A Conversation with AALEAD Staff Mecca!

By Neel Saxena, Executive Director interviewing Mecca McPherson, MD Middle School Program Coordinator

Photos courtesy of AALEAD Staff

As February wrapped up last Friday, Mecca and I sat down for a conversation and we talked about how she became connected to AALEAD, the pervasive sentiment of anti-blackness in the community, her lesson plan on Black-Asian Solidarity, and how AALEAD as well as other Asian American groups can better support Black communities. Like for many youth workers working with young people during this weather, sickness is unfortunately quite constant at AALEAD offices. Despite this, Mecca’s powerful voice still spread through the mask she had on! – Neel

Tell us about your connection to AALEAD?

Mecca: I was surprised that I was hired to work at AALEAD … because I’m Black. I grew up in the Florida Panhandle, but not until I went to Howard University and learned about Black and African American history/culture that I realize I did not know that much about it. I never thought I was going to get this position, I would have the opportunity to work with young people – but it would be with a different population that I would be interested in learning more about. AALEAD was also very multicultural with Black and African American youth who were in programming.

Neel: I reflect on Mecca’s strength as a person and belief in herself to step out of her comfort zone to explore something new and thrive. It is this quality that brought her to attend Howard, an unfamiliar space and then to AALEAD as a summer intern and then officially joining our staff later as MD Middle School Program Coordinator. Both at Howard and AALEAD, we all saw the incredible force in Mecca!

There is a pervasive sentiment of anti-blackness in the Asian American community, have you encountered it through work and how did you feel about it?

Mecca: I think there is a divide between Black and Asian communities – with the model minority and being touted on a pedestal, while blackness is juxtaposed. Instead of just asking each other about their histories, it became about blaming each other. It is so unfortunate about that. I feel that as minorities, we are more likely to accept white people in our spaces or enter their spaces and feel at ‘home’ than with each other … I feel anti-blackness in the Asian community is also because of anti-black media that is out in the world and because of generational prejudices. Some of my youth from last year were multi-racial Asian and Black and I could tell they internalized some anti-black sentiments. Even this year, I have notice that in some of the youth, they kind of only see blackness as a caricature of what people are. Like when you think of black people, you think of hip hop and cursing and crime, that’s kind of it and “that’s cool” or “I don’t like that”.

When or if I felt anti-black sentiment and wanted to connect with youth in the AALEAD family, I would address them individually with questions such as do you think that this is because of an opinion that you have, or because you have a false belief that is not true, and maybe we should have a structure laid out time to discuss more about this. That made me really wanted to do a lesson to sort of just remind them of the amazing people who came before them – I don’t think they would have encountered these people in their schools, or their parents would even know to include it in conversations. When I was younger, there was not any in school teaching about anything that was empowering … but when I would read slave narratives and all they did to escape and incredible things they did to battle for liberation, I felt empowered … I feel youth are missing out on that. I feel like the youth have an opportunity to be empowered if they had a chance to learn about people who look like themselves.

Neel: I have thought about the anti-blackness often in my life and how I have played a role in that narrative often unaware because I have the privilege to be aloof. I reflect on Meccas words and actions that take individual interactions and broaden her impact to the entire class: from an individual conversation to a lesson plan. I think about my own interactions and how as a leader, I can broaden lessons I have learned that inform my leadership to how the organization operates.

Last year you worked on a Black – Asian Solidarity Lesson – why did you want to work on this lesson? How did you personally feel about the lesson?

Mecca: I’m really #blessed and thankful that my youth and their families have always been super sweet and respectful. Sometimes youth in programs will say things that are a little cringe-y, but that’s middle school – I like to have opportunities to talk through stereotypes and transfer ideas with each other. Youth will share about if they are trolling (doing/saying something offensive to receive attention or a reaction from the audience), if they believe something that is untrue, or if they believe something and it is just an opinion. It’s just nice to talk through things.

I am really happy to see how youth reject stereotypes and generational baggage in real time, forming relationships and bonds as a result regardless of race. I noticed most of my youth were not aware of minority leaders or movements in any real way. So during the Black and Asian Solidarity Lesson last year, youth learned about: Yuri Kochiyama, Bayard Rustin, the Dalit Panthers and Black Panthers, Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, Sue Bailey Thurman, and Jawaharlal Nehru. I did another similar lesson, but this year, I included Latinx leaders and movements, and OMG the youth were sooo fired up! They were happy to know the work that the ancestors put in for them, these people some decades ago went through all of this just so we all could have a fair shot and I don’ t think that sacrifice was in vain. It is so beautiful to see!

Neel: I was fortunate enough, as an ED, to see this lesson plan in action to middle school youth and it struck me how the education system devalues the strength of youth to engage in this topic. I saw how Mecca, like other middle school coordinators, take complex ideas and make it accessible and related for youth to start a discussion.

In your opinion and from your experiences, what are some ways you’d like to see Asian American groups like AALEAD support the Black community?

Mecca: Groups like AALEAD would benefit from have collaborative events (or even curriculum themes) with Black non-profits that do similar work for youth or just organizations that do work in predominantly black communities. We can have mentoring events and invite organizations like Concerned Black Men so both mentors and youth are available to mingle with people they may never have had the chance to meet.

This area is a melting pot, so people often SEE each other, but we don’t interact, we don’t highlight each other’s accomplishments and exalt in them together. Youth from AALEAD and a similar black org could be going to see screenings of Black Panther and Crazy Rich Asians together and then doing some sort of reflection activity afterwards!

I think that support is kind of a hard word to define because both of our communities are floating – we are getting by with what supports we have, but what we need is liberation! The way that we get there is through real human connection, as friends! We should be worshiping together, we should be talking to our family members and loved ones who say disparaging things about the others’ race. We need to give each other the opportunity to be seen and that we are more than our differences!

Neel: The idea of connecting youth is something that has been missing in many spaces and doing it in a way that supports conversation is often lost by adults. We feel that having a dialogue is the best way, but we forget the perspectives and perceptions of young people. As AALEAD moves forward and grows, connecting various communities through engaging activities is the added piece of the focus and we will start with our communities.

Thank you, Mecca, for sharing your words!

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