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Asian American and Pacific Islanders in national service

A conversation with Ji Soo Song, City Year Washington, D.C. alum

Basic Training Academy is a three to four week-long orientation where newly admitted City Year AmeriCorps members have an opportunity to “meet [their] service team, get prepared and trained for the year ahead, and learn about City Year’s mission, culture, values, and approach to addressing the nation’s dropout crisis.” AmeriCorps members attend full days of successive sessions, learning about everything from the organization’s history to the specific interventions used in partner classrooms.

I attended the 2017 BTA from July 24 – August 11, a short three weeks before the August 14th opening day for students attending extended-year schools in the District of Columbia. Each session I attended during this fast-paced preparation period was unique, featuring various opportunities for AmeriCorps members to apply the information given.

One particular session explaining the demographics of the nation’s capital divided AmeriCorps members into racial identity groups. I did not notice until I sat with the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) group that AAPI AmeriCorps members formed a minority in the D.C. corps. There were less than 10 of us in that circle.

I began to question why this was the case. Was it simply because AAPIs only represent 4.1% of the D.C. population? Possible. Was it reflective of the fact that AAPIs only make up 2% of the educator workforce? Also possible. Could it be that AAPIs between 17 and 25 (the eligibility age range for City Year AmeriCorps members) are less likely to participate in national service compared to their Caucasian or African American counterparts?

I do not know the definitive answer to this last question. But after my conversation with Ms. Soo Kim, the Korean-American kindergarten teacher at King Elementary School, I do believe that AAPIs have an important role to play in the field of public education. To expand on this point, on February 22, City Year D.C.’s AAPI Affinity Group invited a three-person panel of past AAPI AmeriCorps members to share their service stories and speak about their perspectives on why AAPIs should serve. Below is a paraphrased version of our conversation. The panelists have given me permission to use their names.

What are your names and where did you serve? What do you do currently?

Ashley Rattanawan served on the Cardozo Education Campus team during her service year. She now works as an Educational Aide at Raymond Education Campus and as an Associate Educator with the Smithsonian. Samhita Tankala first served on the Leckie Education Campus team then returned to serve a second year as a Senior AmeriCorps Civic Engagement Project Leader. She is now with Education Adivsory Board. Sahand Yazdanyar served on the Leckie Education Campus team and now works for a city council member in Baltimore.

How did you first get interested in serving with City Year (or education/service in general)?

The three panelists have vastly different stories about how they chose to serve with City Year.

Ashley studied education in college and taught middle schoolers as a student-teacher, after which she became unsure whether to pursue teaching as a career. She decided to serve after attending a job fair on her college campus that featured City Year.

Samhita studied marketing and communications in college, but decided to serve with City Year because a family member had also served as an AmeriCorps member. She grew up nearby in Maryland, but felt that she had not gotten to know the nation’s capital very well during her formative years. Therefore, she chose to join the DC corps.

Sahand was initially interested in a career in education policy, having studied political science in college. He was familiar with national service because his friends served with the Peace Corps and AmeriCorps VISTA. He chose to serve with City Year because he wanted to find a national service program with a shorter duration so he could pursue other opportunities in the future.

What is one interesting interaction you had with students that resulted from your AAPI heritage?
Many of the City Year AmeriCorps members in the AAPI affinity group have stories about unique moments of interaction with their students because of their heritage. For example, many of their students have touched and asked about their hair texture.

The three panelists all remembered moments that caught them off guard and described their method of turning those moments into learning experiences for their students.

Ashley served in a school with students from migrant families, some of whom were AAPIs. When they were bullied by other students because of their race, Ashley took the responsibility to make sure that those students felt supported by someone who looked like them.

Samhita served in a first-grade classroom and felt that many of the questions asked by her students about her appearance came from a place of genuine curiosity and not hate. She recalled a moment during her service year when one of her students asked her, “Do we believe in the same god?” This question took her by surprise, but Samhita took the opportunity to teach the student about her faith in Hinduism and expand the student’s views on religion.

Sahand recalled a moment when students engaged with him in a conversation about his Iranian background. He took the opportunity to point out Iran on a world map. Throughout the year, he taught his students bits and pieces of Farsi, a language used by Iranian people.

What is a culture shock moment you had due to differences between your childhood background and the environment of Southeast Washington, D.C.?

Growing up in a privileged neighborhood in Maryland, Samhita felt that education was always the number one priority in her hometown community. She noticed that the environment of Southeast D.C. often does not reflect that same value. However, she also recognized that it is much more difficult for a parent in Southeast D.C., who may work multiple jobs, to support their child to the same extent (e.g. helping with homework, regularly engaging with the teacher, etc.). Therefore, she felt that she could leverage her role as a City Year AmeriCorps member to emphasize the value of education to her students.

Do you have any advice for AAPIs currently serving or considering serving in the future?

All three panelists would like future AAPI AmeriCorps members to know that they will occasionally hear upsetting comments about their race from students. Although it will be tough, such comments should never be taken personally and instead used as an opportunity to teach and expand students’ world views, showing that someone who does not look like them can also unconditionally support them. For example, Sahand described a moment when he was called “ISIS” by a student that was feeling angry on a particular day. Instead of responding negatively, Sahand recognized this expression of frustration from his student and explained to his student why that was not appropriate. The student eventually apologized to Sahand.

How has your identity as an AAPI combined with your City Year experiences impact you in your current job?

Ashley and Samhita believe that their experiences at City Year Washington, DC made them more aware of their identity as an AAPI and gave them pride in bringing that background to the working world. Sahand’s experience, on the other hand, influenced him to continue serving others in difficult situations by volunteering to help with the refugee crisis in Greece.

What books would you recommend for incoming AAPI AmeriCorps members?

Sahand recommends book titles like “For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood . . . and the Rest of Y’all Too” by Christopher Emdin and “The New Jim Crow” by Michelle Alexander. He also recommends “Ear Hustle”, a podcast recorded by two inmates currently incarcerated at San Quentin State Prison.

The AAPI Affinity Group thanks Ashley Rattanawan, Samhita Tankala and Sahand Yazdanyar again for taking the time to share their experiences.

Ji Soo Song is the coordinator for the AAPI Affinity Group.

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