By Kai Curry
Northwest Asian Weekly
“If you are an AAPI youth, we have your back.”
That’s the message from Laura Talmus, co-founder of Beyond Differences, at an Aug. 26 news conference to promote Stand Up for AAPI Youth.
In response to the sharp increase in racist and hate incidents towards Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) students in the United States since the rise of the COVID-19 pandemic, Beyond Differences has partnered with San Francisco’s Community Youth Center (CYC) to create Stand Up for AAPI Youth, a free curriculum for schools this fall.
Youth leaders kicked off the conference by repeating hateful words people had spoken to them and by sharing their fears.
“This virus is all your fault. No one wants to sit near you. Get away. She may be from China. You’re from an Asian family. You might have it,” are what student Melissa Lee has heard recently.
For student Sammi Situ, these words rang in her head: “You shouldn’t be here. Why don’t you just go back to where you came from? Kung Flu. Chinese Virus. I’m scared for myself. I’m afraid for my family. I’m afraid to go back to school.”
“We could not stand by and do nothing,” Talmus said.… “As a nation, we must stand up for our AAPI youth, who are the target of an insidious campaign of hate.”
The Stand Up for AAPI Youth curriculum is “a valuable tool for teachers to discuss and engage students in difficult and critical conversations and exercises about race, religion, gender identity, family traditions, immigration, and much more.” One of the biggest concerns of Beyond Differences and CYC is the increase in social isolation among young people, which Beyond Differences recognized 10 years ago, and which is only exacerbated by social distancing and the uptick in racism since COVID-19.
“Regardless of whether children live in a red state or a blue state, social isolation affects them all. Our country’s dedicated teachers see its drastic and painful results every day, whether through distance learning or in the classrooms,” said Talmus.
“I know so often that young people feel isolated, they feel alone, and that’s how bullies win,” said Phil Ting, a California assembly member. “When we have groups of people bullying us and attacking us, they want us to feel like we are alone. That we are by ourselves…This virtual gathering is a reminder that we are not by ourselves. That in fact there are a lot more of us than there are of them.”
To combat this loneliness, Stand Up for AAPI Youth fosters cultural sharing. Former presidential candidate, Andrew Yang, now in his role as founder of Humanity Forward, is the parent of two young boys.
“We need to be investing in these types of skills for young people to understand what’s happening to them inside of their own minds…If we invest in these school-based programs, we can make an enormous difference for the next generation of Asian American kids coming of age so they don’t feel afraid to go to school, they don’t feel like their American-ness is in question, they feel like they’re at home, as they should, in their own classrooms, in their own schools.”
Young people hold leadership roles in both Beyond Differences and CYC and helped develop the Stand Up for AAPI Youth curriculum. CYC Executive Director Sarah Wan said, “The core of the curriculum is to build empathy and connection between students…It was so uplifting to see this firsthand on several occasions as the youth connected over their passion for social justice.” CYC is celebrating 50 years of advocacy for youth and their families, and during the conference, Ting announced that CYC had been chosen as the nonprofit of the year for California’s district 19.
Fresh Off the Boat celebrity teen, Hudson Yang, who joked he had permission from his teachers to be at the conference, also showed his solidarity with the cause.
“On the show, as a middle schooler, my character endured a lot of AAPI stereotypes…Luckily, that was all scripted, but today I’m upset to see the hate and attacks on my fellow AAPI teens and adults in real life, and I want to do something about it.”
Many attendees recounted bullying experiences from their childhoods.
“If I could count how many times I was called a Chink growing up, I’d have enough to fuel my next re-election campaign,” California assembly member David Chiu wryly commented. “The fact of the matter is, my high school classmates called everyone all sorts of horrible things…America is a work in progress. We know that change will happen with every new generation and it has to happen. At a time when we’re combating not just the virus of COVID-19 but the virus of racism…we know that one of the significant challenges we’re facing is how all the things from our generation are impacting the next generation.”
One of the most moving retellings came from New York State assembly member, Yuh-Line Niou, the first Asian American ever elected to represent the district that includes New York City’s Chinatown.
She shared something that happened in first grade.
“[This girl] pulled me into the coat closet and had all of my classmates take turns spitting on me. Then, she threw my lunchbox into the boys’ bathroom…set the trash can on fire, set me on fire, set off the school alarm, and I peed myself, in a bathroom. These are things that happen to children, and it’s taught to them. It’s not something that they are born with…We can teach differently, and we can teach each other.”
Niou introduced Washington state Rep. Sharon Tomiko Santos, who Niou considered a mother, as Santos had mentored Niou during her first legislative internship. Santos expressed her pride in Niou’s accomplishments and support for the new curriculum.
“I can’t wait to see Stand Up for AAPI Youth in my state because I believe every school in my state, and throughout the country, should benefit from adopting this program…You are taking the voices that have been suppressed for years…for generations. You are bringing them to the fore. And now I feel hopeful because of you.”
Kai can be reached at email@example.com.