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NEWS | May 24, 2022

NSWCPD Celebrates AAPI Heritage Month with Behavioral Health Specialist Dr. Noel Ramirez

By Gary Ell

Naval Surface Warfare Center, Philadelphia Division virtually hosted its annual Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month Observance with keynote speaker Dr. Noel Ramirez on May 12, 2022.

Ramirez, who received his doctorate in Behavioral Health, is the founder/director for Mango Tree Counseling & Consulting, a group mental health practice prioritizing the mental wellness of the Asian American community in Pennsylvania.

Ramirez has spent the last 15 years developing healing-centered and community programming in the Philadelphia area. He has worked and coordinated health education programming for young people living with HIV and continued with youth development and HIV prevention programming for the LGBTQ community. During the last seven years, Ramirez has been focusing his professional efforts on combating the Opioid crisis, developing programs in federally qualified health centers, and teaching graduate social work practice at Columbia University.

Emceed by Derek Diep, chairperson of the NSWCPD Naval Asian Society Employee Resource Group (NASERG), the event featured Ramirez’s sobering presentation about cultivating healing spaces in collective trauma within Asian American communities.

“May is AAPI Heritage Month and it provides us with a great opportunity to reflect on the vast contributions and achievements of Asian American and Pacific Islanders, as well as Native Hawaiians, throughout the Navy, across the Nation, and around the world. It is also gives us an opportunity to reflect on the challenges still faced by AAPI communities, and recommit to making the American dream a reality for all,” Diep said.

NSWCPD Commanding Officer Capt. Dana Simon shared how much AAPI Heritage Month means to him, having immersed himself in the culture throughout his career, saying, “In the Navy, I’ve served for five years in Hawaii, two years in Guam, and was able to visit Japan and Malaysia. I’m a better person because of it.”

As some of the fastest-growing racial and ethnic groups in the Nation, AAPI communities represent a multitude of ethnicities, languages, and experiences “that enrich America and strengthen our Navy,” Simon said during his command welcome remarks.

Ramirez kicked off his presentation by describing his early life as a child of Filipino immigrants, serving as tour guide and translator to his parents.

He also detailed how he experienced collective trauma in his teenage years while trying to get his driver’s permit at his local New Jersey Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV), where the attendant demanded he turn over his passport to verify his identity. “They might be forged documents and you don’t look like you are from around here,” the attendant insinuated, according to Ramirez, who was an average American 16-year-old and didn’t have a passport since he had no plans to travel anywhere. He thought he was well-prepared for the visit to the DMV, having all the necessary forms and believing that a passport was not required.

“It was traumatic, I wanted to be like one of the kids from the television show, ‘Saved by the Bell’ and get my driver’s license and drive to the mall and hang out with my friends eating hamburgers,” Ramirez said. “My dreams of being one of those ‘Saved by the Bell’ kids was burned.”

His quiet and passive father who accompanied him to the DMV shouted out “Racist!” at the top of his lungs. It was the first time that he ever heard that word from his father.

“This idea of racism --that I didn’t belong here, that I wasn’t from around here - it was shocking, but not surprising, as I didn’t look like the person behind the DMV counter,” Ramirez said
“My father taught me a term that day – he became the tour guide. It was a world that he knew very well. For me, it was the very moment that I began this journey.”

Ramirez further defined “collective trauma” stating, “Collective trauma refers to the shared emotional and social impact of harm that is experienced by entire communities, such as natural disasters, terrorist attacks, racism, and occurrences like the COVID-19 pandemic. Examples include: Trail of Tears, the Holocaust, slavery, Japanese internment, mass shootings and more recently, the migrant detention centers at our borders.”

He continued, “Generational and intergenerational trauma are the unresolved hurts and pain of institutional and collective trauma that pass on from generation to generation.” Ramirez gave examples such as surviving European wars, slavery and racial violence in the American south. “When you work on your trauma, you choose not to pass it on to the next generation,” he said.

Ramirez also discussed cultivating healing for folks who have experienced collective trauma, posing a number of questions: “How do we focus on identity restoration? There is all this great pain in the Asian American experience. How do we move through and look at the spirit of resilience? What are the tools towards cultivating healing centered spaces?”

He then provided his own answers, offering: “By creating culture that turns towards and seeks to transform. Be entrepreneurs, be brave and be courageous. Ask what’s right with you. What are your dreams and hopes? Focus on love, encourage dreaming and imagination and wellness and integration.”

In addition, Ramirez shared his hopes for today: “We need to develop language on trauma, recovery, resilience, and healing; identify tools to support in developing healing centered spaces and places; open dialogue about healing and resilience.”

However, Ramirez also pointed out that during the last two years, anti-Asian hate crimes have skyrocketed while the overall rate has dropped.

“Police reports from 16 of America’s largest cities report that anti-Asian hate crimes have jumped up at 149 percent, while overall crime is down seven percent,” he said. “One in three health care center respondents have felt more discrimination since the Coronavirus pandemic began.”

Ramirez highlighted that when it comes to a sense of belonging, “it’s a precarious citizenship” stating, “Asian Americans are least likely among all racial groups to feel that we belong and are accepted in the U.S. Asian Americans born in the U.S. are less likely to feel they belong and are accepted than those born in a foreign country.”

“Most Americans cannot name a prominent Asian American when asked, and top names cited again and again are martial arts actors from decades ago,” he added.

In closing, Ramirez offered a homework assignment, asking attendees to explore: What is your true-North? What makes you you? What has not changed? What are your core values?