the Ambassador Program directly as well!)
Secondly, folks should promote peace. If you have friends that make negative or racist comments, correct them! Don’t join in on that negativity. Correct them and educate them. Stop racism. Period.
More about the program
"Oakland's Chinatown welcomes community ambassadors to prevent violence." SF Chronicle. July 29, 2021.