BY CHRIS PHAN, APIAVOTE
“ARISE has affected me extremely positively when it comes to my growth both work wise and internally. Through ARISE I have learned how to be more open minded, was taught that my voice holds as much power as anyone else, and recognized that my compassion and empathy for others is not a weakness.”
Symone Burrell, ARISE Lead Organizer
Contrary to the popular narrative of the model minority myth, Southeast Asian Americans (SEAAs)—specifically, Cambodians, Hmong, Laotians and Vietnamese— struggle from long-term poverty, language and literacy issues, and post-traumatic stress disorders linked with their forced migration and uneven resettlement support from the United States. These challenges are more often than not hidden due to the way data is aggregated in the overall Asian American Pacific Islander umbrella. As a result, Southeast Asian Americans often don’t receive the support and resources that they need — especially regarding educational resources.
In response to this, Alliance of Rhode Island Southeast Asians for Education (ARISE), first incorporated in 2016, works with Rhode Island Southeast Asian students and other students of color to increase their leadership, educational and academic success. Chanda Womack, the executive director of ARISE, points out, “We weren’t a population that was perceived as needing resources. [Southeast Asian Americans] were lumped in with other Asian Americans — and no one was paying attention to us.”
As an education-focused organization, ARISE centers youth in every aspect of its work. Their youth leaders, who include Black, Latinx, and Southeast Asian students from 13-18 organize major educational justice campaigns. Students, as a part of ARISE, are currently working in coalition with Providence Student Union (PSU) and the Providence Youth Student Movement (PrYSM) in a campaign called Counselors Not Cops demanding the need of schools to hire more guidance counselors and remove cops from schools. In 2017, working with PrYSM, ARISE passed the “All Students Count Act” for data disaggregation in Rhode Island [House Bill 5453; Senate Bill 439], which mandated the disaggregation of data in the schools to better understand the educational experiences of the many subgroups within the AAPI population. ARISE is also part of the OurSchoolsPvd which came together to demand youth voices be at the center of the state takeover or Providence Schools.* Here, youth were not only tackling symptoms of inequities, but also tackling the root causes of these inequities. Some of ARISE youth leaders currently are named plaintiffs in the Cook v. Raimondo case, which calls for a RIGHT to adequate education.** For all of their educational justice work ARISE was just recognized in Providence Monthly’s “Who to Watch in 2020.”
“ARISE has given me great opportunities since I’ve been doing activism work. Aside from work, arise has given me a safe space to become more self reflective and learn what it means to truly value myself. ARISE has taught me to value self love, be vulnerable and always stand firm on what I believe in, unapologetically.”
Salimatou Kaba, ARISE Junior Facilitator
But campaigns and organizing isn’t the only way ARISE cultivates youth leadership — they emphasize a holistic development of their youth community. Further youth-centered work comes in the form of ARISE’s community and academic programming. ARISE offers weekend SAT prep classes and weekly after school programs focused on topics including culturally responsive support systems, social justice, intergenerational leadership, and post-secondary prep and career exploration. During the summer, they host a support group on resiliency practices and skills named Hidden Lotus Circle. In partnership with the Providence Public School District, ARISE also offers credit bearing courses — ethnic studies units on the impact of the Vietnam War through the lens of power, privilege and oppression. What’s notable about these programs is that they’re designed for youth, but also take in significant feedback those that the programs serve, and adjust accordingly — as Chanda puts it, “[students] decide on what programs they want, the design of them, how they’re implemented. Their lived experience trumps ours.”
“ARISE has taught me things we don’t learn from school, and ways to be more open minded towards everyone and their situations. Not only that but ARISE has made me more independent, and I fight for what is needed not only for me but for others who don’t have the same opportunities as me.”
Ger Lee, ARISE Youth Leader
However, ARISE doesn’t focus exclusively on Southeast Asian students — they stress that above all, in order to lift students, to do educational justice work and address the root causes of institutional racism and white supremacy, they need to actively be in solidarity with other communities of color and do work through an anti-blackness lens. Educational justice and inequities in Rhode Island impacts all communities of color — half of ARISE’s student leadership identify as Black or Latinx, not Southeast Asian American. Chanda emphasized, “Our advocacy and organizing cannot come at the expense of other historically disenfranchised communities of color. We talk about anti-Asian sentiments, but not enough about anti-Blackness. But [as Southeast Asian Americans], we cannot talk about imperialization, colonization, historical traumaand intergenerational trauma without talking about enslavement of black folks and the genocide of indigenous folks.” A large amount of the work that they do, especially around youth-led activism and campaigns, is done with this framework — young people must lead the change they want to see. Youth leaders at ARISE are today engaged in learning about the historical legacies of anti-asian racism, which enables them to lead a campaign to combat hate crimes against Asian Americans due to COVID-19, and build racial solidarity with other people of color to combat racism & xenophobia.
Despite all of their programs and campaigns, Chanda emphasizes that ARISE’s hopes for the future aren’t about metrics, but about working with communities and staying true to the humanizing aspects of the work that they do. “It’s about this — are the six senses activated – are folks seeing us, hearing us, are we producing something that tangibly has impact? Are we breaking bread with other communities of color? How do people feel about the work of ARISE, do they feel like they have ownership? And of course, are we responsive to the work and need of the community? Do we have a level of foresight? These are the things that ultimately matter.”
*ARISE’s most recent time-sensitive organizing effort is in response to the state takeover of PPSD. In June 2019, John Hopkins University conducted and released a report on the conditions of PPSD that lacked the voices of the people who are most directly impacted: youth and their families. ARISE, with other youth organizations, took immediate actions of organizing youth testimonies and participated in meetings with the Commissioner and Mayor to advocate for inclusion of youth voices. With the support of the Center for Justice, ARISE youth took part in the effort to file a “motion to intervene”. While we were not granted the legal standing our action changed the trajectory of the state takeover, the Commissioner has included our ask that youth and families be centered in the reconstitution of our schools. ARISE was the only organization to have youth testify at the hearing. Please see below for our illustration created by an ARISE Youth Facilitator detailing our action leading up to our filing of the Motion to Intervene: http://www.ariseducation.org/organizing
**If students succeed in their case for Cook v. Ramundo, this would result in winning a constitutional right to an adequate education for all students in the nation. Folx can read more about it here: https://upriseri.com/2019-12-07-cook-v-raimondo/.