Hip hop music bumps in the auditorium of Denny Middle School in West Seattle. The teens and tweens, who are all the shades of America, work on breakdancing moves that their Arts Corps teacher, Filipino American Jerome “Jeromeskee” Aparis of the Massive Monkees “b-boy” group has taught them. In groups of threes and fours the kids practice under the watchful eyes of Aparis’ student teachers.
“It’s amazing when I get to see my students teaching other students and making their impact,” said Aparis. “You can see a huge wave effect and it’s a privilege and a pleasure to see that.” Aparis reminds one kid to master the movement before adding his own style. This is mentorship in action. An expert laying the foundation, empowered youth engaging in peer-to-peer mentorship, and eager pupils determined to learn, wanting to take it further.
But for Asian Pacific Islander Americans in our communities, it wasn’t always this easy. For generations, fighting against discriminatory American policies and attitudes shifted attention away from considering mentorship a vital part of community-building. Awareness of mentorship and its benefits was not emphasized in Asian culture and in the civil rights generation — who are some of today’s community leaders. Add to that, subsequent immigrant waves and its own issues and contributions to the community, and the concept and motivation for mentorship dwindles in priority.
Many APIs have had little mentorship down life’s paths. Until more recently. As the veteran activists, community-builders and leaders face retirement, the notion of legacy — or a profound sense of “passing on the torch” no matter what their age — has encouraged many to begin sharing their hard-fought knowledge, experiences, and stories to the next generation. In this way, struggles are not repeated but built upon, and progress is continued.
“Mentors show the framework of how things are working, to inspire the next generation to improve on what’s working now,” said Franklin Jarabe Bacungan, Adult Day Services and Nutrition Services Program Manager at the Seattle Chinatown/International District Preservation Development Authority (SCIDpda).
For the pioneer generation, carving a path few tread before is testament to their courage and vision.
Akemi Matsumoto spoke about the difficulties of finding her way in this world.
“I didn’t have mentors growing up,” said Matsumoto. As a Japanese American woman, she attended college at a time when few others did. There was no one to tell her that sororities wouldn’t accept her based on the color of her skin. No one to show her what she could be besides a nurse. Even years later, when she became a Bellevue College faculty member at the age of 38, seeing that the college’s new president was also a 38 year-old woman took her aback. She never before considered the role was possible for someone her age — or herself.
“It never occurred to me to want to be President,” she shared about the prospect. “I mean, I was proud I was a faculty member – that sounded fancy enough to me. I think I was pretty naïve about possibilities, what was really open to me.” Matsumoto would later help found the Asian Pacific Islander Community Leadership Foundation (ACLF) to train the next generation of civic leaders in the API community.
What is possible and achievable is the premise from a mentor to a mentee. What ACLF and others recognized was that without people in key positions sharing their knowledge and guidance, APIs as a whole wouldn’t benefit.
“There aren’t as many API role models in different fields as we’d like,” said Eric Liu, the Chinese American founder of The Guiding Lights Network, whose motto is ‘Live. Learn. Pass it on.’
“And for a lot of APIs, it’s an uncomfortable thing to go up to a prospective mentor and just straight up ask them for help.”
Learning to ask for help was something Liu learned the hard way. In his book on mentorship, “Guiding Lights”, Liu relays a story from the time he was a new legislative assistant to Senator David Boren of Oklahoma. Liu saw his career flash before his eyes when he had broken protocol, a result of being too proud to ask for help. Liu’s actions left his boss embarrassed in front of his peers on the Senate floor and inadvertently insulted several senators. Only the kind intervention of a senior senator saved him that day, and possibly his political career.
“From that day, I was unafraid to ask questions – and to admit when I thought I could use a hand,” said Liu.
Cherry Cayabyab agrees. The former executive director of ACLF said, “If you’re looking for a mentor, go for it,” she said. “Take that initiative and extra step to e-mail or call a community leader or activist you admire and get together for coffee and an informal interview. The worst that can happen is not that they say ‘no’, but that you didn’t try.”
Washington State Rep. Bob Hasegawa co-sponsored a peer mentoring bill that now has 500 Western Washington University students mentoring 800 fifth graders throughout Whatcom County.
“It’s all about building a movement toward progressive social change,” said Rep. Hasegawa. “In order to build a movement, you’ve got to build new leaders … Mentorship is about developing leadership so that when each of us is called upon to use our skills to lead, we’re all ready to step into that role.”
Thanks to the many official and unofficial mentors like those mentioned, finding that helping hand is not as difficult as it once was. Through the organizations and relationships they’ve created and the willingness to share their experiences, these individuals, along with countless others today are passing on their knowledge to empower individuals and thereby, entire communities.
“Being Indian and growing up here in Washington, we basically moved these villages in India to the greater Seattle area,” said Nisha Daniel, a Program Assistant at the YWCA GirlsFirst Program. “So when people mentor in our community they are contributing to the growth, and sustainment of our community.”
To be a part of this movement, potential mentors of all ages are encouraged to begin compassionately guiding another person of a similar field or life interests and values. Or, leave the door open to when others come to you as YWCA’s Daniel suggests.
“I truly believe that the job of being a mentor picks you,” said Daniel. “Being a mentor is life changing. I am watching these girls grow up right before my eyes and they actually come to me for guidance and support. I love being the loudest cheerleader in the stands for them, or helping them with that near impossible project. You never waste your time being a mentor.”
For leaders today who were mentored and guided through their professional and personal lives, the relationship was, and still is, invaluable.
“I’ve found for myself that profound and significant mentoring can take place in small moments in life,” said Hyeok Kim, executive director for the Interim Community Development Association. “I owe a huge debt to many different mentors in my life for being where and who I am today, and I think it’s my cosmic responsibility to give that gift back to others.”
Vu Le, executive director of the Vietnamese Friendship Association is equally grateful.
“I have several mentors, and each provides a unique and helpful perspective,” said Le. “The field can be very stressful, and many executive directors burn out. If I’m still sane, it’s because I have great mentors supporting me all these years.”
“You’re like this little ant carrying a heavy load, trying to scurry to the top of a tall, tall mountain,” described Ron Chew, the executive director of the International Community Health Services Foundation and founder of Chew Communications which documents and shares community stories. “By the time you’ve gotten as high as you can, you’re still going to be pretty far from the peak. There had better be a lot more ants following close behind to take over the load from you because it will be quite a few generations before anyone nears the top … As we talk across generations, we give them the blessing they need to continue the journey up the mountain. It becomes their turn.”