By Assunta Ng
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
For two consecutive Saturdays, rallies against Asian attacks in Georgia were held in Seattle’s Chinatown, but the contrast was as dramatic as day and night.
The March 13 rally was a “Who’s Who” in the crowd with former Gov. Gary Locke and King County Executive Dow Constantine. Some of the organizers are elected officials, community leaders, who have deep records of activism and organizing protests. The audience was mostly Asian Americans.
But the one held a week later, March 20, was organized by Seneca Nguyen, a fifth grader.
There were no “movers and shakers” lining up as speakers. The crowd was much smaller. It didn’t even have a big banner or any setup. The lack of sophistication in organizing didn’t matter—it was enough to earn supportive honks of passing automobiles.
How it began
When 10-year-old Nguyen watched the news on March 16 about Asian Americans being killed in Georgia’s Asian-owned spas, he told his mom, “I want to have a demonstration.” His dad, Matt, recalled that he and his Black wife were surprised.
The Nguyen family had never organized a protest in their life. The family attended the Women’s March in 2017, and three or four Black Lives Matter rallies in the past year, said Matt.
Nguyen told the Northwest Asian Weekly that he wanted to have a demonstration because “Asian Americans were being murdered,” and that’s an injustice. He wanted to do something to bring awareness.
Nguyen’s wish was unusual, not just because of his age.
“Seneca is a shy kid,” said Matt. “But he is aware of what’s going on, aware of the injustices I’ve faced, growing up as Asian American…people spitting on me at a theme park.” He’s also aware of what his grandfather went through as a refugee from Vietnam, and “that things had happened to him.” And he was concerned for his grandfather after the Georgia incident.
Most parents might have rejected Nguyen’s idea. Instead, Seneca’s mom, Tia, responded calmly, “Let‘s plan it.”
“I supported him because that’s what our family does,” Tia said. ”We teach our kids their voices matter and to speak up for what’s right.”
I have to confess as much as I am for fighting injustice, I would likely say “no” to my own children if they suggested a protest. But the Nguyens’ parenting philosophy would inspire other parents to think twice before dismissing their kids’ unconventional ideas.
And the family started posting on Facebook, inviting friends to join, then later, parents and classmates of his school. The word got out. About 30 families signed up.
The crowd was made up of a diverse group of parents and kids. They understood the horror of the Georgia crimes, and their faces showed serious intent to do their part. None of the speakers was well-known and many were too nervous to stand before the crowd. The kids’ message was short and simple. Most spoke no more than a minute.
“Everybody loves each other,” one boy said, as his voice trembled.
“I don’t understand why people can’t love each other,” another student said.
“Racism is wrong,” said yet another.
Nguyen, who was petrified, was never able to give his speech, even though he had it written down on a piece of paper and practiced numerous times. His parents’ friend, Andrew Yoshiwara of Portland, finally read it on Seneca’s behalf.
”My name is Seneca and I’d just like to thank you for coming here today to support violence against Asian Americans. It makes me angry so I did something. I organized this demonstration because us kids have the power to stand up and fight back against Asian-hating crimes because we are kids versus racism!”
For some, it was their first time speaking in public. These little people were no taller than four or five feet, and as young as 6 years old. But their one-line or one-minute speech was no less powerful. What the protest had taught the kids and their parents were profound and far-reaching.
Impact on kids
We are proud of Seneca,” said Matt. “It’s okay to be scared, it’s okay to be nervous (at the event). But you should always keep your head up. He makes a difference in his friends. What they experienced from that day, they look up to him. A parent said Seneca is a good role model for his son.“
Matt said he and Tia wanted their children to ”continue to be aware of injustices. We want to raise kids that are kind…speak up and not silence when they see something wrong.“
What Seneca learns, Matt said, even a kid “can organize and bring people together. And kids can voice their opinions and views.”
Seneca‘s siblings are proud of him, too. His 13-year-old brother Xaxier is the president of Black Student Union at his school. Matt said Seneca has probably been watching his brother.
Besides Seneca getting a thumbs up from many that day, what made him most happy was, “Seeing all the kids from my school and other people I didn’t know supporting the rally,” he said.
When asked if the family celebrated after the event, Matt said the whole incident in Georgia is “unfortunate with eight people being killed, and it’s tragic in the community.” It doesn‘t need any type of celebration, he added.
Matt hopes that non-Asians should be aware of the tragedy and defend Asian Americans when situations arise.
In this pandemic, parents and students have been moaning that they didn‘t learn as much as in a normal school year. Yet when Seneca and his classmates were participating in this rally, they were actually receiving an important real-life education, which wouldn’t be possible in a classroom.
The impact on participants
Not all attendees were from Nguyen’s circle. Jennifer Sun, who learned about the rally from her co-worker, brought her family along. Sun is a teacher at a Bellevue elementary school.
“As teachers, we were inspired to find there was a kid-organized rally against racism. It felt great to see a big multiracial crowd out to support our AAPI community. Oppression of any one group impacts all of us and we need solidarity, whether it’s for BLM or #stopAAPIhate.”
“It’s important in times like this to come out and show support,” said Gordon, Sun’s husband.
“My friend and I were talking, and she shared that Chinatown is supposed to be a safe space, especially for our Asian elders. With this rise in hate crimes, it feels like that’s been taken away from us and from them. Rallying at Hing Hay felt like we were taking it back,” said Megan, Sun’s daughter.
“It’s really great to see that so many people in the community are willing to stand up and fight against AAPI hate,” said Matthew, Sun’s son.
“I was impressed that so many families turned out for [the] rally with support signs for Asian Americans,” said Gei Chan, a retiree. She was also “heartened to see … many families staying after to explore the neighborhood businesses.” Some restaurants reported good lunch businesses that day. The rally started around noon.
But the lasting lesson these kids had learned, is they can be change agents, too. The seeds of change have been sown for years to come in just one March afternoon.
Assunta can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.