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Community Forces Podcast “Put the Students in Charge” Episode Transcript

Put the Students in Charge

It’s Community Forces


A podcast where we talk with students who are working with Asian American community leaders and organizations in the Chicagoland region, to learn, uplift, and engage. 


From the Global Asian Studies program at the University of Illinois at Chicago.


Steve: I fundamentally believe young people can lead the movements that are going to be the most significant for our cities or the nation. That’s not a romantic ideal. I think historically, it’s backed up, I just fundamentally truly believe that. That can be one of the most profound catalysts for change, young people, young leaders. So not saying that, oh, look at them, they’re gonna be like, the next generation. It’s no, I mean, folks are leading now, and recognizing and validating and acknowledging that.


My name is Steve Moon. Steve Hosik Moon. My family immigrated into Chicago and I grew up for most of my time in the northwest ‘burbs.


Steve taught a critical issues in community engagement class in the Global Asian Studies (or GLAS) program at UIC while serving as the director of organizing for Asian Americans Advancing Justice Chicago. In that role, he also supervised GLAS student interns.


Wasinee: I felt like I had power to do something, if only I would put in the work to do so. Take that extra step outside from school to do something about it, a very daunting task. I definitely know I couldn't do it alone. 


My name is Wasinee Siewsrichol, and I'm from Schaumburg. I was born in Thailand in the southern parts, called Narathiwat. And I moved here when I was six years old to America. I am graduating in two days. So on Saturday, I'm going to walk and I'm a public policy major and I'm in my senior year. 


I learned that GLAS had an internship course and then automatic placement in an internship at UIC or outside UIC. So I definitely knew I wanted to do outside of UIC just to get more experience. 


I talked to Steve Moon at Advancing Justice. What I liked about the interview was that he asked me what I wanted to do. So everyone else had things they wanted to do, but Steve started off right away, "What do you want to do?" And I said, "Well, I don't know." I wasn't expecting to be asked what I want to do. And then he said, "We can think about it." He said he doesn't want to force me into doing something I didn't want or that I didn't like, and he said he also doesn't want to put pressure on me, because this internship was not supposed to be stressful at all. It wasn't supposed to be overbearing, too much work, and I can stop whenever, and just to tell him and because of that, I chose Advancing Justice. 


Sarah Eli: So, in talking to young leaders and UIC students who are doing work in Asian American communities, I’ve been asking them, who are some leaders that you look up to? And you came up. So, I wanted to let you know that. 


Steve: Cool. I appreciate that. 


Sarah Eli: Yeah. And one of the people who named you was Wasinee Siewsrichol. And I was wondering if you could tell me a little bit about your work with Wasinee at Asian Americans Advancing Justice? 


Steve: Wasinee was in my class that I was asked to lecture, which was really great, by Dr. Guevarra and Karen and others mentioned it. And so it was critical questions in community engagement. And so Wasinee was part of that, and also doing an internship at Asian Americans Advancing Justice Chicago, where I was director of organizing up until July of 2019. I think the things that struck me about her was that she: one, was representing a community, at our organization, as an organization that serves the pan-Asian Community (so multiple ethnic identities), we’ve actually never had representation from the Thai community, which we always recognized as a major gap. There’s no way we’re going to cover every ethnic identity, but we knew that that was the thing. So, when Wasinee came in, you know, that was just one fundamental thing that was like really, really great that she could rep that experience. 


Wasinee: Steve mentioned, "Oh, I think it'd be cool if we connected with the Thai community." Because, he's never done that in the history of Advancing Justice. They weren't able to connect with the Thai community at all. And he said, it'd be a great opportunity just because you kind of need an insider to go inside the community. So he said, that'd be cool. But he said, no pressure, you decide whatever you want to do. So I said, "Oh, that's cool." So that's why I picked on specifically focusing on the Thai community.


Steve: Wasinee was just like, let’s get it done. You know let’s figure out what are the different issues, what’s the project, and then let’s get to business and try to do a good job at it. And I appreciate that, she was super organized from the start, but also we had a lot of great conversations about her community: where she saw the strengths, where she saw some room for just more development. And I think the small role I was trying to play was really just allowing and challenging and at times guiding Wasinee, to just be able to think about the impact that she wanted to have in her community. And I’m not presumed to know what those issues are, being an outsider myself. But just asking her to really think about and trust her lived experience, the folks in the community that she knew. And at times to try to think of like, well, what is that thing that you really think would be able to reach your community members. Talking about whatever issue it may be or, or experience or historical thing and Wasinee was always up for the challenge, so I just try to help ask the questions that can guide that process. 


You know, we, we really believe that there’s an authority and expertise of every individual that comes into our office and that extends to folks who are coming in to do internships. So you know, more than anything, I really believe that the entire educational experience should be one that can be molded and crafted by “students”, right, and students should be able to

be teachers at times and should be able to do what they think is going to be most beneficial

for the community. And it’s just a fundamental tenet of, of how we work with young people at that organization. But also just how we view the work in general. 


Wasinee: What, what do we want? What problems or issues were there? And that's how we led into the interviews. 


So, I mostly focused on my temple Wat Dhammaram because the temple I went to was the largest within Illinois. It’s somewhere I've went to since I was a kid so everyone knows who I am and what my name is, and then also my mom is really good at talking to people. So she just kind of told me, "Oh talk to this person." And so I did. I think I talked to over 30 plus people with like a computer and recording everything that they said. And I had a list of questions that I asked them. It was a conversation, very fluid. It could have gone anywhere, and mostly centered around: what have your experiences been in America? What do you hope for in the future? And what issues are you facing currently? And that's where I centered around and I asked people from all ages from 15 to like 70. They had different responses, but for the older generations, I think their responses were pretty consistent. 


They don't know how to get health insurance, they don't know how to go find a doctor, just because a lot of them don't know how to use internet or type in English. So that was really difficult for them to navigate. And especially since they're a bit older, they're worried about diseases and whatnot. I think language barrier also kind of ties into it. Asking for help and communicating what you want. And also that ties into education. A lot of them came here during that wave of health professionals back in the day. That’s how we first started, it was professionals coming to America. And then later, I’d also say a lot of us are also undocumented. So that was very difficult. Citizenship status was a huge problem as well. And so I never really worked with or talked about undocumented folks. I think that kind of my first exposure. 


Steve: we need to talk to the people that are directly impacted by the issues, we need to center them, we need to honor them. And when we are from that community ourselves, you know, being able to organize and be that voice. And so, there’s just stuff you can’t learn in a book. 


Education isn’t meant to be confined to a classroom. Our ideas, our reflections are, are meant to be activated outside in community, in the streets and that’s where we gain more education and we reflect on that and continue to go, grow through that process. 


Sarah Eli: What did you learn about undocumented folks in the Thai community doing this?


Wasinee: So I definitely say they're more scared, because there's this like paranoia that they're being recorded. So when I was talking to certain folks, they said, "Oh, can you please not type this? Or is this recorded because I don't want this to happen..." because they didn't want to say anything bad about America because they thought they'd be targeted.  Or, they didn't want to state their names because they thought it'd be a target for certain things. So, I’d have to assure them over and over again that this data is only for me. Your names won't be mentioned, and you're safe. Because it was during a time where one of the members was deported. One of the members were deported. 


Sarah Eli: Someone from your temple was deported? Can you tell me more about that? 


Wasinee: It was kind of weird because we didn't really know what was his son's birthday, and he was deported that day. The authorities knocked just on his door and just took him away, is what I heard. And so within the community, there was kind of like, a lot of eyes like, "How did the authorities know that this person was undocumented? Someone must have leaked." And so when I came in at that time, it was very difficult because there's a lot of distrust.


People who are undocumented, you don't even know they are Thai, they don't come to the places where there's lots of people, they stay under the radar and just go with their everyday lives. So we don' I don't exactly know how many people are there. Nor do they want to talk to people in general. 


Wasinee brought her findings back to Asian Americans Advancing Justice, and she and Steve came up with a plan to create an essay contest for young people. The prompt was: What barriers have your parents faced while in America? 


Wasinee: I was one of the judges. So I read everything, and so did Steve. I very surprised by the responses, how well thought out they were, different experiences. Some of them were in Thai, so definitely a little bit more challenging for me. But I really appreciated those ones. I read through everything. 


What surprised me was the younger kids, they shared some very, very, very deep things. A person who was like seven, he did some very big words like “Xenophobia”. He knew what he was saying and how he talked about discrimination and racism, and this person was only seven. And I was blown away and yeah, they talked about their parents washing dishes for a living and things like that. 


Wasinee led a workshop where young people at her temple read excerpts from the essays and discussed them with their peers. 


Wasinee: And so everyone read everything and we kind of talked about thoughts at the end, and what we can do in the future. Yes, and then I think it was the most impactful for me. Just because in that moment, we were really like, "wow!" Each of us had a wow moment, I think in that moment, where we were like, wow, this can't believe this happened to our parents and I can’t believe we grew up with each other, and we've known each other for over 10 years. And we didn't know this happened to each of us. It's kinda like we kind of got closer as a community.


Steve: Impact is both intent and infrastructure. So if the intent is like, “Okay, we’re really about this, we really believe this, this isn’t just lip service.” Then it’s like, okay, how do we organize the resources? How do we help facilitate these young people, having the relationships, the political education, the socio-emotional support, to really grow holistically as individuals, but also with the vision of them being the ones that are going to transform a city or a nation. And so a lot of that is building relationships with other folks because no individual, no one individual, no one organization, no one school can meet all of that. Nor should! You know, like, they're set up in such a way that, you know, we, we often can't meet all of those needs, but we have to draw upon the village to do that, and I really think that that's crucial. Any individual is going to develop in a healthy way where, where their, their creativity is fully realized and their critical thinking is fully realized. And then just their immediate needs, having food, a roof over their heads, feeling safe and not having to worry about being attacked for any number of reasons. If that's going to happen, it's going to take everyone definitely working together to, to look out and at times, just kind of let go. So, you know, the young people can do what they're gonna do.


To me, it’s like, education is about liberation. It’s about self-determination. And that is not something most schools value. It’s not about how we become more free. You know, I’m board of an organization called Kuumba Lynx and their pedagogy is basically: we get free and it’s about liberatory practice through the arts and through community building. I know for certain I wouldn’t be where I was that if it weren’t for my professor at University of Michigan, not just being an incredible educator in the classroom, not just helping me wrestle through Creative Writing and Asian American History and all of that, which, you know, she and another professor definitely did. It was their insistence that this stuff we’re doing in the classroom isn’t just about you, and it isn’t just about your grade or your GPA or this project getting done. It is fundamentally about being out in the community, and having an impact in organizing for justice and equity. And the beautiful thing is they left that open to be defined by us, right, to really figure it out, but they definitely pushed us right when we needed it. Because, I mean, I’ll speak for myself, I needed it. 


I think that the most like kind of concrete piece like that, like I literally was like shown to the

door and stepped through the door was my second semester at University of Michigan, I

met two professors: Professor Lawsin and Kurashige. And just by chance, like really to

burn some credits, I took two Asian American studies classes: one was creative writing, one

was history. They literally gave us an education and provided us with opportunities to like start working in community and raising the questions. And so, for me that was my path to like becoming more organized and politicized ran parallel with my path of like being a writer. And that happened together. I don’t think for me it could have happened any other way now that I reflect on it. And then at the same time, they’re like, bringing Grace Lee Boggs into the classroom and also telling us to go to Detroit and taking us out there in certain instances. 


I always tell the story, like my grand scheme was to become a hip-hop journalist and like just move to New York and see where that went. And Professor Lawsin was just like... she very clearly encouraged me not to go in that path, but rather apply to Asian American Studies master's program at UCLA, where she had also graduated and many incredible folks had gone through that and go out there. And she, she assured me that I would get in. I think she's just encouraging me knowing that not a lot of people from the Midwest apply, you know, it's like, you'll have a great chance of getting in. And so I did and I got in and it was really framed to me, because of the way they talked about, you know, their time in LA, that I was going there less to be a part of an academic program, but going there more to kind of be immersed in this rich legacy of Asian American organizing, to like get trained by their mentors and other people they valued. And so like, post U of M, that was like the next step.


I met Glenn Omatsu, who is like a critical mentor to them and still doing like incredible work in higher education, in the UC schools. He taught basically what amounts to an organizing class. Having someone like him. He's referred to as Yoda, because he doesn't talk a lot. He lets you work out your questions. And so he'll take you out to eat. I forgot what the noodle joint was called, but that's where I think everyone met him for like lunch to talk. And you'd come with like this problem that you faced in organizing. And just like everything he's already seen like 3 million times. And he knows all the players too, which makes it even more interesting and like, you just start talking and you like ask your ask him questions, but he wouldn't ever answer them. You would just end up asking the next question and then to help you like, understand or realize something. And then he might drop like a very concrete bit of wisdom where he'll like, reference or contextualize what you're going through. You know, so like me not knowing LA organizing history and history in the Korean community or Asian American community, he would provide me with like, just enough context, I'd be like, oh, okay, okay, okay. I see what you're saying. 


Asian American organizing in LA influenced Wasinee, too, in a different way. The summer between her 2nd and 3rd year at UIC, she took part in a youth leadership program led by the Japanese American Citizens League that’s based in LA. The program brought together youth from all over the country and showed them landmarks in Asian American history.


Wasinee: I went to Manzanar...the heat in that place, I think I almost passed out. It was during that week when I went to Los Angeles. I was exposed to social justice. The point of the program was so that hopefully people would become more involved after the program. And so, seeing how sad it is, how people are silenced in very subtle ways, I think, made me want to do something about it. Seeing that Asian Americans did make a difference, because I didn’t learn it within the history books while I was in high school or anything. I didn’t learn about Asian Americans, really…


It led her to change her major from pre-nursing to public policy, with the goal of pursuing social justice work.


Steve: As far as my work with and at, UIC in particular and with the professors over time, with the students over time. You know, I just think it's, it's increasingly being difficult to keep programs like Global Asian Studies, you know, afloat and legitimized. Certainly students, Asian American students, students of color, are facing incredible barriers, you know, to education but in higher education and their lives outside of school. And so, when I think about these moments that I get to work, especially with college students being that this is a significant part of my narrative. Becoming an organizer, folks looking at me in any certain way. I really do think that for Asian American students with the privilege to attend higher ed, it is just such a critical time to be able to introduce education in a liberatory fashion, that develops a critical analysis of schools and education and what that means, but also really like nurtures and facilitates, and I'm still, you know, pushes, like, actually like, challenges young people to organize in the community around issues and and, and think about that role between even universities and, and the community. Just like continuing to think about what is the, what is the best educational system that can remain sustainable at UIC, but really impart a radical or revolutionary education upon its students. Like to me, it's great to like see that and I think in Chicago we need, especially the big institutions, but for me, like the public ones, like UIC, where I know like, a lot of the young people I worked with, you know, they'll go to like Harold Washington or Truman and then like, eventually end up at UIC, like, how to continue to cultivate that. Truly cultivate that power building. I mean, that's something that I hope to continue to see, and I believe there's probably more things we can do to like make that happen. And so I'm eager to see how that happens. I hope it's really guided by students. And, and in partnership with, with faculty, but yeah, I don't know. I guess. I feel like you know, put the students in charge of education. Some pretty great things are gonna happen. 


Steve Moon is now a program officer for the Grand Victoria Foundation, and continues to support youth development and cultural work as a board member of Kuumba Lynx. 


Wasinee Siewsrichol earned her Bachelors in Public Policy from UIC in December 2019, and now works as a certified nursing assistant. When it’s safe to do so following the Covid-19 pandemic, she plans to teach English abroad, then pursue graduate school.


From the Global Asian Studies program at UIC, this is Community Forces.


Community Forces was created by Dr. Karen Su and Dr. Corinne Kodama, and this episode was produced by Sarah Eli Lu--that’s me.  With production help from Caroline Lee and Lubna Shah. Ari Schwartz composed our theme music. Additional music by Blue Dot Sessions.