In November 2004, Rethinking Schools convened a group of educators at the University of Illinois-Chicago to discuss the small schools movement. At this meeting, Debbie Wei gave the following description of a new small school that Asian Americans United is opening this fall in Philadelphia. — The Editors
After more than 10 years of discussion, Asian Americans United (AAU), decided to apply for a charter to start an elementary school. Applying for a charter was a political choice. We were initially reluctant because we see some groups using charters as a way to further an agenda of privatization.
Our vision of the school is informed by what we see happening to young people in our community. More than at any time in AAU’s 20 years of working with young people, we find children dealing with the assault of materialism and hyper-individualism — defining themselves by the stuff they own. We see the breakdown of community and family at an unprecedented level. We watch as elders are “abandoned” in our community by families who have no time for them.
Once I was doing a workshop on human rights with some young people who had recently arrived from China. I asked them to consider what they felt were their own human rights priorities. One youth declared the most important human right was the right to be loved. He spoke passionately about how his parents never had time to be with their children — they worked 16 hours a day, seven days a week in restaurants and sweatshops. This child felt his fundamental human right to be loved was violated by the social conditions under which his family struggled to survive.
We decided that if we were to build a school, it had to be a school that was consciously a school for democracy, a school for self-governance, a school for creation of community. We needed to build a school that was consciously anti-individualistic, anti-racist, anti-isolationist, and anti-materialist. We wanted the school to be a place where children can reclaim a sense of community. And we wanted children to have an alternative way to measure their sense of worth — aside from the “stuff” they were being urged to buy.
We decided to fight to put the school in Chinatown for a number of reasons. Chinatown has about 4,000 residents, a quarter of them children. The median income for Chinatown families is about $8,000, and unemployment in Chinatown is double the city’s average. Some 50 percent of the population has not finished high school. Because of encroaching gentrification, many immigrant families can no longer afford to live in Chinatown and many who reside there are categorized as “homeless” because of overcrowding. Yet Chinatown does not have one single publicly funded institution within its borders — no public school, no library, no health center, no community center, recreation center, or senior citizen center.
Asians in Philadelphia have no political power, so we were never going to get a school the regular way. The city’s never going to turn around and say, “Gee, you have a thousand kids; you need a public school.” We wanted to carve some space for the community that has claimed this space for the past 150 years. We knew we would have to go the charter route to try and get a school in the community.
Our goal has been to open a multi-racial school that would serve the specific needs of immigrant populations. Chinatown is centrally located in Philadelphia and easy to get to from all over the city. And as a community that has continuously housed immigrants over 150 years, we felt a Chinatown location was also psychologically “open” as a site for a school serving immigrant populations. The community’s history could serve as a tremendous resource for the children in the school.
We decided to start by creating an elementary school because we think you need to start young to build democratic and anti-commercial sensibilities. In order to create the sense of community and caring we want to sustain at the school, we know it’s going to be a small school with two classes of each grade.
We decided to build our school around the theme of folk arts for a number of reasons. We have worked for years with the Philadelphia Folklore Project, our partner in this proposal. We felt that in order to rebuild the sense of community among our children we needed to bring the elders into the school. And we also felt we needed to include those elders in a way that the knowledge and the skills they have are honored.
Folk arts challenge the notion that knowledge is a commodity — a thing that you do to get a grade or to get a job. Folk arts are the way we have passed knowledge and values from generation to generation in our community. The values that are embedded in a lot of the folk arts our elders practice are counter-materialist. When we do this art, students learn outside of institutions. They learn it not because they’re going to make a lot of money out of it, but because the community needs it. For example, Sifu, who teaches kung fu and does lion dance and dragon dance in the community, doesn’t make a lot of money. But if we didn’t have the lion dancers, there would be no celebration. Some of Sifu’s students have been with him for 20 years.
Learning these traditional forms is about persistence, patience, and respect. It’s not fast and easy, with instant gratification. We said, “Look, our elders are holding on to precisely the things that we need to give our young people to counter the influences of the larger society.”
In our community, we have folk artists in the city who are just dying spiritually because they don’t have a community to practice in. They don’t have folks to pass the traditions on to. As artists, they are meant to be mentors. Our elders have culturally rich and relevant knowledge — foodways, textiles, dance, music, stories — they can bring to the learning process.
The small changes we can make anywhere to reclaim our humanity can change the world. I think if we can make this little school in a little Chinatown happen, it can create possibilities for reclaiming our communities and our children.
It’s a way to rebuild hope and help reclaim our human right to be loved.