Asha Chai-Chang offers the do’s and don’ts to fostering inclusive communities


TPN File Photo

The Cathedral of Learning alongside the Mary Schenley Memorial Fountain.

By Gabriella Garvin, Staff Writer

Having noticed stigmas within her own subcommunities, Asha Chai-Chang strives to share her experiences as a Jewish person of color with disabilities and teach those around her how to navigate subjects like this more appropriately.

The “Intersection of Race, Disability and Religion: A First Person Experience” webinar took place on Zoom Thursday evening. Nancy Gale, the director of The Branch, an organization that supports people with psychiatric, intellectual and developmental disabilities, facilitated the event. The talk also featured Respect Ability, an organization that strives to eradicate stigmas surrounding those with disabilities. About 175 people signed up to attend. 

Chai-Chang, an award-winning director and writer, offered attendees advice on a multitude of topics such as how and when to advocate for people, what questions to avoid when asking about someone’s identity and how to navigate intersectionality firsthand.

Chai-Chang said people with disabilities and Jews of color make up more of the local community than people commonly think.

“One in four Americans, which is over 61 million people, are disabled — whether by birth, visible, nonvisible — and that’s not even including everyone. And when it comes to Jews of color, one in seven actually identify as Jews of color,” Chai-Chang said. “We’re not all converted, some of us are actually Jewish by birth.”

Alison Karabin, program director of The Branch, said the team asked Chai-Chang to speak at the event to highlight the commonality of intersectionality and to raise disability, racial and religious awareness.

“I started researching things about the intersectionality of Judaism, disability and race and there’s very little on the internet, meaning you can sort of find either or,” Karabin said. “I don’t know if it’s because of stigma about disabilities, or antisemitism or racism, but we haven’t found Jews of color in Pittsburgh but I know they exist. We thought it was really important to highlight the experience of Jews of color in the intersection of disability, race and religion.”

Gale said the team also wanted to show that Chai-Chang’s experience is not isolated, as between 6% and 8% of Jews are people of color.

“The majority of Jews of color are raised in a Jewish home,” Gale said. “There is a minority who converted to Judaism. I think it is probably a misconception that people of — Jews of color must be converts, and that is not the case. I think there’s more attention being paid to this and we want to learn more.” 

Gale said including Chai-Chang in the presentation opened an opportunity for viewers to learn and demonstrated the value of inclusion.

“I think there is diversity in the Jewish community in terms of race, and we wanted to highlight what you bring to the community when you include people with disabilities,” Gale said. “If we were to exclude her, we would all be worse off. That’s always the message — it’s what we miss by not being inclusive.”

Chai-Chang said one way to make people feel more integrated is by moving away from only describing people by the color of their skin, religion or disability.

“I would advise people within our own Jewish community to pursue diversity training, and that means describing people by what they’re wearing or other kind of descriptors to identify someone instead of just purely about their color,” Chai-Chang said. “When you use descriptors in that way and when you’re trained to speak about people that way, you’re less likely to tokenize them or make them be identified for their disability or their skin color.”

Karabin said she saw firsthand the lack of recognition Jews of color receive through her own experiences with her son.

“My son isn’t white, and is a Jew of color, and I feel like in the Pittsburgh Jewish community, it’s majority white. I think people of color in the community are not highlighted, and so people sometimes don’t even think that they exist,” Karabin said. “It’s the same with people with disabilities, so we wanted to show how valuable people with disabilities and people of color are in enriching our community.”

Chai-Chang said one important way to be an ally is to identify ableism.

“Identifying ableism is important, the idea of creating a space that isn’t inclusive. First identify that, recognize that it’s happening. Not being afraid to speak up or advocate for it. If you see a one-to-one situation you may feel the urge to speak over the person with disabilities, but I wouldn’t do that. It’s important to pause,” Chai-Chang said. “Then I would advocate with them and ask them how they’re feeling in the space before speaking up and advocating for them.”

Karabin said even those who may not identify with Chai-Chang have so much to learn from what she has to say.

“I think for people who might not identify as someone with a disability or someone of color or is Jewish, I think allyship is really important. I am hoping that people who might not have a personal connection will learn how to make their communities more inclusive,” Karabin said. “Though, I’m sure based on the statistics of how many people have disabilities, we all have someone in our lives.”

Chai-Chang said the best way to handle uncomfortable situations, whether for oneself or others, is by recognizing the other people in the space and their needs and intentions and treating them with grace.

“Check in to see if people feel comfortable with what you’re doing in that space, and create the space that you would want to have,” Chai-Chang said. “It’s important to recognize that people may not realize the space has been created in a way that’s isolating people to be tokenized and it’s important to make them aware.”