Asian Americans United Provides Safe Haven for Philadelphia Youth

Posted December 17, 2014
By the Annie E. Casey Foundation
Blog asianamericansunited 2014

Asian Amer­i­cans are the fastest-grow­ing eth­nic group in the coun­try. The Foundation’s Race for Results report notes that chil­dren of Asian her­itage in the Unit­ed States make up about 5% of the total pop­u­la­tion of chil­dren, and that, over­all, Asian Amer­i­cans do rel­a­tive­ly well com­pared to oth­er non-white groups. In fact they often index high­er than white kids.

For our report­ing we went to Philadel­phia, which has a very diverse Asian pop­u­la­tion — from Cam­bo­di­ans and Bhutanese to Chi­nese and Kore­ans — many of them recent immi­grants or refugees. But con­trary to the mod­el minor­i­ty” myth, we dis­cov­ered that Asian Amer­i­cans are not uni­ver­sal­ly well edu­cat­ed — South­east Asians in Philly, for exam­ple, have rates of edu­ca­tion­al attain­ment sim­i­lar to those of African Amer­i­cans and Lati­nos and the num­ber of unem­ployed Asian Amer­i­cans in Philly has quadru­pled between 2007 to 2011. Dur­ing this same peri­od the num­ber of Asian Amer­i­cans liv­ing below the pover­ty line grew 52% in Philadelphia.

There are stark dif­fer­ences between Asians born in the U.S. and immi­grant fam­i­lies: 59% of U.S.–born Asian fourth graders were read­ing pro­fi­cient and 65% of eighth graders were math pro­fi­cient; among recent Asian immi­grants, those num­bers were only 15% in read­ing and 20% in math. Clear­ly, the degree to which young peo­ple are pro­fi­cient in these skills has a major impact on their abil­i­ty to find good pay­ing jobs and careers. The chil­dren of Philadephia’s recent Asian immi­grants often have dif­fi­cul­ties com­mu­ni­cat­ing in Eng­lish that lim­it their abil­i­ty to access job oppor­tu­ni­ties. These kids often expe­ri­ence pres­sure to work while in school to sup­ple­ment fam­i­ly incomes, and suf­fer a lack of sup­port sys­tems that rec­og­nize their cul­tur­al and lin­guis­tic barriers.

We con­nect­ed with a non­prof­it group in Philadel­phia, Asian Amer­i­cans Unit­ed, which is mak­ing great strides address­ing these prob­lems. AAU’s Helen Gym told us how they group was formed in 1985 to real­ly address issues of jus­tice. We fought around afford­able hous­ing, police bru­tal­i­ty issues and edu­ca­tion­al jus­tice.” The group respond­ed to a lack of bilin­gual edu­ca­tion in Philly’s pub­lic schools — and by ris­ing rates of anti-Asian vio­lence there — by form­ing their own char­ter school, where they also hold after-school pro­grams for kids attend­ing city schools.

We filmed a meet­ing of their Com­mu­ni­ty Youth Lead­er­ship Project, com­posed of recent Chi­nese immi­grant kids, many of whom are employed in fam­i­ly-run restau­rants whose jobs involve long hours. Tenth grade Ming­hang Chen describes work­ing til mid­night after school sev­er­al times a week. It’s not real­ly a job — it’s more I’m help­ing my par­ents, but I don’t want to depend on them, I don’t want their mon­ey — I want to learn skills to work out­side my own job.” Because his par­ents nev­er went to school in Amer­i­ca, hav­ing emi­grat­ed from Chi­na, they absolute­ly don’t under­stand me, or the hard­ship of learn­ing Eng­lish.” He speaks mov­ing­ly about being ridiculed for his accent and feel­ing an out­sider at school.

Viet­namese-born junior Van Sam began to cry when talk­ing about how, in her home coun­try, she was real­ly out­go­ing and fun­ny, but here I shut down,” self-con­scious about her accent. She’s also is very emo­tion­al about the grow­ing cul­ture gap between her­self and her par­ents: My father came here twen­ty years ago and he still doesn’t speak Eng­lish. He goes to work in a fac­to­ry at five AM and doesn’t return til sev­en at night — com­plete­ly iso­lat­ed from life in Amer­i­ca, real­ly… He’s lone­ly, and doesn’t under­stand my life at all.” She tear­ful­ly admit­ted, I feel I can’t do any­thing for him.”

Van’s friend Angela Zeng Spoke of the guilt imposed on her by her par­ents, who were dis­ap­point­ed when her grades laps­es: They get upset — they say my life in Chi­na was good, but we came here for your edu­ca­tion’… and make me feel like I’m not liv­ing up their high expectations.”

AAU is there to pro­vide a safe place where youth can come build self-con­fi­dence, improve their job and lan­guage skills — and hold on to their native cul­ture. AAU is a place where I can share my feel­ings,” says Angela, with oth­er kids fac­ing sim­i­lar chal­lenges. Peo­ple are there to sup­port you, and I feel like I’m grow­ing a lot.” Most impor­tant­ly, from AAU’s per­spec­tive, the pro­gram is help­ing form future com­mu­ni­ty lead­ers. As Van Sam told us, There are so many things that need to be fixed. If we don’t speak up, no one will fix it for us.”

This blog post and accom­pa­ny­ing video were pro­duced by Starfish Media Group and jour­nal­ist Soledad O’Brien.

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