Keeping Silent Was Not an Option: a Tale of a Student-led Civil Rights Struggle in PhiladelphiaIn December 2009, Asian immigrant students boycotted South Philadelphia High School, demanding a safe learning environment following violent attacks of more than two dozen of their peers by a mob of almost a hundred students. The violence resulted in the hospitalization of some of the Asian students.
Much has been written about the incidents that took place at South Philly High that day in December, including an ongoing investigation by the Department of Justice. Last month, StoryCorps traveled to the Philadelphia Folklore Project to record the stories of a group of students who were victims of the targeted attacks. In response, they heroically organized a campaign to demand the school district take responsibility – and action – to ensure a safe school climate.
In Philadelphia, StoryCorps producer Jasmyn Belcher and I recorded with Wei Chen, one of the student leaders, and Helen Gym, an active organizer in Philadelphia’s Asian community. Both of the participants played key roles launching the struggle to address the complicated racial politics at South Philly High. Throughout the interview, Wei explained how he emerged as a student leader in the cause against bias violence and anti-Asian harassment. He told us about his experience working with other student committees to create a groundbreaking, multilingual, and multigenerational case exposing the community’s adverse experiences to the public and the media’s spotlight.
The interview with Wei served as a window into his lived experience being a recent immigrant faced with a hostile and discriminatory school environment. Wei told how he kept a journal documenting the day-to-day discrimination against Chinese students. He described incidents such as having milk thrown at him and his friends in the lunchroom, and being mocked by cafeteria staff for his accent. Wei explained how his struggle was not to find scapegoats, but rather to bring visibility to the injustices happening at his school and to make sense of how discrimination led to physical violence. “It’s not a question of who beat whom, but who let this happen,” he explains.
Helen articulated some of the conditions that led to the attacks, explaining how the ongoing harassment was “minimized, denied and misled by the school administration.” She also tells how the events of that day in December were “inevitable” because of the rupture in the school’s social fabric – as discrimination was normalized and left to escalate into violence towards Asian students. Helen drew parallels to events at South Philly High during racial integration of the 1960′s, where African American students were also mocked, harassed and attacked by their peers.
Our host, the Philadelphia Folklore Project, is currently running the exhibit “We cannot keep silent,” which chronicles the brave struggle of Asian American immigrant students who organized themselves and spoke out for their right to education and be protected from violence at South Philly High School. Wei’s journal is on display, and Helen is one of the curators of the exhibit.
Many thanks to the Philadelphia Folklore Project for inviting StoryCorps into their home, and to the courageous students who spoke out and continue to advocate for social justice.
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