Youth empowerment: language, barriers, and opportunities.

Author:Huang, Lucinda
Position:2J Paper

(Original Title: Asian Pacific Islander Youth Leadership Development Program)


On October 7, 2005, at the Seventh Chinese American Studies conference in San Francisco, CYC (formerly known as Chinatown Youth Center) presented a panel. As the first-ever high school group from a community organization to present at a Chinese American Studies conference, the Youth (1) from the Asian Pacific Islander Youth Leadership Development Program (APIYLDP) chose to present on the issue of language. Language has been viewed as a barrier but seldom seen as a tool that can lead to opportunities for social change.

"Too often Asian American Students are left on their own to manage and mediate their experiences in school and society. Community interventions then become critical to support [Y]outh development," stated Peter Nien-chu Kiang. (2) CYC assists over two thousand Youth a year in school and social settings. The agency, incorporated in 1970 as a nonprofit, seeks to address the needs of high-risk and at-risk Youth in Chinatown. Over time the agency has grown and expanded into providing services in the multiple and diverse districts and neighborhoods of San Francisco. The services have expanded from jobs to other services such as parent groups, after-school educational programs, and Youth development. CYC "envisions empowering [Y]outh to reach their highest potential as individuals and to develop a positive self/cultural identity." Through the program APIYLDP, CYC helps Youth develop skills to become not just navigators of systems (3) in society such as government and institutions, but to become leaders who will reform and build new systems to address the needs and concerns of all Youth. APIYLDP provides opportunities for young people to learn about needs assessment, community development, advocacy, and organizing, and to develop leadership skills to address issues of racial and social justice.

The issue of language has serious implications in our lives. One only needs to sample the events in literature from Leland Saito, John Horton, and Timothy Fong, who covers the English-Only Movement in Monterey Park. (4) Another incident is the fight over bilingual education in 1998 over Proposition 227 titled English Language in Public Schools. (5) Both incidents show that language is an important issue in the lives of the Chinese in America.

Many studies have been done on social movements and electoral politics as a form of empowerment. Youth movements have been excluded. Youth voices and concerns are unheard and not studied. (6) As recipients of the systems, Youth are important stakeholders. The following stories by Youth exemplify the challenges faced by Chinese Youth. This paper is by no means a comprehensive analysis on the intersection of Youth, language, and systems. The essay is only a guide to the exploration and analysis of the intersection.

Through the four panelists, this paper provides a glimpse of the positive and negative challenges Youth face with languages. This paper by Lucinda Huang, Jiyang Liu, Calvin Jia Xing Ruan, and Wai Kit Tam, with moderator Hubert V. Yee, shares their experiences and thoughts on the barriers and opportunities that language offers. The students attend Phillip and Sala Burton High School in the southeast sector of San Francisco. They are Chinese American Youth, ages fourteen to eighteen. In the conclusion, the Youth will offer their ideas and insights on how to manage the use of language in their lives.

Following the stories will be a list of recommendations by the Youth to address issues of language in their life and a statement. The moderator concludes the paper by pointing out certain aspects of the Youth's lives that needs to be noticed because of their relations with systems. Chinese American Youth fight two fronts of subjugation, the systems that restrict them from growth and the society that confines them through stereotypes.


Since the time my morn and dad came to the United States, there was a huge language barrier that always prevented them from getting where they wanted. They came here thinking and hoping that life would be easy and that they might even become rich once a few years passed by. To them, it was impossible for things to go wrong in such a wealthy country. They thought everything that was real in their minds could be within their grasp in real life. Unfortunately, that didn't happen. Although it was better here than it was back in China, they still had to suffer. My parents had to work extremely hard to find decent paying jobs. My morn knew that nobody would want to hire her if she had no work experience whatsoever, so my morn even told lies about it. At that time, my parents didn't know how to drive and they didn't know how to take the public transportation, so they rarely got the chance to go anywhere to get what they needed. She didn't know anyone here except for her sisters. She even contemplated going back to China when she lost one of her jobs. My mom had to take English classes, work a part-time job, and take care of my sister and me.

My mom tells me how I should never grow up to have the kinds of jobs that she had because it's not worth the time. She tells me how she never gets the respect that she wants and how they never treat people like her fairly. When she was newly arrived in America, she worked in restaurants. One of her bosses took advantage of her and made her do more work than she was supposed to by forcing her to do chores at her boss' house. But my mom was desperate for money and it showed, so she couldn't do anything about it. That's why she wants me to excel in everything that I do. She wants me to have a completely different life. Her inability to speak English wasn't something she could naturally change, but I do speak it, and she said that if I worked hard enough, I wouldn't have to endure so many hardships.

It has also been hard for me because, as their daughter, I wasn't always able to provide all the help that they needed, especially when I was younger. I didn't understand that much about the business world, and yet they expected me (and still do) to...

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