Cindy Joe

Interview by Lauren Quock

Cynthia “Cindy” Joe was born and raised in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Her parents were immigrants from Toishan, China and immigrated to the United States in the 1930s. In elementary school, at the encouragement of her teacher at Hip Wah Chinese School, Cindy began attending Sunday School at the Presbyterian Church in Chinatown (PCC). In the seventh grade, she joined a Saturday girls’ club group at Donaldina Cameron House, a social service agency in Chinatown with close ties to PCC. As she grew up through the Cameron House Youth Program and served as a Club Leader, Sunday School Teacher, and High School and College Age Advisor, she learned the skills of leadership. When she was a senior in high school, Cameron House Youth Program Coordinator Al Sing Yuen hired her to be the part-time Girls’ Worker.

Cindy attributes her lifelong commitment to the community to the faith and leadership skills she developed while attending Presbyterian Church in Chinatown and participating in the Cameron House Youth Program:
“The Church and Cameron House encouraged us to get out there and do some good. I think, in my generation and the generations before me, that’s why so many people went into teaching and social service professions.”
After high school, Cindy went to Salt Lake City for two years to attend the Presbyterian Westminster College and experience life outside of Chinatown. She eventually returned to San Francisco to complete her degree in chemistry and got a job at the General Services National Laboratory. While she worked as a chemist, Cindy continued to do volunteer work for the church and community, attending various church committee and community non-profit board meetings in the evenings.

In 1972, she joined the Presbyterian Church in Chinatown Housing committee that was working on creating affordable housing on the Sacramento-Stockton Street site in Chinatown. She had no prior experience in housing development, but she saw that it needed to be done and “it became a call.”  was a long process to secure the site and financing, submit proposals to and get approval from local and federal housing development agencies, fight lawsuits from nearby luxury condominiums, and rally community groups for public hearings. Cindy stuck with the project through these challenges, ever confident that she would never be doing the work alone, because the church and community were determined to get the affordable housing built. After a ten year process, tMei Lin Yuen Housing Project finally opened to residents in 1982. It currently houses 300 seniors and families.

In the 1970s, Cindy began to advocate for racial ethnic concerns in the national Presbyterian Church (PCUSA). At the time, the staff of the Presbyterian Church’s national office was predominately White and not particularly sensitive to the needs and priorities of racial ethnic congregations. As a result, people of color formed the African American, Asian American, Hispanic, and Native American caucuses. Cindy joined with the caucuses and the Council on Church and Race in advocating for funding for staff and national racial ethnic caucus gatherings. But within the Asian Caucus, the leadership was predominately male and Cindy and other women had to push to be recognized as equal leaders. In 1988, as the result of a strategic slate, Cindy was voted in as the first female chair of the Asian Presbyterian Council.

Cindy has always remained open to serving God’s call wherever help is needed. She says,
“I come back because I love this church and I love this community. I grew up here. I still care about what happens here. You know, there were SROs  [single room occupancies] when I was growing up here and they’re still here. So how much change can we evolve? Well, my feeling is every little bit helps. And the worst thing you can do is to say, ‘Well, that’s the way it is. I’m not gonna do anything about it.’ No, I can’t live with that. While I’m still alive, I’m gonna try to do something to help better the community.”
Though Cindy has retired from her job as a chemist, she remains active in her church and community. She continues to serve on a Presbytery committee and local church committees as well as the Presbyterian Health, Education, and Welfare Association at the national level.  also serves as a designated board member for the Chinatown Community Development Corporation on the I-Hotel Senior Housing Board, where shecontinues to work on affordable housing in Chinatown. She distributes groceries to low-income seniors at the weekly Cameron House Food Pantry and has traveled to New Orleans numerous times to help rebuild homes devastated by Hurricane Katrina. In 2011, she will be part of the Presbyterian Women’s delegation to the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women in New York.

Cynthia Joe, 2010