January 31, 2024

Meet Unit Souzou & the RHYTHM Project

At APANO, we know first-hand the value of cultural, artistic expression. In so many communities — especially in our Asian, Pacific Islander and Native Hawaiian communities — dance and music are integral components of our identity. Whether to tell a story or strengthen community bonds, performances are but one way to maintain and pass on our traditions. 

In all that we do, we hope to leave a lasting, indelible mark, full of hope for future generations. Through advocacy and civic engagement, we hope to create a reality in which all Oregonians have access to the opportunities they need to thrive, no matter where they come from or how they identify. We do that by weaving culture and policy together to amplify the silenced voices calling attention to the unique issues our communities face.

Communities of color and immigrant families have long called East Portland home. Through intentional disinvestment and systemic barriers, neighborhoods like the Jade District have been underfunded and largely unsafe for pedestrians. As an organization devoted to advocacy and cultural development, we saw and recognized the need for a multifaceted approach to address the urgency of pedestrian safety. 

Over the years, we’ve worked with many partners to grapple with the unsafe conditions of roads like 82nd Avenue. In 2021, we were honored to partner with Unit Souzou, known for their innovative blend of Japanese taiko and storytelling. The project, “RHYTHM: Walking to the Heartbeat of our Community,” was a result of the relationship and collaboration of Michelle Fujii (Unit Souzou) and Candace Kita (APANO). 

RHYTHM was a unique project that explored the vital and urgent theme of pedestrian safety. It wove a rich tapestry of stories and experiences through a partnership rooted in advocacy and cultural development. It all began as a response to the pressing question: “What is the rhythm of our safety?” 

Over the course of the year, Unit Souzou also formed an East Portland Neighborhood Cohort, a group of eight community members with an intimate connection to the area. Through a series of videos and events, they embarked on a journey to devise creative experiences addressing the complexity of pedestrian safety, particularly in the context of rising anti-Asian violence, the lingering effects of COVID and historic disinvestment in East Portland.

As we reflect on RHYTHM, we see not just a documentation of pedestrian safety but a unification of voices and artistic expressions. It’s a testament to the transformative power of collaboration, storytelling and community engagement, and just one of the impactful ways we can share a message with the community at large. 

Through the creative lens of Unit Souzou and the advocacy of APANO, this project amplified the voices of East Portland residents, shedding light on pedestrian safety in a time marked by both a sense of urgent need and community resilience. RHYTHM has been more than an exploration of pedestrian safety: it’s been a celebration of our community’s strength, creativity and ability to collectively envision and create safer, more inclusive public spaces for all.

We extend heartfelt gratitude to Unit Souzou and the remarkable East Portland Neighborhood Cohort. Together, we've created not just a project but a symphony—an inspiring narrative of empowerment, resilience and unity. And we thank you, dear community, who contributed to RHYTHM. We invite you to explore videos from the project below and immerse yourself in the diverse stories that are the heartbeat of East Portland. 

Thank you to Unit Souzou and the artistic collaborators who made this project possible. 

Taiko artists: Michelle Fujii and Toru Watanabe, Unit Souzou
Visual artist: Horatio Hung-Yan Law
Film artists: Dawn Jones Redstone and Annie Tonsiengsom

This project was supported in part by Oregon Community Foundation’s Creative Heights initiative and the City of Portland.

Project Videos

What are the rhythms of our safety?

Video by Unit Souzou

At the heart of our RHYTHM project were the stories told by local residents, our East Portland Neighborhood Cohort, where we asked ourselves, “What are the rhythms of our safety?” sharing personal experiences about safety in our neighborhood around NE 82nd Avenue. This video work draws from these deeply personal and connective discussions of safety, worry, and care. 

Safe and Seen 

Video by Dawn Jones Redstone and Annie Tonsiengsom 

Unit Souzou has been grateful to have worked with Dawn Jones Redstone and Annie Tonsiengsom to create this cinematic short, Safe & Seen, as part of RHYTHM: Walking to the Heartbeat of our Community. In this short, we experience the project’s exploration of pedestrian safety in East Portland, Jade District, OR through their perspectives. Safe & Seen illustrates the emotional journey and struggle of our Asian character to be seen, both literally and metaphorically. Literal in that pedestrian safety in Portland’s Jade District, a four-lane busy thoroughfare in Portland, Oregon’s city center where multiple injuries and deaths have occurred due to years of neglect and infrastructural racism. Metaphorical as our main character’s transformation depicts the struggle of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color to be seen, and the ways that the many forms of racism present in our society create an unsafe environment in the United States.

East Portland Stories: Khanh Pham 

Video by Dawn Jones Redstone and Annie Tonsiengsom

RHYTHM: Walking to the Heartbeat of our Community was a Unit Souzou project that spanned through 2021 centered in exploring pedestrian safety in East Portland, Jade District. As part of this project, Khanh Pham, local resident and Oregon House Representative of District 46, shares her personal experience living in the neighborhood around 82nd Avenue, and the hope she has for changes that are coming to improve the safety of this street and the surrounding vibrant community thanks to years of community organizing.

East Portland Stories

Video by Lillyanne Pham

This video features our East Portland Neighborhood Cohort, a group of 9 community members with strong connections to East Portland. As part of the RHYTHM project, the cohort worked with us over the course of three months from August – October 2021, both on Zoom and with in-person gatherings, physically distancing in outdoor parks. Together we documented the unique time and explored how each of the cohort members experienced and imagined safety through activities such as bystander training, processing trauma, and more, and conversations that sparked remembrance, observation, and investigation. 

This video, designed by cohort member Lillyanne Pham, tells stories of what East Portland means to each member. 

Slide Show

Photos by Elayna Yussen, music from Unit Souzou

Enjoy a slide show of photos from the rhythmic walking meditation and backyard celebration with the East Portland Neighborhood Cohort.