Thousands of Paper Cranes Displayed at UAFS in Support of AAPI Community

The initiative was led by Asian Arvest Bank associates and their allies.

Paper cranes hanging on a wall at UAFS
Photos courtesy of the University of Arkansas – Fort Smith.

While participating in a webinar for Arvest Bank associates in March, Mai Xaiyasang’s phone was blowing up with messages. It was a most inopportune time, but given the frequency of alerts, she decided to check in case it was an emergency. What she found was news of a shooting spree at Atlanta spas. Six of the eight victims were Asian women.

“I was not ready. I actually had to turn off my camera for a little bit during that call just to regroup,” she says.

The timing of those messages was impactful because the webinar was being hosted by InspirAsians, an Associate Impact Group for Asian Arvest employees and allies. Xaiyasang is a wealth management planning and development manager at Arvest and at the time, she was serving as InspirAsian’s first chair.

Webinar participants took the opportunity to ask the company’s CEO and CFO what they were doing to make Arvest a safe place for Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) employees. Afterward, co-workers reached out to offer support to Xaiyasang and other Asian associates. Xaiyasang decided to take that experience and turn it into something meaningful.  

“It was after that that I felt a strong sense of hey, we have to do something to represent the feeling that we all feel because I think there are no words, there were just no words to describe that,” she says. 

The result of those efforts is the Cranes of Solidarity project, which is on display at the University of Arkansas – Fort Smith’s Smith-Pendergraft Campus Center. More than 2,000 paper cranes were collected from Arvest employees for the project, a sign of solidarity against acts of hate directed toward the AAPI community and other marginalized groups. 

paper cranesThe vision of the project is to convey the peace, resilience and beauty that comes after the storm, Xaiyasang says. The cranes are constructed from paper of varying colors and patterns. They’re suspended from a wall that has blue taffeta draped along it, creating an image of the cranes floating on a river into UAFS.

“Flowing into the university has a lot of meaning of becoming educated, becoming enlightened, knowing more about others, learning about others, and so I think the whole message is great,” she says.

The exhibit is located in a busy thoroughfare near the UAFS food court that students and faculty use daily. It’s also where new student tours meet and Rachel Putman, associate director for strategic communications, says she’s already seen people take notice of the display.

“There are lots of students who just pause and marvel and look with wonderment, but also a lot of those prospective students, high school students who are there for tours who haven’t experienced our campus, and it’s such a wonderful way to introduce them to the culture of our campus,” Putman says. 

Art Department head Katie Waugh worked with five students, including one who used the project as an internship, on the installation of the project. Over the course of several weeks, students took paper cranes home and strung them on translucent fishing line while watching movies, Waugh says. Once the strings of paper cranes were attached to the walls, students made adjustments as the colorful, suspended birds settled over time. 

While art can inspire delight and wonder, it also provides points of entry into conversations that can be crucial, intense and polarizing, and it’s a responsibility of those in academia and art to prompt these discussions, Waugh says.

“We need to be thinking about how we’re using this position that we have to advocate and make visible many different points of view and particularly those that are about supporting the humanity of others,” she says. “That’s a fundamental thing and art production is a fundamentally human act and it is not exclusive to just one group of people.” 

UAFS student hanging paper cranes on a wallIn fall 2020, nearly 6 percent (335 individuals) of UAFS students identified as AAPI. An additional 11 percent (674 students) identified as “two or more races,” which likely includes individuals of Asian descent, but it’s unclear how many, Putman says. More than 6 percent of Fort Smith’s population is of Asian descent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. 

Xaiyasang, who is proud of the project, almost didn’t have a hand in it. When Arvest began seeking chairs for the new Associate Impact Groups, she had her doubts. Xaiyasang thought she was too busy and she couldn’t do the role justice. At the last moment, she decided to apply and was selected as the inaugural InspirAsians chair.

Her children also played a role in her decision. When her son was about 6 years old, he came home from school one day and said he didn’t want to be yellow or brown. Xaiyasang froze, wondering if he had been bullied. 

She took the opportunity to explain to her son that he was of Hmong descent because his parents and grandparents were, an explanation her son easily accepted. Xaiyasang wanted to blame someone like a teacher or a bully for the incident, but realized she played a part by not talking to her son more about his family’s heritage.

“I thought to myself, you got easy on that one and you don’t have anybody to blame but yourself because you have not done enough to make him understand anything, and you don’t even understand or know enough yourself,” she says. 

Following that interaction, Xaiyasang began thinking about how to become more involved and when the InspirAsians opportunity presented itself at work, it felt perfect.

“It was almost like a sign,” she says. “The timing was right.” 

Launched in September 2020, Arvest’s Associate Impact Groups “create a safe place for associates to share, belong and experience opportunity,” Xaiyasang says. Part of that opportunity is sharing ideas to improve experiences for employees and customers. 

“A lot of companies call these employee resource groups, we specifically call them impact groups because they write a business impact plan, they identify key things every year that they want to do to be more inclusive as an employer and as a bank,” says Amy Gleason, diversity, equity and inclusion program manager.

Associate Impact Groups have advocated for changes that support inclusive and equitable experiences for customers such as implementing an option to select a bilingual associate through Arvest’s customer appointment scheduling tool, providing holiday care packages for deployed military members, financial literacy programs tailored for women and new debit cards that celebrate the uniqueness of everyone.

There are eight voluntary, associate-led groups that have been named by Arvest associates including ArBilities (individuals with disabilities), ArPride (LGBTQIA+), ArVets (veterans), BAAM! (Black and African Americans), Dreamcatchers (Native Americans), HOLArvest (Hispanic and Latinx), InspirAsians (Asian and Pacific Islander) and WOW (Women of Work).

The program focuses on diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) and professional development. Groups meet monthly, but many have subcommittees who gather more frequently. They also host events that can be educational for people who don’t belong to a certain minority group. When learning about DEI, one of the most impactful things is listening to someone share their personal experience, Gleason says. 

“Those personal connections and those stories are what changes a community, changes a person,” she says.

Arvest has about 6,500 employees in four states and the goal was to have a 10 percent participation rate in the first year. They reached that goal two months early and now more than 700 employees are participating in the eight groups.

“Year two I am excited about because if we do as much or more than we did in year one, we’re setting a good pace for ourselves. We’re doing some good work,” Gleason says.

Arvest Bank’s diversity and inclusion commitment statement is available on its website.

Antoinette Grajeda
Antoinette Grajeda

Antoinette Grajeda is an Arkansas-based journalist. She has covered race, culture, politics, health, education and the arts for NPR affiliates as well as print and digital publications since 2007.