When people hear “minority health,” the first image that pops up for them is likely not an Asian teen picking up a mic and mastering their rhymes onstage.

But finding stability and self-value is critical to survival, according to Greg Garcia, executive director of WAPI Community Services (formerly Washington Asian Pacific Islander Families Against Substance Abuse, or WAPIFASA), a nonprofit organization that provides and advocates for culturally competent and age-appropriate prevention and substance abuse treatment services for young APIs and youth of color.

Garcia’s business — alongside substance abuse treatment and prevention — is channeling real experiences and strengthening authentic voice. He joins IE Voices to connect the dots between hip-hop and health.

Q: How did you first become interested in helping youth who struggled with substance abuse?

In college, I got a full taste of ethnic and Asian American studies. I got angry as I learned about the injustices marginalized people faced, and I wanted to do something to change it, you know? So I started volunteering and working with API youth. It was then that young people started just venting and telling me what was bothering them. … I realized that it was a gift, and so I decided to pursuit a career in community counseling and work with [those] that don’t get served with their cultural perspective in mind.

When I moved to Seattle in 2005 and started working at WAPI I realized that social justice and substance abuse have a lot of intersecting points. I also began to see that people who use drugs and learn from the streets just have a different culture and have a hard time acculturating, similar to immigrants and children of immigrants.

Q: What was it like growing up for you?

I grew up in Vallejo, Calif. in the ’80s at a time when there wasn’t that many Fililpinos or other people of color there. Now it’s one-third Filipino. People were nice, but there was something that told me that I was definitely different and that I was “less than” somehow. It didn’t help that I was good at school … [to] bolster [API] stereotypes.

Q: What’s the best advice anyone ever gave you? What is the best advice you have ever given a youth?

The best advice I got was from a grad school professor. I was on the verge of getting kicked out of a class because I was questioning my Caucasian teacher too much. The dude was ticked. So the other Caucasian professor (they shared teaching duties) let me know what was going on, which pissed me off because I wasn’t tryin’ to make the other guy mad.  I was going to make a complaint about the professor to the department. Other prof was like, “Think about this for a sec. This is a small field, and you never know where you will see someone again. He could be on your review panel.” He left it at that, and I opted to talk it out with the other [professor] guy.

I don’t remember any advice I give to youth. When one of them comes back to me, it’s usually years later, and it begins like, “Remember when you told me this?” and I’m like, “Nah, I don’t remember. I said that?”

Greg Garcia Q: What is your definition of health and wholeness?

My definition is having a balance of emotional, physical and mental well-being, knowing how each affects the other and knowing how to stay in balance; not just eating right, but understanding why junk food is cheaper than whole foods; knowing how to express and communicate emotions, manage relationships. It also means being financially literate, since we live in a Capitalist society.

Q: How do you see hip-hop as a healing and powerful force in the lives of the youth you work with?

For me, I feel like hip-hop is the theme music for the struggle. Hip-hop is a common language, a common method for expression. Youth from different cultures, different classes, can listen to the music and the words, and feel whatever the emcee is feeling. It’s one of the few ways youth of color deal with powerful emotions.

Often we hear hip-hop that is angry or what some say is ignorant, pushing alcohol, misogyny and violence.  But it’s a reflection of reality for a lot of people. I used to judge some rap music because of the content. I grew up with late-’80s and ‘90s, “Golden Era” hip-hop so … I have different standards. But then, I started realizing that it’s a different reality, a different culture for those that listen to that new “ish” out there. Whether we like the content or not, no one can deny that people are reppin’ what they feel is their truth. Most of the time, it’s a reaction to oppression. Not always healthy, but people are coping, you know?

So when we use hip-hop at Katalyst (hip-hop education program at WAPI), we embrace all types of hip-hop. Because I’d rather someone record some negative stuff at WAPI than go out and actually do what they’re talkin about. By building relationships with the youth and not judging them, I feel we can encourage growth by talking with them, asking them what they think about certain topics, then exposing them to different artists — [local] artists that have different content like Geo (emcee of Blue Scholars], Gabriel Teodros, Khalil (formerly known as “Khingz”), Mic Flont, Silent Lamb Project. The negative stuff won’t go on any WAPI album, but at least the youth get to express themselves freely.

Q. What are the particular health challenges — both mental and physical — of young substance abusers and those who look out for them?

The hardest challenge would be trying to prevent something that hasn’t happened yet. In our field, we often talk about “Rock Bottom” — the place where people who are addicted often go before change starts to happen. Teens already feel invincible, so imagine trying to convince one that he or she will eventually bottom out. It’s like me telling you the sky is actually red, not blue. You’re gonna think I’m crazy. So we have to put our stuff aside and help educate and increase awareness, plant seeds so that when they’re ready for the message, it’ll be there for them to nurture and start the change process.

Physically, I think [the most difficult part is] watching someone ruin their health and not being able to do anything about it. I mean, we are trying to do something about it, but in reality, it’s up to the individual to make the change.

Another challenge would be working with someone who does want to change, but is neck-deep in drug culture at home. Parents and family all use or sell drugs. There’s so many layers to peel back before you can even suggest making changes: internalized oppression, cultural identity, low self-esteem, disparity, community normalization — all that stuff. Most of the time, drug abuse is a symptom of, but not the underlying problem.

Q: At the end of the day, week, month or year, how do you know one of your youth is going to be OK?

Interesting question. I don’t think about that because I’ve had to learn to somewhat detach from our youth in order to keep balance with my own life. Otherwise, I would worry about all of them. I try to just look at the positives that they’re doing and give them props for that whenever I can.

I guess the ones that learn how to navigate between two worlds are the ones I know will be OK. And by two worlds, I mean the mainstream [world] and street culture. If I see a young person that knows how to be him or herself without feeling like selling out, then I can see balance in that person. That person knows how to navigate through marginalization, and at the same time, chooses to live and define his or her own identity instead of just surviving, assimilating or isolating themselves.

Q: How have you seen youth transformed through programs at WAPI?  How have you seen them transform and heal through hip-hop?

I’ve watched shy, young people become beasts on the mic. I’ve watched people who I never thought were going to make it through our drug counseling program graduate just this past month.

But the thing I’m proud of most is watching youth who only know how to rap about getting high and making money make the most poetic and poignant songs about their lives: having the courage to rap about something new. It might seem simple to you and I to talk about feelings, but most of these young people never get reinforced nor are they shown how to open themselves up emotionally. So getting to be a part of that transformation — no matter how small — is why we do what we do at WAPI.

To learn more about WAPI and support the health of area API youth struggling with substance abuse, please visit WAPI’s blog at http://bit.ly/Rjb5tZ.

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