This San Diego Humanitarian is Sharing Immigrant’s Incredible Stories

Riding Up Front Wants You to Have A Different Perspective

Written By: Matthew J. Black
Photographed By: Angela Garzon Riding Up Front

Great, even world-changing, ideas can begin with the smallest of happenings. Wei-En Tan started Riding Up Front (RUF), a website that articulates and visualizes stories of refugee and immigrant Uber and taxi drivers, because of a passing comment her boss made. He said, “Wei-En, you’re good at everything.” He’s right; Wei-En holds two Ph.D.’s in Political Science and Comparative Literature, speaks four languages and is a certified commercial pilot, but he also added, “You just lack EQ.”

That kind of blanket statement by a boss would send a chill through any of us, and add more fuel to the fire we picture burning below their feet. Wei-En took it personally and used it as motivation to create her “EQ Experiment.”

RUF began as a blog in 2012 and created a place where immigrants could share their stories. But Wei-En didn’t stop there. She realized that her whole world was wrapped up with like-minded people; her colleagues, friends and her family. In order to really gain an understanding of people and their struggle, she’d have to talk to people she wouldn’t normally converse with.

That’s when Wei-En began chatting up her barista, shopkeepers, attendees at conferences and her Uber drivers. “You’ve got to open up and talk to people,” Wei-En tells me. “I travel a lot for work, so the first chance I had to use this philosophy was with taxi drivers.”

Now, Wei-En’s “EQ Experiment,” has given a platform for silent voices to speak. Take Marine Sergeant Aurora, stationed in San Diego. The Jamaican-born wife and mother of a three-year-old daughter cooks for her family every evening, works a full-time job with the Corps and also drives for Lyft every morning at 4 a.m. Her secret to maintaining this gauntlet can be found on the RUF website, along with wonderful visual adaptations. Wei-En explained, “Through these shared experiences and storytelling, we hoped to ‘humanize’ the immigrant, so people realize immigrants are just like you and me, who work hard and share the same values of family and love.”

Wei-En is happy about the community of immigrants, writers and artists she has created. “I view each person as a touchpoint with an amazing story that has the potential to ignite compassion and increased understanding in others,” said Wei-En. It’s a connection meant to withstand the world turning, in a world where it managed to turn itself around. When the travel ban was thrust upon the country and the world, Wei-En “wanted to do something more,” and that’s when the blogger became the activist.

Picture this: A surgeon of Iranian descent lives in the United States with her mother. The surgeon’s mother is diagnosed with stage four cancer. It is sudden, and her mother doesn’t have much time. She informs her family in Iran, who go through the rigorous visa process to come to the United States. Then the travel ban goes into effect, they never make it. She never gets the chance to say goodbye to her family before she departs.

The trickle down of that effect is felt right here at home. Wei-En helped write a story for a lady that was called the “n-word” from a passing car. That was odd to the woman because she’s Latina. Wei-En herself was heckled from a passing car that yelled, “Go back to China!” Wei-En thought that was weird too, considering she’d never been to China and was born in Singapore.

These are examples of the reckless hate RUF is tackling head-on. Ignorance is blind to color and perpetuates when we see people as we are. Justice is blind too, but unlike justice who treats everyone fairly, ignorance is as dangerous as driving without being able to see. The good news is that in this world, we have the ability to see with at least one eye, and if we open it we’ll see wonderful, inspiring stories, illustrated and shared on the nonprofit RUF website.  

It took a village to create what RUF has become. It’s very much a collaboration, and Wei-En’s volunteer staff have created a forum that gives voice to the silent amidst loudening shouts of blind rage. Her “EQ Experiment” grows louder as more people tune in. She said, “This is a labor of love, and there’s always a future for love.”

Story Time: A rideshare driver named Emal in Austin, TX picked up a man who asked where he was from, which happened to be Afghanistan. The man yelled, “How dare you come here you terrorist!” Wei-En asked what he did after the man insulted him. He said, “I brought him to his hotel. It’s my job.”

Native Knowledge: Riding Up Front is a nonprofit, and your donations go towards the ACLU, the American Immigration Council, the International Rescue Committee, and help support their upcoming artists.

Flying Up Front: Wei-En is not only listening to drivers; she’s instructing pilots. She flies helicopters and has logged enough hours to fly a commercial airline.

Big Plans: Down the road, they hope one day to create a dedicated space in San Diego for a gallery to showcase the art and stories, and make it into an educational initiative for students to collaborate across schools as artists and writers.

Riding Up Front@ridingupfront

Riding Up Front is Changing Lives and Perspectives

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