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Bread & Roses names Chinatown activists for Emerging Leaders award

Kaia Chau and Taryn Flaherty were born and raised to be activists.

Kaia Chau (right) and Taryn Flaherty (left), cofounders of Students for the Preservation of Chinatown, have been awarded the Bread & Roses Community Fund’s Emerging Leaders Award.
Kaia Chau (right) and Taryn Flaherty (left), cofounders of Students for the Preservation of Chinatown, have been awarded the Bread & Roses Community Fund’s Emerging Leaders Award.Read moreTYGER WILLIAMS / Staff Photographer

The white T-shirt enveloped Taryn Flaherty’s body, hanging to her knees. The bold, red lettering on the front read “NO STADIUM CASINO IN CHINATOWN,” and she and her best friend, Kaia Chau, were holding a yellow-and-black sign that reiterated the message.

It was 2008, and Chinatown was fighting another big development project that threatened the integrity and existence of the neighborhood and community. Flaherty and Chau were 5 and 6 years old, respectively. And they were born and raised to be activists.

“It was specifically Asian American women who we were growing up around, who were leading those conversations and fights,” said Flaherty. “They were both my teachers and mentors, but also my caretakers. Being surrounded by that much love and care and passion just naturally bleeds into my own life.”

Fifteen years later, Flaherty and Chau have been chosen for the Bread & Roses Community Fund’s Emerging Leaders Award for the activism against the proposed Sixers arena that they have led over the last year as cofounders of Students for the Preservation of Chinatown (SPOC). Founded in the ‘70s, Bread & Roses is a leading funder for grassroots activist movements across Philadelphia.

“Kaia and Taryn were nominated through a community call, and they were chosen by our planning committee because they have really stepped up to organize their peers to fight for Chinatown’s right to determine its own future,” Yahya Alazrak, board member of the fund, said in a statement. “The planning committee also admired how thoughtfully their organizing builds on the work of generations who have come before them.”

Through marches, teach-ins, and more, SPOC has been on the front lines, combating the arena proposed for the southern border of Chinatown — raising concerns about traffic, gentrification, and displacement among the historic neighborhood’s residents, business owners, and patrons.

During Chinatown’s past fights against big development, Flaherty and Chau watched their community organize. Chau vividly remembers a City Council meeting they attended with their activist mothers: Helen Gym, Flaherty’s mother, and Asian Americans United cofounder Debbie Wei, Chau’s mother. Chau and Flaherty were sitting in the upper wings of the room, watching their mothers testify about why a casino would be detrimental to the community.

» READ MORE: A how-to guide for fighting big development

“I remember holding our little signs and just feeling very powerful, as small as we were,” Chau said. “I remember the feeling of being able to make change and speak up against authority … having the opportunity to confront these adults that were so much older than us that we knew were exploiting our communities.”

Having Wei and Gym as their mothers played a significant role in Chau and Flaherty’s eventual self-led activism, but so did the community they grew up in.

Both attended the Folk Arts-Cultural Treasures Charter School (FACTS) in Chinatown, which was founded in 2005 to create a more immigrant-friendly education experience in Chinatown, which also had no public school. Attending FACTS, they said, provided a critical foundation of cultural and political awareness, Asian American identity, and fighting injustice.

Aside from FACTS, Philadelphia’s Chinatown emphasizes generational activism — working in unity across all ages and passing the torch down so the next generation can carry on the fight. Couple that with the stories they would hear about the fight against a proposed Phillies stadium in 2000, having front-row seats to the fight against the casino in 2008, and being able to call Chinatown’s most notorious activists “Auntie” — it was inevitable that Flaherty and Chau would follow the footsteps of their ancestors.

“We have all these tools that organizers have been collecting over decades.”

Taryn Flaherty

“Kaia and I are the generation that got created because these women and these activists had fought so hard for us,” Flaherty said. “We have all these tools that organizers have been collecting over decades, and the resources and brains to fight back. It’s empowering.”

Chau always thinks back to the 2002 documentary Look Forward and Carry on the Past, about Chinatown and the fight against the Phillies stadium. Wei, Chau’s mother, is the last voice heard.

» READ MORE: Meet the women who lead the fight for Chinatown’s existence in Philly

“The future of Chinatown is going to be a huge battle. Even though we won the fight against the stadium, it’s going to continue to be a battle for the right for the community to exist, to exist with dignity, to exist having the things that a community should have,” she said. “We’re gonna fight it, and then my children are probably gonna have to fight it, as well.”

When Chau hears that last sentence, it almost appears to be a prophecy manifested. Here she is, 20 years later, doing exactly what her mother predicted. It feels surreal. But it also feels right.