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Asian American group fights against injustice

Less than 24 hours earlier, 30 Asian students said they had been attacked by roaming groups of mostly African American classmates at South Philadelphia High School. Now the bruised and beaten were telling their stories to the TV cameras, backed by leaders of the Asian community.

At the office of Asian Americans United, director Ellen Somekawa (left) meets with (from left) Judy Ha, Betty Lui, and Neeta Patel. (Charles Fox / Staff Photographer)
At the office of Asian Americans United, director Ellen Somekawa (left) meets with (from left) Judy Ha, Betty Lui, and Neeta Patel. (Charles Fox / Staff Photographer)Read more

Less than 24 hours earlier, 30 Asian students said they had been attacked by roaming groups of mostly African American classmates at South Philadelphia High School. Now the bruised and beaten were telling their stories to the TV cameras, backed by leaders of the Asian community.

Helen Gym, a board member at Asian Americans United, directed the crowd like a traffic cop, connecting parents with interpreters and kids with reporters. Her cell phone wouldn't stop ringing. A few steps away, talking to a TV journalist, AAU executive director Ellen Somekawa lambasted the School District of Philadelphia, which she would later accuse of "a total lack of moral leadership."

In the days after that edgy Dec. 4 news conference at the Chinese Christian Church, Somekawa took pains to say that AAU was only one part of a larger coalition of Asian organizations. But from the start, it was obvious that AAU was in charge, framing the community response, as it had done many times before.

It was AAU that led the massive 2000 protest that opposed construction of a Phillies baseball stadium north of Chinatown and that pushed to build a multicultural charter school on the site. AAU helped organize Chinatown parents to demand better schools, blocked plans for a federal prison in Chinatown, worked to help a young illegal immigrant stay in the United States after she miscarried during a rough, forcible deportation attempt in 2006.

This year, AAU celebrates its silver anniversary, marking 25 years as a tenacious, pugnacious advocate. In its time, AAU has given voice to the voiceless and strength to the weak - and in the process succeeded in antagonizing innumerable politicians and elected leaders.

"One of the most disrespectful groups I've ever had to deal with," said City Councilman Frank DiCicco, whose district includes Chinatown. At a contentious 2008 forum on plans for a Market Street casino, he recalled, he was repeatedly, angrily shouted down.

"It was ugly," DiCicco said. "They immediately started using the race card, saying I didn't care about them because it was Chinatown."

In an interview, Somekawa acknowledged that the crowd was angry that night because DiCicco had stated his intention to introduce casino-zoning legislation without consulting people in the neighborhood.

"If you're comparing being treated rudely at a community meeting with trying to ram gambling down a community's throat, I don't think they're comparable," Somekawa said. "We had to stand up strong and loud."

AAU doesn't seek confrontation, she said, but it insists on speaking out against injustice, particularly in institutions such as schools.

"What we try to do is act with integrity and stick to our principles," Somekawa said. "But it ends up being a situation where we are not the group that has the most fans in City Hall or the school district."

That outsider status brings drawbacks and benefits.

The cons? AAU's annual budget is a shoestring $165,000, according to its latest IRS filing. Its paid staff consists of Somekawa and a half-time assistant, operating out of a one-room office in the Folk Arts Cultural Treasures School.

The pros? Because its budget is small and its staff limited, AAU has little to lose, giving it freedom of thought, deed, and purpose. Its leaders don't have to wonder whether criticizing a particular politician will cost them funding.

The group survives on small grants from entities including the William Penn Foundation, the Philadelphia Cultural Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts.

With very little money and a lot of volunteer labor, AAU puts on the Mid-Autumn Festival, which draws thousands to Chinatown for music, drama, and dance. To outsiders, the 14-year-old festival may look like a typical ethnic celebration. But AAU sees the event as part of a larger goal, a means to nurture relationships, culture, and community - the basis of social change.

From the start, AAU has focused on youth, training young Asian men and women to lead and organize.

It has run several small, little-noticed programs, such as a community garden in Chinatown. And it loses as many fights as it wins. That garden was paved over for parking.

To prepare for the 25th anniversary, former staffers and volunteers held a reunion in November. This month, at the Philadelphia Folklore Project gallery, two artists will offer a visual history of the Mid-Autumn Festival.

There are no formal plans to cut a cake, though it would be interesting to see who would come to a party. The list of officials with whom AAU has battled is a veritable who's who.

The roll includes Gov. Rendell, with whom AAU scrapped when he was Philadelphia mayor, notably over the closing of the Greenwich Library in 1993; veteran Chinatown leader Cecilia Moy Yep, who predicted AAU's school would immerse children in "an ideology of protest"; and Schools Superintendent Arlene Ackerman, who was blistered by AAU criticism over the violence at South Philadelphia High.

Mayor Nutter, who felt AAU heat over casinos and South Philadelphia High violence, said last week that he believed the group's leaders were "doing what they feel is in the best interest of their constituency."

"They've always been respectful, straightforward, and vocal," he said.

State Rep. Michael O'Brien (D., Phila.) also tangled with AAU over plans for a downtown casino. His position, he said, was that if a casino led a Market Street revival, it could be good. If the plan amounted to stuffing slot machines into an old building, it would be bad.

"I was obligated to vet [the project] through a process. They didn't like it," O'Brien said. "They were fired up."

Others say AAU gets too much credit, that if the governor and mayor had truly wanted the stadium built near Chinatown, it would be there now. And that it was economics, not AAU opposition, that stalled the casino.

Which is not to say AAU is unloved. The group has thousands of supporters, many of whom rose through its youth-leadership project.

"If it weren't for AAU, I wouldn't be where I am now," said Sookyung Oh, who in 1993 walked into the AAU office looking for a part-time job. Today she's program director of the National Korean American Service and Education Consortium, a civil-rights group with offices in Los Angeles and Washington.

"There's a lot of agencies that provide social services," Oh said. "But at some point you have to ask yourself, 'What about having people speak up for themselves?' So that next year, and the year after that, they don't have to come back with the same problems that require the same social services. That's the role AAU plays."

AAU dates its history from 1985, but the events and conversations that led to it began years before.

In 1981, recent college graduate Deborah Wei returned from a trip to Hong Kong to take a city job helping Southeast Asian refugees in West Philadelphia. The immigrants faced not just racial slurs but assaults in the schools and on the streets. Asians in South Philadelphia also were being attacked.

At the time, Philadelphia's Asian population was surging, driven by post-Vietnam War resettlement. Today the Asian population is 79,663, accounting for 5 percent of the city.

Among the people Wei consulted were former members of Yellow Seeds, a local, radical '60s group. The practical effect of that meeting was that AAU would have a core of experienced activists.

Wei, now principal of the Folk Arts Cultural Treasures School, envisioned "a group larger than any single individual, outside of the mainstream structure, that could come in and advocate for change."

In its first campaign in 1985, AAU organized a rent strike by Cambodian and Vietnamese refugees at the Admiral Court housing project in West Philadelphia. The next year it supported a groundbreaking lawsuit that claimed the schools failed to educate children who were still learning English. In the 1990s, AAU insisted on fair play for six Asians charged with killing a white man in Southwest Philadelphia.

"AAU's work demonstrated that Asian Americans in Philadelphia would organize, fight, and resist when threatened," wrote University of Michigan historian Scott Kurashige, who analyzed AAU in a study.

That spirit endures. Last month AAU helped file a federal civil-rights complaint against the district over the attacks at the high school.

"We fight injustices as they come along, like the casino and South Philadelphia High School violence, but also have an orientation toward building the community," Somekawa said. "The landscape of Philly politics would be very different if we weren't around."