PHILADELPHIA Wei Chen honed his organizing skills as a student during a boycott triggered by racial violence at South Philadelphia High School four years ago. On Sunday, he was awarded a fellowship that will help him continue organizing Asian youth.
"Organizing is one of the best ways to change our society," said Chen, who grew up in China's Fujian Province, where organizing was not tolerated.
Chen, 22, is one of 10 young people to receive the inaugural Peace First Prize, which is supported by various foundations and which celebrates those who have confronted injustice.
The $50,000 fellowship, spread over two years, will allow Chen to focus solely on organizing Asian youth in Philadelphia, forgoing various part-time jobs he's held in child care and restaurants.
"There are not a lot of resources for [Asian students] to talk about a fight or another issue in their school," Chen said in an interview Sunday night.
He is an organizer of Asian Americans United in Philadelphia, leading workshops and training at schools that include the history of discrimination and social justice.
Chen emigrated to Philadelphia when he was 16 with his mother and two sisters to settle with his father, who had arrived seven years earlier.
It was at Southern, as the high school is known, that Chen's role as an organizer took hold.
"When I went to South Philadelphia High School, I got beat up," he said. "After I started doing organizing, I got beat up again. Many of my friends got beat up."
The violence culminated on Dec. 3, 2009, when groups of mostly African American students attacked 30 Asian classmates, sending seven to hospitals.
That day sparked a contentious, weeklong boycott led by Chen that attracted international news coverage. A subsequent federal investigation found the School District of Philadelphia was "deliberately indifferent" to violence and harassment against Asians, prompting a settlement that mandated broad remedies.
Chen graduated in 2010. He's continued to organize and speak at conferences across the country. He's also taken classes at Community College of Philadelphia to improve his English, as well as a class in photography.
He said he'll return to college one day. For now, he's focused on helping students.
All 10 First Peace Prize recipients displayed compassion and courage to help fuel positive changes in their local communities, according to the organization. The winners, who range in age from 9 to 22, received the prize Sunday at the New York Public Library.
"If I didn't get this fellowship, I would continue to do youth organizing," Chen said, but he wouldn't have as much time.