Building Community | Vibrancy and visibility in Yellow Springs
- Published: October 20, 2023
This is the 11th in a series examining the meaning of community through the eyes of residents working to build and shape it in Yellow Springs.
When Angie Hsu moved to Yellow Springs in 2018, it was, in part, with community in mind. An artist with a focus on pottery, Hsu had been told by friends — who encouraged her and her partner, Matan Mazursky, to move to town — that the village maintained a vibrant and supportive community of artists.
Five years on, Hsu has herself become a vibrant part of that same community, shaping it from the inside out in a variety of venues. In speaking with the News recently, Hsu mused on a particular lens through which to view community-building.
“Community is about being seen,” she said.
Hsu, who is Taiwanese-American, said she grew up in Boulder, Colorado, in a community that was “mostly white, mostly homogenous.” That homogeneity, she said, affected how much of her own identity was visible as she moved within community spaces.
“I didn’t feel like [my cultural identity] was something that people were interested in — it was the opposite,” Hsu said. “I thought, ‘How do I make myself more like all of the other kids?’ My family culture was different, the language I spoke was different, the food I ate was different — and that part of my identity stayed at home.”
As she moved into her teenage years, however, Hsu said she came to understand that her whole self — and the selves of many others — deserved to be seen. That understanding inspired her to speak out in spaces where diversity and identity were part of community conversation. Doing so laid the groundwork for what would become more than a decade of social justice work, much of it centered on advocacy for immigrants and refugees.
Hsu herself spent seven years as an immigrant in Tel Aviv, Israel, with Mazursky, who is Israeli. Being new to a country and culture in which she was often “the other,” she said, was sometimes isolating.
“I’m a community-oriented person,” she said. “I was constantly fighting to figure out what it meant to contribute to the community in a society in which a lot of facets were saying, ‘We don’t want you here.’”
Hsu said her desire to connect with others led her to embark on several projects, including establishing and cooking for Taiwanese food pop-ups and working on a goat farm. She also began working with Kav LaOved, an organization centered on providing labor rights support, education and legal representation to Palestinian and migrant workers in Israel.
This work, in combination with her own cultural identity, she said, sometimes garnered pushback from folks who saw her — and those she supported through Kav LaOved — as “outsiders.” Nevertheless, Hsu — at the time already fluent in English and Mandarin — was emboldened to learn to speak Hebrew as a way to further connect with those around her.
“My experience learning Hebrew had been within that framework of being pushed out for my opinions,” she said. “So we started this radical language-learning program; we were learning and teaching Hebrew and Arabic and Russian. The program grew; teachers were students, students were teachers.”
Language, Hsu said, can be a powerful tool for and within communities. After moving to Yellow Springs, she worked for a time as a Mandarin-language interpreter through Columbus-based Asian American Community Services. Working as an interpreter meant lending her voice to Chinese women who were being exploited as workers in illicit massage parlors in Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana.
And people coming together to learn a language, she added, can be an “incredible space to build community.” Hsu said when she first moved to the village, she and Mazursky made time to meet regularly with friends and learn languages together — Spanish, Farsi, Mandarin, Arabic, Hebrew. The process, she said, meant that those gathered together had to give and receive vulnerability and trust in a way that was both humbling and gratifying.
“You have to be willing to put yourself essentially in the position of being like a child — you don’t know the words, you’re frustrated and scared and you don’t want to sound stupid,” she said.
“And you’re going to sound stupid,” she added with a laugh. “But you’ll learn and grow from it — so I think everyone should try to learn a language, if they can.”
As she became part of the Yellow Springs community, Hsu joined the boards of two local nonprofits, Home, Inc. and the YS Community Foundation, or YSCF. Both organizations are, in their own ways, devoted to community-building: Home, Inc. by building homes for low-income residents, and YSCF by providing support for local nonprofit organizations.
It was through her involvement with YSCF that Hsu embarked on another project that aims to build community — in this case, by addressing economic instability in the village. Last year, Hsu and fellow YSCF board member Len Kramer worked to establish YSEQUITY, now a YSCF subsidiary. The program currently serves 30 families in the village and township who are at or below 300% of the federal poverty threshold by guaranteeing a monthly income of $300 for two years.
YSEQUITY, Hsu said, outside of its stated goal of supporting residents who are struggling financially, has also had the effect of bringing visibility to a sometimes underexplored facet of village life. The people who struggle financially in what is, in many ways, an otherwise wealthy community, she said, are neither theoretical nor peripheral, and their contributions are essential to the fabric of Yellow Springs.
“These people are part of our community — they work here, and they contribute to community life,” she said. “There’s something very human about wanting to be seen as a full person — not just the convenient side or the side that’s easily understandable.”
That sentiment — of being seen completely, without concession — also translates into Hsu’s current work as a restaurateur. This spring, she and Mazursky, along with local resident Kumar Jensen, opened MAZU, a downtown vegan eatery that offers dishes influenced by the cultural identities of its three owners: Taiwanese, Israeli and South Indian. Hsu said she, Jensen and Mazursky wanted to present the dishes they serve with respect for the cultural communities that inspired them, and in a way, connect the people who eat their food with those communities.
“We could have called it a ‘tofu steamed bun’ instead of gua bao,” Hsu said, referring to a popular Taiwanese menu item at MAZU, “but that would be for the convenience of people who don’t speak Mandarin. It’s an opportunity to learn how to say this dish in its own language.”
She added: “There’s a community of people — billions of people — who speak Mandarin and eat this food that, to them, is as normative as eating cereal. We have this opportunity to connect to that community — and from my perspective, to share something that’s meaningful to me with a community of people who don’t know about it.”
Running the restaurant has also presented Hsu, Mazursky and Jensen with the opportunity to create physical space for community to gather and connect — something Hsu said the three of them saw as a boon from the day they first started dreaming up MAZU. She recalled speaking with a mother and daughter who ate together at The Veganry, the vegan restaurant that previously occupied the space MAZU would go on to fill; the two said that, because of their vegan diets, it was often difficult to find a place to eat together.
“The menu shouldn’t be the reason people can’t sit down and share an experience together,” Hsu said. “And we have internationals who come into MAZU, and they’re so excited because the food reminds them of home, or we have people who have traveled who come in and this is a way for them to connect with those travels.”
She added: “[Running a restaurant] isn’t the same as community organizing or social justice work, but there is still a component of bringing people together within a space that says, ‘You are valued and your uniqueness is exciting and adds to the fabric of this place.’”
Hsu considered the variety of routes she’s taken through understanding and building community — as an artist, an advocate, a translator, a cook, a business owner, a board member, even a goat farmer. For a while before she moved to the village, she said, she was worried that all her different ventures communicated something negative about her.
“Instead of thinking, ‘Wow, look at all the ways in which I’m helping to build community and manifesting my own goals for growth and learning and creativity,’ I really struggled with thinking, ‘What is wrong with me?’” she said, noting that, at the time, she often compared herself to friends her age, who by then had chosen just one path or another.
These days, however, she said she understands and celebrates that her passion for both people and the many ways they can connect is just who she is — and there’s nothing wrong with that.
“I have a lot of interests and ideas, and I’m lucky to be in a space with a lot of collaboration and support for that,” she said. “I have a community here and I’m able to engage with the community in all the different ways that feel whole to me.”