By Michael Vuong
Tenderloin Clubhouse Director
Boys & Girls Clubs of San Francisco
I have lived most of my life in a very strange place as it relates to identity. My parents were born in Vietnam, their parents born in China, and here I am, the first American born child in the family. Our family moved to San Francisco when I was two years old and for the next 17 or so years of my life, I lived in the Mission District, a neighborhood that was full of families of Latino descent at the time. Of course, the neighborhood had a mix of all races, but most of my closest friends growing up were Latino. I never took the time or made the effort to learn Vietnamese or Chinese, in fact, I would say I probably know more Spanish than either of those languages. I preferred a burrito over fried rice. The running joke, even among my other brothers sometimes, was that I was Latino at heart. And it made sense.
But I know my history. My grandparents moved to Vietnam to escape the political climate of China at that time. My family’s name changing to “Vuong” due to not having a “W” in the Vietnamese language. My father fought in the Vietnam War. And my mom and a few of his brothers pushed him to move to America where our family had a better chance of surviving life and being happy. My family’s story is remarkably like many other Asian Americans currently living in America now.
Fast forward to our current reality. It isn’t that I never realized the types of racism that Asians and Asian Americans endured since coming to the States, it just was not a cause I had my brain really wrapped around. When the pandemic happened and the number of violent crimes against Asians and Asian Americans grew, I read the articles and watched the videos, and I had to really sit with my thoughts and feelings. I work in the Tenderloin District of San Francisco, a neighborhood with a high volume of low income residents and the highest density of people and kids. While there are a lot of community-based organizations and nonprofits trying to make things better, the Tenderloin neighborhood faces a lot compounding challenges including open-air drug dealing, homelessness, vehicular accidents, and more. When the pandemic started, our Boys & Girls Club shifted to a 100% virtual programming before reopening our doors safely to youth during the school year. Meanwhile, I helped the neighborhood bring in resources because of COVID-19, bringing in testing, food pantries, combating street violence, supporting efforts around pedestrian safety, supporting local businesses and helping to create safe outdoor street closures for kids to be able to safely play.
But I sat looking at these videos and stories and being Asian American, I had to ask myself, “What have I done for my own people?” With each video I watched, I thought “That could easily be my mom or my dad,” and then going back into my own thinking, asking “Where have I been spending my time, is there more I can do?” As it stands now, I’m building out a campaign with friends, community-based organizations, and MMA gyms trainers, where we will collectively develop situational awareness videos for a YouTube Channel that will help the populations and demographics being targeted, the elderly among them. We are working on a virtual personal safety training series along with a phone app to hopefully host all of these resources along with a few other functions that will provide immediate safety support.
Now you are probably asking yourself, what does this have to do with Youth Development and what does this have to do with kids? At the end of the day, there are a lot of things wrong with how our world works. Systemic racism, old infrastructures built on racism, technology gaps, language barriers, and so much more still run rampant today. My story represents the power of advocacy. If you see something that looks, feels, or sounds wrong, it is probably wrong. Individuals have the ability to push against what is wrong and change it. We want our young people to learn how to say, “I’m not ok with that” and make it better. We must teach them how to use their voice to drive positive change from a young age.
To a degree, this goes beyond empathy. It is about having the strength of character to do the right thing even when the right thing is hard, and creating a strong enough support system to deal with the impacts of those decisions. It is about providing opportunities for our young people to be leaders in the community, to voice their opinions, and learn how to work with others to truly impact change. Be it through policy and legislation, volunteerism, information gathering, research, or simply teaching and informing others – we have to build new generations of critical thinkers, problem-solvers, transformative and generational leaders. We must equip our young people with an equity lens and a utility belt full of skills. Let’s get our young people voting, sitting at tables with decision-makers, and to question the answers given to them if they look, sound, or feel wrong.
Our young people will have an opportunity to do the things we never could if we set them up for it.
Learn more about how to talk to a child in your life in the article: Conversations with Teens Foster Healing from Traumatic Experiences of Racism.