That was me in fourth grade- nine little years on this planet. It was my first year at a new school that wasn’t in a predominant Asian-American immigrant neighborhood.
There was this kid, Richard Sanchez, who tormented me. He called me every Asian-related slur his ten-year-old brain could remember. I spent entire lunch recceses hiding in a stall in the girls bathroom rather than face him. I sat on the toilet, with my pants at my ankles so that it looked like I was using the potty, and just stared at the metal stall door as I waited for the end-of-lunch bell to ring. The confusion and anxiety that I held inside my small body was compounded by the fact that I didn’t tell my parents because I didn’t think they could help. I was in the fourth grade, learning about fractions at school and calling utility companies to ask about billing questions at home. If my parents couldn’t settle an odd charge on our phone bill, how would they stop Richard Sanchez?
Even though the bullying hurt terribly and I was just a kid- I never questioned why I was who I was. Even though I had never felt such blind vile hate shot right at me- I knew that I was worthwhile. Even though I would watch TV sitcoms and daydreamed about how lovely it would be to live with a white suburban family- I knew that I belonged where I was. Even though I didn’t think my parents could make it better- I knew that if they survived the Vietnam war then I could survive a kid who made me cry every day.
I had a type of strength that only a child could have, the type of strength that comes from truly believing in fairy tales and the heroic deeds and historical legacies of the folks who existed before us. Fourth grade was the year that I learned about Harriet Tubman and Martin Luther King Jr. and about altruism and character. I learned about how a single person can inspire social change even if they are made to feel powerless. I learned about how people build movements—one mind and one heart at a time. I learned to let Richard Sanchez get it out of his system, because he was just another kid of immigrants too, probably frustrated and confused about the two worlds he lived in.
Now, 20 years after fourth grade, I find myself working for an organization whose mission is to build a progressive movement from the ground up—with people power. Our organization, Western States Center, supports the work of other orgs and individual community organizers who fight for social justice in the region.
We have a program here called WILD (Western Institute for Leadership Development), which is a year-long intensive training for emerging community organizers. Through WILD, participants gain invaluable leadership, management and community organizing skills. They also deepen their understanding and analysis of social justice issues such as gender justice, LGBTQ equality and racial justice.
Taj Suleyman a graduate from our WILD Class of 2006-2007 said “If it’s not for WILD I would continued to feel lost and isolated in the U.S. I wouldn’t know how to advocate for my community and for what we need.”
Folks like Taj are continuing to lay the foundation for progressive change within our communities that can help to build and inspire a larger movement. Our WILD grads may not be written about in history books, but they are working toward creating history.
I think about the folks who arrived in America long before my parents walked through the LAX terminal, toward the Social Security administration office to receive their refugee status, about all of the work that community organizers had to do to create systems that offered multi-lingual and multi-cultural services to my mother and father. I think about the folks who organized and protested the war in Vietnam- to end the brutality on both sides. I think about the grassroots movements, and the people who worked tirelessly within them, that shaped policies that we take for granted- policies for inclusion and diversity. I think about how I can support the work of community organizers, to ensure that we can continue to pay it forward and forward for future generations.
I think about who I would be if I didn’t have Harriet Tubman and Martin Luther King Jr. to look up to, if I didn’t have those two community organizers to ignite my own belief in myself- who would I have become?
This is why I am asking you to join me to support the upcoming WILD class of 2011-2012, which starts this fall. The work of community organizers is only as strong as the community that supports it. Folks like you, who support the progressive movement, keep the momentum going to build stronger communities where everyone can thrive. Your support is just as essential as the training that the activists receive at WILD.
Please visit my fundraising page for the next WILD class and considering supporting the work of community organizers and activists. The grassroots movement toward building a more just society is propelled by people power. Will you be one of those people?
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