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Youth: Not “Tomorrow’s Leaders”, But Today’s

October 20th, 2016 by Christine Nguyen

In just the last year, they advocated for increasing affordable housing and expanding park space in Chinatown at MassDOT meetings. They organized a Chinatown pedestrian safety campaign, and made an appeal to Boston’s Transportation Department for structural improvements on Chinatown’s streets. They guided tours of Chinatown for hundreds of visitors to bring attention to Chinatown’s continued struggle with gentrification, while highlighting its rich culture and history. In an age of internet activism, they are going beyond social media, taking to the streets to enact change on a grassroots level.

They are all between the ages of 14 and 19, and accomplished all of this while tackling college applications and AP courses; balancing athletics and other extracurricular activities; working part-time jobs; and taking care of younger siblings. They are a collective force to be reckoned with, addressing the social and economic injustices and planning inadequacies that have contributed to the siege of countless homes and the displacement of hundreds of families in Chinatown over the last 70 years.

Starting in 2005, Asian Community Development Corporation (ACDC) made a conscious decision to incorporate youth development in our work. What started as a youth-run, public radio show has now evolved into a year-round leadership program that empowers high school students through professional development and community organizing opportunities, with an emphasis on placemaking. With guidance and support, youth have enacted real changes in the community and have exceeded our expectations, but more importantly their own, “One of the most valuable things I learned was the sense of community. Building community can start with a small group of high schoolers," recalls Harvey, an ACDC youth program alum.

Debbie, ACDC’s Community Planner, emphasizes that involving youth enhances her work, “I depend on the local youth to tell me what they and their families need to be built or reshaped in the Chinatown neighborhood, and the most rewarding part of my job is empowering them and other residents to help shape our community. My planning interns, Jin Yang*, Billy, and Zi, have been key leaders in our community visioning for public parcel 12. I have learned so much from them. I look forward to what more we can accomplish together, and I am so proud to see them grow in their capacity as community planners in their own right.”

After a number of harrowing pedestrian accidents in Chinatown this year, ACDC youth became inspired to work with Debbie to run a pedestrian safety campaign. The youth collaborated with WalkBoston, Chinatown Main Street, and other community organizations to conduct research and observe traffic and pedestrian activity on Kneeland Street. Their presentation to Boston’s Department of Transportation included suggestions to improve pedestrian safety, such as adding crosswalks and extending pedestrian signal times. You can watch the video documenting their work at https://vimeo.com/178342003.

Wenyin, a high school sophomore and Chinatown resident, served as the project manager for the pedestrian safety campaign. She closed the presentation by stating, “Chinatown has been torn apart by institutional expansion and the development of I-93. If the City cares, make it walkable. Our lives come before the convenience of cars going in and out of the city. When my family crosses the street, I want them to be safe.” As a direct result of the campaign, the Boston Transportation Department has increased the pedestrian walk light time on Kneeland and Harrison from approximately 12 seconds to 20 seconds, which makes crossing much more manageable for elders and small children.

“The experience and knowledge that I gained inspired me to care for my neighborhood. Though at times our efforts may seem small compared to the sweeping changes caused by outside developers, I believe that if all of us work hard and work together to engage and improve our community, then anything is possible,” Jin Yang*, a high school junior and Chinatown resident, reflects on her experience as a planning intern. Jin Yang and her family were victims of gentrification, when they were recently forced to leave their home in Chinatown due to their former landlord raising the rent beyond what they could afford. She is not going down quietly. Jin Yang has been working with staff at ACDC to document and share her story with the community.

Community planning and organizing must be an inclusive process, and youth deserve a seat at the table. They provide valuable insight into community challenges such as the housing crisis and gaps in the education system. Whether through after-school programs, having a youth board at your organization, or inviting young people to community meetings, it is important to provide real opportunities for youth to have a voice and work towards positive changes in our communities. Imagine what our “future leaders” will achieve, if we support them in accomplishing great things now.

*Name of youth changed for confidentiality.

 

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