Community members join story circles to address anti-Asian racism during COVID-19

April 26, 2021

Following a rise in xenophobia directed toward Asian Americans at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the past few months have seen a string of high-profile attacks that increased awareness of violence against members of the Asian American community.

Since the shutdown began over a year ago, nearly 3,800 Asian Americans have reported being victims of racist physical or verbal attacks, according to Stop AAPI Hate, a group formed last year to draw awareness to this issue. Hands hold up a cardboard sign that says Stop Asian Hate Photo by Wachiwit/iStock Download Full Image

To provide an opportunity for the community to come together and address the rise of anti-Asian hate crimes through conversation, the Hugh Downs School of Human Communication at Arizona State University held a Storyscope Project event, “Surviving Anti-Asian Racism During COVID-19.” The event was held via Zoom on April 17.

The event was organized and hosted by Lauren Mark, an instructor and doctoral candidate at the Hugh Downs School. It allowed attendees to share their stories in small groups called story circles.

“I congratulate Lauren for hosting and organizing this successful Storyscope event,” said Jennifer Linde, a principal lecturer who co-founded the Storyscope Project with John Genette in 2017.  “Lauren invited attendees to share stories to process the fear, anger, disgust and grief connected to recent anti-Asian rhetoric and violence. As an attendee, I was moved by the stories that were shared and left the event with a sense of community, support and connection.”

Linde explains that the Storyscope Project uses story circles to build a sense of community by fostering inclusiveness. 

“Its mission is to make people feel included, to make people feel like their voices are being heard, and allow them to tell their authentic stories without judgment,” she said.

Mark explains that story circles at this event were made up of both Asian Americans and allies.

Lauren Mark

“Those of us who are Asian Americans were able to voice experiences that we don't normally get the chance to share, and to be upfront about what being Asian American meant to us before this pandemic, and how COVID-19 has reshaped our sense of this,” Mark said.

“You wouldn't think that this was possible had you not experienced it, but after a very short period of time in this circle, you feel incredibly close with the other four or five members of your story circle.”

A student in Mark’s class, Michael Tai, sent her an email to thank her for holding the event. 

“I feel an even stronger connection to my identity and community, I feel like I learned so much, and I feel so centered right now. It has been a while since I shared my feelings so openly and freely without any hesitation,” he wrote.

Mark relays that some of the stories shared on the Zoom event were about connections.

“There was one woman who attended virtually from Oakland, who is part of a volunteer coalition that escorts elderly Asians when they need to run errands or get medical checkups. They accompany them to keep them safe from being attacked,” she said.

“The woman told us that she recently went with an older woman to the market to pick out some fish. And that act of normalcy and connection reminded her of what had been missing from her life for such a long time. The overwhelming thread that emerged among storytellers was how Asian Americans and Asians in America have become so socially isolated during COVID because we are often afraid to go out. One of the most recent surveys shows that a third of Asian Americans reported being afraid that someone will attack or threaten them. That’s an insanely high number. My relatives who live in New York City are afraid to ride the subway.”

Mark says the group also talked about focusing on things they could control, such as noting moments of gratitude and meaning, proactively extending one’s sense of family to include wider networks, and building coalitions across cultures.

In the end, Mark encourages everybody to take the time to really listen to other people's stories.

“If you feel like that opportunity is being presented to you to ask people about their stories, then do so," she said. And not just to inform yourself, because that's just asking other people to expend yet more energy and more labor to do your work for you. Only ask if you are willing and able to offer something in solidarity, whether that's going to be emotional support, to walk with someone in the park, to the grocery store if they feel unsafe, or to check in with them.”

Manager, Marketing and Communication, Hugh Downs School of Human Communication


Greater than the sum of its parts

ASU engineers develop new ways to 'program' self-organizing systems

April 26, 2021

Some things seem to happen without direction. Fish form schools to deter predators and ants form rafts to survive floods. These emergent group behaviors have long been the focus of research in biological science, but they are inspiring new work in computing and robotics.

Andréa Richa, a professor of computer science in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering at Arizona State University, and Joshua Daymude, a postdoctoral researcher with ASU’s Biodesign Center for Biocomputing, Security and Society, are exploring ways that algorithms can help explain how local interactions induce large-scale phenomena without top-down direction. Professor Andréa Richa and her lab group students gathered around a table Professor Andréa Richa (right) and postdoctoral researcher Joshua Daymude (left in green) have published new research in the journal Science Advances. The results may help enable manipulation of very local interactions to achieve desired larger-scale outcomes without centralized direction. This archival image of Professor Richa and her lab group was taken before current pandemic social distancing and face covering requirements went into effect. Photo by Jessica Hochreiter/ASU Download Full Image

“There is plenty of great robotics work in progress related to self-organizing groups. Think of swarms of drones or autonomous vehicles,” Daymude said. “But what happens when you go down to the micro- or nanoscale and take away the processing capability that comes from microprocessors and sensors? Can we approximate the activity of groups of devices that have no coordinating intelligence?”

The answer appears to be yes. Together with professors of computer science Dana Randall at Georgia Tech and Sarah Cannon at Claremont McKenna College, Richa and Daymude devised an algorithm that controls how collections of abstract particles move on a lattice. This computational model accurately predicted the behavior of 30 “dumb” robots in a physical experiment. The successful result opens opportunities for innovation in fields ranging from manufacturing to medicine.

“Imagine someone suffering from internal bleeding, and surgery is not a timely option,” Richa said. “This line of work could lead to the development of tiny particles known as colloidal state machines that the patient can swallow, and they’ll swarm through the person’s system to rapidly fix the problem.”

The exciting new findings have just been published in the journal Science Advances.

Daniel Goldman, a professor of physics at Georgia Tech, and first co-author students Shengkai Li and Bahnisikha Dutta created the group of basic robots to serve as the physical proof for the computational model that Richa and Daymude developed at ASU. Each one was a 4-centimeter (or 1.5-inch) plastic puck embedded with loose magnetic beads and mounted on tiny bristle brush feet. Vibration from a small electric motor enabled noisy, circular motion across a 1.2-meter by 0.75-meter (or 4-foot by 2.5-foot) test platform.

Across multiple experiments, the strength of the embedded magnets was gradually increased to transition the particles (in the simulation) and the robots (in the physical proof) from a scattered state to a congregated one. That magnetism was the sole input or “bias parameter.”

“It mimics how intently theoretical particles, or physical robots, seek to be near others. And you might expect there would have been a steady increase in aggregate grouping as we increased that magnetism,” Daymude said. “But that isn’t what we saw in our computational model nor in the experimental robot platform.”

Instead, nothing changed as the bias increased. The particles and the robots stayed largely spread out in their movement — until a particular threshold was achieved, and then aggregates formed rapidly. Collective behavior emerged like fish forming a school.

“We saw a sharp phase change from dispersion to aggregation, just as our theory predicted,” Richa said. “We usually think about phase changes in physics, but they’re in fact more universal. Our inspiration comes from biological and physical systems, like groups of animals acting in unison. What they do collectively is much more powerful than what any of them could do alone. So, we are seeking a better algorithmic understanding of collective behavior since it represents the potential to manipulate local actions and achieve desired outcomes without centralized direction.”

The paper represents pioneering ground for computer science, physics and robotics. It is a very early effort in the translation of computational abstractions as a mechanism for programming through physics or embedded physical characteristics rather than through digital code.

It also is part of a larger emergent computation research project that began in 2019 with ASU, Georgia Tech, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Northwestern University through funding from a U.S. Department of Defense program called the Multidisciplinary University Research Initiative.

“And while this particular result was directed toward a behavior we wanted to achieve, you could flip the orientation,” Daymude said. “This framework can generate local rules that act as scientific tools to analyze the behavior of complex systems that we don’t really understand right now. So, these techniques can support a broad range of technical solutions, but they can also advance what we know about social and biological systems.”

Gary Werner

Science writer, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering