Youth program celebrates ground breaking pilot program for young men

Monday, August 15, 2011

by Melanie Tom, Field Organizer

Last week, I caught up with Amanda Wake to download the latest updates on the youth organizing program. She had just returned from a weekend retreat with the two young women's program and summer pilot young men's program. Between rolling up borrowed sleeping bags and jetting to a youth program meeting, Amanda sat down and shared some of the highlights of this historic summer program:

Congrats on breaking new ground! Share with us the historic first's for this summer.
The young Asian men's pilot program made this summer incredibly special for me, one that I will never forget. This program has been a dream of mine of the past year and a half and to finally see it happening feels like a huge accomplishment. We hired our first male staff, Jack DeJesus, who was supported by a School of Unity and Liberation intern, Meng Vang. The program talked about what makes it hard to be a young Asian man growing up in Oakland--how young Asian men face demasculization, a lack of role models and divisive stereotypes that pin Asian men as either kung fu masters or nerds. They shared the immense responsibilities they have at home to provide for their families and make them proud. They experience pressures to have sex with women and encouraged to be homophobic to put other males down. They don't have a place to share their emotions or feelings.

This summer saw the largest number of young people participating in our program! We had a little over thirty self-identified young Asian women and about fifteen self-identified young Asian men. Our young people come from immigrant families or are immigrants themselves, most identify as low-income and all attend school in Oakland.

How did the focus on genders/bodies/sexuality/relationships resound with the young people in the program?
The young women don't have a space in their school or home to talk about these issues, yet they are faced with them every day. These issues the face include how they choose to dress in the morning, who they find attractive and questions about sexuality, maintaining healthy relationships and how they deal with harassment on the streets. In our conversations, we found the young women are hurting from strict gender roles they face in their families and communities. Having a space to talk about these issues resonated deeply with the young women in our program and just affirms why SAFIRE is such a necessary place.

As for the young men, I couldn’t have imagined a better program. Jack has done an incredible job putting this program together and the young men in the program continue to inspire us every week. They are working on challenging traditional male gender roles and defining for themselves what it means to be a young Asian male growing up in Oakland. They’ve practiced calling out homophobia, had deep conversations about body image and role played healthy communication with romantic partners. We know from our young women participants that they want supportive young men in their lives. We know from our young men's program that there are young men out there who want to fight alongside us to dismantle patriarchy. We need to support them in their journey. Reproductive justice is not just for women.

How do you think the perspectives of the young people in the program have expanded or shifted?
One of the shining moments in the program is when we brought together the young women and young men's program for the first time. This was towards the end of the six weeks of the program, up until that point, the programs were run separately. In a Forward Stance activity where we were doing forward stance in front of city hall, we asked for five volunteers to come up in front of the group. Immediately, five young men raised their hands. But, here's the shift: those same young men recognized they needed to support the leadership of young women. So three, on their own, stepped back and three young women jumped up to volunteer. This exemplified our shared values.

How did this summer highlight the needs of young people in our community?
What really struck me is that gender/bodies/sexuality/relationships is such an integral part of both the young women and men's lives, but there isn’t always a safe space for them to explore, learn and talk about them. These spaces are absent in both school and at home. We need sex education justice, where students can explore the gender and sexuality spectrum in school and where parents have the tools to empower them to connect with their children and talk with them about these subjects.

What advice do you have for others looking to shift culture and practice in their youth programs?
At the core, the youth organizing program is really about supporting young people to be true to who they are. We offer them a space to practice listening to the voice inside of them, instead of tuning into outside voices, like the media. Being true to yourself builds resiliency and strong families for our communities. It's not an easy path and we certainly didn't finish the journey this summer but we took a short walk together. I hope our time together stays with the young people as they grow into their true selves.

What does the future of ACRJ’s youth organizing programs look like?
Our SAFIRE Fall program starts up in October where we will be opening up the program again to new participants. We are going to continue to work on issues of gender, bodies, sexuality and relationships and take them on another retreat to Occidental Arts and Ecology Center. We completed our summer young men’s pilot program and it was a HUGE success! We know that there is a great need for young men’s spaces. This Fall we will be going into evaluation mode and talking about what worked, what didn’t and what we have the capacity to do in the future. Then we will figure out what is possible in the future.

ACRJ will be celebrating the completion of the youth program at the Oakland Asian Cultural Center on August 18th from 6:30-9pm. For more information visit out event site here.