In summer program, students learn about building community

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

“AAU! How y’all feelin?” shouted student teacher Wei Chen.

“Fantastic! Terrific! Great! All Day Long!” his students respond.

On a hot Monday afternoon at the Folk Arts-Cultural Treasures Charter School, 11 8th and 9th graders teamed up to finalize the plans for their community action project. In three groups, they discussed Chinatown’s history and important landmarks in their neighborhood. Each student researched one or two places, adding their personal anecdotes and recollections. These maps would be used to give the 6th and 7th graders a tour of their community.

“Our tours consist of historical landmarks and everyday places. Even if it is just a laundromat, we want people to know that people live here,” said 8th grader Amanda Stevenson, who is African American. “People just think of Chinatown as a place, but it’s a community. It’s not just restaurants and businesses.

“I don’t live here,” she added, “but I go to this school and I care about this community.”

The first publicly funded school in the heart of the Chinatown neighborhood, FACTS was founded in 2005 through the combined efforts of Asian Americans United and the Philadelphia Folklore Project and now serves more than 400 students. The school also houses the headquarters of AAU, which runs the summer program each year.

AAU began running summer programs in Philadelphia in 1987 as part of its mission to provide enrichment and leadership training for youth.

Today, there are 50 students from grades 2 through 9, and 13 older high school and college student youth leaders.

This year’s community action project was tailored specifically to each grade unit and was related to the AAU’s greening project, an initiative to create green space in the Chinatown neighborhood . The 2nd and 3rd graders studied flowers and garden basics and created a butterfly habitat. The 4th and 5th graders studied and grew herbs, which they then used to cook delicious foods like spring rolls. The 6th and 7th graders made planter boxes.

Program director Judy Ha got her start in college when she worked as an intern in AAU’s 2000 Freedom School Program, tutoring students in Chinatown and working in their summer program. She was given her own class of students and she taught multicultural literacy and did conflict resolution activities. The community action program that year was the “No Stadium in Chinatown” campaign, when the plan was to build a new baseball stadium for the Phillies right on Vine Street.

After college she went into teaching, but later returned to work with AAU.

“I came back [a few] years ago because I was looking for something in the nonprofit world that was related to education, social justice, and teaching,” Ha said.

The current summer program model works to empower youth. Most students are recruited from FACTS, but the program is open to all students regardless of their neighborhood or racial origin. Elementary and middle schools students study multiculturalism, identity, and community by engaging in activities around cooperative grouping, conflict resolution and social justice.

Each class unit works on a community action program. In the afternoon they have art, drama and music classes, or are allowed to unwind with team building sports games such as table tennis. Older high school and college students are given lots of responsibility in the program and are trained as teachers and role models for the younger students.

“We want them to know that they have the opportunity to make change,” said Ha. “We hope that they see that there are so many areas in their life to which they can apply the things that they learned here.”

She also hopes that the younger students not only enjoy their summer but also learn about themselves and the issues affecting their community and ultimately “experience a place where their culture is affirmed and their identities are affirmed.”

“We tell them to be proud of their identities and to talk about themselves,” said Chen.

Chen was a student leader in South Philadelphia High School in responding to a day-long series of attacks by mostly African American students on Asian students in December 2009. He received national awards for demanding that the District respond effectively and for helping to forge a multiethnic coalition among the students.

“The team-building games help them get to know each other,” he said. And at the summer program, he also emphasizes cross-cultural interaction among the students.

Wei, who now attends Community College of Philadelphia, tells his young charges that the Chinatown community is not limited to he Chinese people who live there.

“You belong to this community too, because you go to school here in Chinatown,” he tells Amanda Stevenson. And he makes sure she understands that she can use the the team-building skills she learns in this program or organize in her own neighborhood.

“If you know something about Chinatown, you can bring the solution to where you live. Students learn a lot about how to bring community together here,” he said

A big part of the community-building this summer for the 8th and 9th graders was a special project designed by James Cersonsky, a recent graduate of Yale University and former political organizer in New Haven, Conn.

Cersonsky, a freelance writer, had also been working on a project where students design historical tours of their neighborhoods or the neighborhoods around their schools, in particular focusing on the histories of community-building or the histories of struggle. He moved to Philadelphia early this year and reached out to the Philadelphia Folklore Project, which connected him to FACTS.

“In Chinatown there is a history of struggle and resistance to incursion by the city on the land here, which is a hub for Asian American residents,” Cersonsky said. “For our tour project, we’ve looked at a variety of different moments, such as the city pushing for the new Philly stadium to be built in Chinatown.”

The students also learn about the successful resistance to the city’s plans for a casino on the outskirts of the neighborhood and the history around building the Vine Street Expressway, which cut the neighborhood in half.

When asked what he learned from the summer program, 8th grader Jun-Jie Vou was clear.

“You can never keep silent,” he said. “The casino and stadium are examples of why we can’t keep silent. If we do, these things will be built, other houses will be cut down, and it will be too late.”