Access to education paves the way for a better future for our youth. Often times the truth and data show that there is a lack of diversity in the people who teach our youth and prepare them for future careers. Within the career sectors in the dominant economy, Southeast Asian youth rarely find suitable mentors to support them in their chosen career fields.
When speaking of access to resources, Southeast Asian communities are in the margins and kept within the shadows of commercialized social spaces. Educational etiquette becomes a distant morale for many of our youth as we are continually aggregated under Asian categories and flounder to mix into a pot that does not distinguish who “we” are as a people.
We need democratization in data and demographics that help to harness social and educational capital for a conscious way of reaching and teaching our youth. The way the system is currently engineered fashions senses of disconnect between learning and the reality of learning. Southeast Asian youth become focused as inner city urban core components of diversity amenities.
Often times, marginalized students are taught to not confront authority and we struggle to find ways to alter the way we must conform to an institutional system that historically neglects and re-appropriates our identity. Many of us growing up as refugees from war torn countries have been taught to camouflage our suffering in this social structure and, in doing so, many deny the situation and directly dropout from high school to deal with the necessities of meeting economic demands. This is an imposition that we do not hope for for our youth. We want equitable access to resources that provides recourse to these iniquitous systems. It becomes a cultural moral imperative to make sure we support our youth.
On Saturday, March 7, 2015, a group of Southeast Asian students, parents, and partners came together for a community gathering at King County Housing Seola Garden’s Providence House. The purpose of the gathering consisted of panelists from various backgrounds and a facilitation to encourage participants to speak about their needs to strengthen how they can achieve those needs in education, community, and to learn from panelists who reflect their ethnic cultural background. This program is also a response to the sentiments against the invisibility and hyper-marginalized socio-political state in which Southeast Asian populations have been categorized.
This project was planned by a group of committee members who have worked with their communities in various capacities (Tracie Friedman, Sopha Danh, Sophal Hamaker, Allyn Narong, and Sameth Mell). The project was funded through The Seattle Foundation’s Neighbor to Neighbor Small Grants Program and supported by Judy de Barros, the program consultant. The gathering drew from community partners working in several sectors such as education, arts, entertainment, activism, and policy.
Students came from three school districts of Highline, Seattle, and Tukwila with grades 6th–12th. Many of these students lack role models who come from their background; they reported that there are not any teachers that they have interacted with who reflect their ethnic cultural background.
The project brought together more than 70 participants and the strength of the group rested on the personal experiences coming from students, parents, and partners who are extensions of the community we are a part of.
Small group conversations amongst the students shared similar veins such as, “We don’t have teachers who represent who we are,” “My teacher doesn’t speak my language,” and so forth. The following paints a picture of the youth that were present:
Elizabeth D., age 18, attends Kentwood High School and identifies as Khmu. She wants to be an ultrasound technician/radiologist when she grows up. She learned from the summit that, “You have to follow what your passion is and don’t get discouraged if others disapprove.”
Allissa F., age 16, attends Hazen High School and identifies as Khmu American. She wants to be a dentist/orthodontist when she grows up. In her own words: “Thank you for putting this Southeast Asian event together. I met many new friends from the same language group and am happy to learn that everyone is passionate about school. I am glad to meet many new professionals in different fields of work.”
Malee P., age 14, attends Showalter Middle School in Tukwila and identifies as Laotian. She wants to be an artist when she grows up. In her own words: “I learned about different ways my community is struggling, and why this summit was held. Adults in our community spoke of their journeys to success so that Southeast Asian youth can learn and be motivated to succeed.”
Ramsey M, age 14, attends Showalter Middle School in Tukwila and identifies as Khmer. Ramsey said, “I learned that there are many struggles within the Asian group for different careers and that eventually it will lead to success. It was also a great experience because I was able to meet lots of new people and I found out that there is not only one group of Asians, but there were different groups. This experience could also help me in the future to decide what careers I would like to have and how I could get there.”
We were fortunate to have former State Representative Velma Veloria speak of the need for political activism and encouraged youth to consider politics as a career. Shortly thereafter, one of the youth felt so passionate, she couldn’t stop talking about the Civic Education Page Program; a program with the state Legislature for youth ages 14-16.
The planning committee hopes to continue to organize and work with the youth in helping to develop their leadership skills, educational goals, cultural understanding, and career aspirations through collaboration with community partners.
Partner panelists include: Tony Vo with SEAeD Coalition, Many Uch as a community activist, Sokha Danh and Oudom Pech with 206DJ, Seng Hieu Pho as an independent artist, Tey Thach from higher education, Baron You and Vesna Danh from the education sector, Silong Chhun with Red Scarf Revolution, and Che Sehyun and Brandon Lee from Experience Ease.