Youth Agents of Change – A Look into the DC Youth Council

By Charles Kuo, DC Programs Manager

Photos courtesy of AALEAD Staff

At Asian American LEAD, Youth Council has been an opportunity for youth looking to build their leadership skills and gain skills in event planning, group facilitation and processing, collaborative work, budget management, and outreach and communications. Youth Council is a good space for youth to engage in their leadership skills (that they already possess) and critically think about the issues that are happening within the Washington DC region.  Youth Council serves as a forum to foster communication, education, and information concerning youth and youth-related issues. Members of a Youth Council can engage in community decision-making and take action to make positive change happen.

This year, the DC region has decided to implement a reiteration of Youth Council by engaging AALEAD youth in Youth Participatory Action Research (YPAR). Youth Participatory Action Research (YPAR) “provides young people opportunities to study social problems affecting their lives and then determine actions to rectify these problems” (Dimitriadis, 2008).  Youth collectively choose a topic that is related to a problem that they are facing in their community, which then leads to the purpose of the study. Once a purpose is developed, youth come up with a question that can be researched. Youth create a set of methods on how they want to gather their data, then work together to analyze the gathered data, reflect, develop recommendations, and come up with an action plan.

AALEAD Youth Council presented their YPAR topic to Chinatown residents

In 2019, Asian American LEAD DC Youth Council have collectively created the following topic, issue, purpose, and research question: 

  1. Topic: Gentrification
  2. Issue: Due to the gentrification in Chinatown people are forced to move out of their homes affecting the Asian American culture and communities in DC.
  3. Purpose: As AALEAD Youth Council, we want to be in solidarity with Asian Americans in Chinatown because we see the value of not only the structures but also those who reside and resided in the community.
  4. Research Question: How have Asian American youth and their families in DC’s Chinatown been affected by gentrification? What are the needs of this community? How does AALEAD respond to these needs?

Aaron, our DC Middle & High School Coordinator, has previously supported youth in the Bay Area through YPAR, but, shares that the youth in AALEAD have taken this approach to new heights: In the past, I’ve worked with youth who are addressing the issues that they are seeing youth setting. We are really addressing the issues in Chinatown specifically. It’s given me the opportunity to really learn how (especially) the youth are able to navigate the spaces in Washington DC and really see them be engaged and passionate in what they are researching.”  As their adviser, Aaron provides clarity and support for youth to come up with their own answers, analyze their own data, and determine their own research methods. The youth council meets once a week and “part of the meeting is me letting them know what they’ve done… I give them space to discuss and work on their research/presentations on their own”, says Aaron.

AALEAD Youth Council facilitated a presentation on YPAR to a Student Advocacy Class at the University of Maryland

Through this project, youth have presented their research to the larger community. In February, Youth Council presented YPAR and conducted quantitative research, with the help of Shani Shih, Tenant Services Specialist for the Housing Counseling Services of Washington D.C, to over 35 residents in Chinatown. In addition, Youth Council facilitated a presentation on YPAR to a Student Advocacy Class at the University of Maryland, College Park.

Aaron has witnessed that the DC Youth are realizing the impact of their work, “At first, they thought it was just a research project, but as the youth actually conducted the research together as a youth council and built camaraderie to put this project into motion – these youth are doing a project that could potentially help and support the Chinatown community. They are, at the end of this, essentially creating change within themselves, in the community, and in the AALEAD community.” and that the community has welcomed and praised their work, “a lot of the feedback was that they were impressed by the overall presentation and how the youth are able to conduct very sophisticated research.”

This past week, I had some time to speak to our DC Youth Council – Alyssa O., Maricarmen O., and Diane N. – and I was excited to learn about their perspectives, experiences, and insights while participating in YPAR.

What is the DC Youth Council?  

DN: We are a group of youth who want to see something happening in our communities. We want to address the issues around us, the ones that people see or might not see, we want to raise awareness about it. 

MO: We are a group of youth who strive to make a change.

AO: We are group of youth from AALEAD. We represent all the youth in AALEAD and we also try to give back to our community.

What is Youth Participatory Action Research (YPAR)?

MO: YPAR is a project for a group of youth to have ownership of and we focus on certain problems in the community. This year we are focusing on gentrification in Chinatown. So far we have gathered surveys from residents in Wah Luck House and Museum Square. We are hoping to understand what they know about gentrification and what’s happening around them. Through more data, we can find more ways to resolve the problem in Chinatown.

AO: It’s a youth-led research project. Youth focus on issues around our community and we research on that topic and then we create action plans based on the data we gather.

“At AALEAD, with youth council, we actually go into depth about a topic. We do something about it and come up with a resolution.”

What interests you about YPAR and the topic that you are working on?    

Youth conducted interviews with Chinatown residents

DN: In school, there are projects similar to this but it’s not necessarily based on an actual topic that is affecting us. There’s research involved but our motivation is just to get a good grade or learn about an idea. At AALEAD,  with youth council, we actually go into depth about a topic. We do something about it and come up with a resolution.

AO: With YPAR, I like that we can choose a topic that we feel is important. As a group, we decided what to research I really like that we can focus on the Asian American Community in Chinatown. In school, I don’t really learn about issues that focus on the Asian American community. At school, other minority group issues are talked about more.  I don’t really know about Chinatown that much, I don’t live there and I don’t go there often. But, through this project, I’m learning about the culture and community there. I’m learning about its history by being there and talking to its residents.

What challenges have you experienced in Youth Council and what have you learned from them?  

DN: Youth council lets us step outside of our comfort zones. Public speaking is something that is outside of my comfort zone. Even though we have these challenges, we are still able to present to different people and tell them what we’re doing. Speaking to residents in Chinatown and students in University of Maryland College Park has been a good opportunity to step out. I can speak better in public now. 

MO: When it comes to meetings, we have opposing arguments to certain topics and what we want to do in the future. It’s good that we have that because we can develop different ideas and opinions for the collective.

AO: For me, I sometimes feel like I don’t have anything to contribute to the group. When my peers debate on the topic, I’m not sure what I can bring to the table. During those times, however, I try to be positive and optimistic and I know that I can have something to contribute. Even if it’s a small contribution, I’m there and I’m doing something. Being there shows that you care about what you’re signing up for and I think that’s really important. 

“Leaders aren’t leaders without having the courage to voice their opinions with confidence”

How has Youth Council prepared you be a more equipped leader?  

Youth Council discussed the project with each other

DN: Being in Youth Council, I pick up new skills,  learn those skills and actually execute them. These skills aren’t taught anywhere at all and it has helped me to become more confident. Earlier this year, we planned for a Holiday Party and it’s prepared me to be a better leader for my school’s International Club.  If I didn’t have that I wouldn’t have known what to do, at school, when I’m planning for events. I would have to just depend on the teacher who’s supervising us in our club meetings.

MO: Last Wednesday, we went to the University of Maryland to present on YPAR to an activism class. Leaders aren’t leaders without having the courage to voice their opinions with confidence. Leaders aren’t afraid to take criticism and that’s what we did. 

“If I hadn’t joined AALEAD, I would’ve still been oblivious to issues in the Asian American Community. I don’t really learn about these issues that focus on Asian American community from my parents or my school.”

What is your vision for AALEAD and how do see youth council being a part of that?

Youth Council making remarks at AALEAD DC High School After School Program

DN: I want to see AALEAD striving and I want more people to know about it. I feel like not a lot of people know about it. As a Youth council, the youth can make AALEAD become more known because we go out and present our research. People can see what we’re doing and know what the organization is doing for the youth.

MO: I believe that AALEAD is space where youth can be comfortable with who they are and with their peers. We talk about a wide range of topics: oppression, identity, etc. There are certain topics where we want to voice your opinion about, and youth council is that platform for you to address that to the public.

AO: I would like to see AALEAD expand to more schools. If I didn’t go my school, I wouldn’t have heard of AALEAD. I would like to see AALEAD expand to different schools. From my personal experience, if I hadn’t joined AALEAD, I would’ve still been oblivious to issues in the Asian American Community. I don’t really learn about these issues that focus on Asian American community from my parents or my school. As a Youth Council, I hope that we can tell our friends from other schools about AALEAD, so that they can know about our programs and opportunities. 

Thank you, DC Youth Council Members!

Special Thanks to: 

Aaron Orpilla, DC Middle and High School Program Coordinator

Alyssa O., Maricarmen O., and Diane N. from the DC Youth Council

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