Asian Americans United hosts and organizes a variety of civic engagement programs and events, most of which are largely facilitated by youth volunteers. But one woman, Teresa Engst, helps organize and train the young volunteers in order to facilitate change in the Chinese immigrant community.
Between leading youth programs and summer camps, organizing civic engagement projects and more, Engst helps young people in Chinatown and beyond take a more active role in their communities
What kinds of youth programs are you spearheading?
AAU runs one year-round youth program, it’s called the Chinese Youth Organizing Project, CYOP. And so it’s high school students, mostly recent Chinese immigrant youth from high schools across the city. It’s the only youth program that is run in Mandarin Chinese and works with Chinese immigrant youth.
We meet every Friday. We have like 30 to 50 – depending on what season we’re in – young people that come here. And then we have a youth committee that helps to lead the Friday activities and they meet with us on Wednesday. That goes into the summer. We close up for the school year and then, through the Philadelphia Youth Network Work Ready program, we hire 26 students to work with us over the summer and we do a community engagement project.
And then we have a second youth program over the summer, a summer camp program. We hire 26 high school youth leaders to work with us as teachers and mentors over the summer and they oversee around 50 children in different grades. They run classes and activities every day for six weeks over the summer. So, those are the two core youth programming that we do.
What engagement project will you be working on this summer?
For both programs, we do a community engagement piece. This year for CYOP summer, we’re going to look at community defense and also civic engagement. It’ll be looking at voter registration but also what are the key issues that are affecting the communities that we work with. Then looking at community defense – that’s in terms of what’s happening with immigration and ICE and the attack on immigrant families and immigrant communities. So, trying to raise awareness around that, explain Know Your Rights and also understand what are the issues that folks are concerned about in the community.
What kinds of issues do people in the community talk about?
Besides affordable housing, one of the big things that’s happening now is we have parents contacting us from Mayfair Elementary School.
There’s a growing population of Chinese immigrant communities in the Northeast. They contacted us because their kindergarten and first-graders next year are being forced out of Mayfair. The reasoning that the school district is giving is that the school’s overcrowded. So, they said it’s a “forced choice.”
They’re forcing the kindergarten and the first-graders into a school that’s a mile away but a school that’s been deemed to be kind of deteriorating. It has a seventh and eighth grade class right now. It takes a lot of thinking and a lot of intentionality to be able to bring in older grade kids with younger grade kids. So, there’s a lot of concern about what it would mean to bring these kids into the school.
Why do you think it’s important to get young people involved in these community engagement projects?
For one, young people are really active. They have time, energy and they’re being affected by this.
I think it’s probably true of a lot of communities but with the community we work with, parents, adults are working. Most parents work six or seven days per week, 14 hours per day. They don’t have time outside of that. Many of our young people have to work to support their families but they have a little bit more time.
With immigrant communities, the younger folks often become the bridge between different worlds and bring back information and help to communicate. I think it’s a really important role that they play. We want to help them to identify that that is a strength that they carry, instead of seeing it as something to be shameful of. Really taking that role and understanding the strength in that and the importance of that role.
Our young people, they’re smart. They have ideas. They’re impacted. And when they learn their voice and their ability to speak up, that’s when it’s most powerful.
What do you find rewarding about the work that you do?
I love to see the young people grow. When you get to see someone’s arc, through the years of working with them, they become confident and they’re speaking their ideas. I think that’s really powerful. When I listen to the news, it can be really disheartening and I think any areas we can find that are hopeful, areas where we see folks really pushing for change, that gives me hope.
Looking to the younger generation of folks, it provides a different world view for me.
—Text and image by Amelia Burns and Erin Moran.