Around 20 teenagers are settling into a classroom at this year’s Bayview Youth Summit. After a few minutes, they’re quiet, eyes focused on someone their own age, who’s leading a Race and Racism workshop.
“This is like an example of how African Americans are portrayed in the media,” says a youth moderator. “Even in Disney.”
They’re all watching a clip of the animated film "Dumbo," projected on the whiteboard. It’s an exercise to get these teenagers to talk about racial stereotypes: In the scene, the crows are black. They’re portrayed as lazy and uneducated. And one of the crows is named Jim -- as in Jim Crow.
This is part of the Bayview Youth Advocates’ curriculum. The goal is to groom future leaders in the Bayview by teaching young people about the San Francisco neighborhood’s cultural history. The hope is they'll pass on those lessons, and feel a sense of ownership over where they live.
Today the teen leaders are talking about some hard, but important topics. There’s a recent history of racial tensions in the area, especially between the black and Asian communities.
A recent history of tension
Back in 2010, a Chinese woman was thrown off a MUNI platform in the Bayview by a handful of black teenagers. Two more attacks repeated that racial dynamic. The tension was amplified.
Many of the Asian community felt like they were being targeted. And a lot of the black community felt like they were blamed for the actions of a few kids.
Eddy Zheng works with the Asian community in the Bayview through his organization, the Community Youth Center. His idea for the Bayview Youth Advocates was born out of that time, in an effort to bring the community together. Back in 2010, he says, some in the Asian community didn’t understand what they felt were targeted attacks. He says they would tell him they faced similar financial and social problems as their neighbors.
The rift wasn’t lost on the black community, either. Gina Fromer, the former executive director at the Bayview/Hunters Point YMCA and a black woman raised in the Bayview herself, says it was palpable.
“I remember my mom saying to me, ‘When I get on the buses there’s so much tension, where you see people sitting in the front, people sitting in the back.’ The division was really clear,” she says.
And the black community had their own misperceptions about Asians in the area, she says. There was a feeling that many didn’t shop in the community and contribute to the local community. Or that they didn’t speak to African Americans.
Ultimately, Zheng says the dynamic “created ‘your suffering’ and ‘my suffering’… and not really talking about solutions.”
Fromer and Zheng, both community organizers, said that neither of the groups really knew each other. And they didn’t understand that there were larger forces at play: Language barriers, for one. And poverty.
According to the website City-Data, in 2011, about 20% of the neighborhood lived under the poverty level. The area has its challenges, but Zheng says it’s important to instill community pride in these kids even so.
"It’s a ripple effect,” he says. “When you empower young people and they start taking ownership of their community, then they will want to change the community.”
This is his goal with the Bayview Youth Advocates.
That is how a group of teens came to be playing a social justice game in a youth summit classroom at a Bayview nonprofit.
John Vuong is a high school senior leading this workshop. He and the other Youth Advocates have been working on preparing this youth summit for months -- the idea is, if young people teach other young people about the issues in their community, it can have a deeper impact.
"Race is definitely a really big thing,” he says. “I feel like outside of the classroom, it’s kind of segregated. People hang out with their own kind. And I feel like they do that because they’re more comfortable with the people around them."
Vuong and a fellow youth advocate, Brian Britt, are leading a workshop about the school-to-prison pipeline. It’s all a part of the group’s larger goals: to increase empathy among people of all kinds for those who are different from them.
Vuong says these workshops can be a way for other teenagers to address big neighborhood issues they don’t normally get a chance to talk about.
Their workshop in particular addresses the fact that certain people -- people of color -- are set up by the system and are at higher risk of going to prison.
Leaders in action
"I’m pretty sure that 50 percent of people here, their family members are in jail or something,” says senior Abdellatif Benterkia.
He says he came to learn more about this trend: “You don’t get to see it outside. People are afraid to talk about it. But here, it’s all out, it’s all out in the open.”
Britt and Vuong, who are teaching the workshop, are Asian. And they’re teaching a group of largely black and brown high schoolers about a system that disproportionately affects kids like them.
In this kind of scenario, how do these teenagers actually teach other teenagers about things as tricky as race? Because the school-to-prison pipeline is a pretty big concept, Britt and Vuong set up a game to illustrate it.
Each table has a sheet of paper, one for each grade, from 6th to 12th, with a different outlined scenario. You roll the dice, and the number determines your fate.
Here’s an example. The scenario is this:
You went camping last weekend, and forgot that your pocket knife was still in your backpack.
Next, the students roll the dice.
Roll 1 or 2, and nobody notices. You take it out when you get home from school. Proceed to the next grade.
Roll 3 or 4, and there was a "routine: bag check. You tell your story adn they believe you, but still get suspended. Proceed to suspension.
Roll 5 or 6, and there is a routine bag check. You tell your story, but there is a zero tolerance policy. Proceed to juvenile hall.
The reality is bleak, with students ending up juvenile hall around three times by the time they’ve reached eighth grade. Britt says that’s the point of the game: “To show some students actually go through some of this stuff, like going to juvie three or four times, getting suspended multiple times just for simple acts,” he says.
“This is a reality for some people. And we just want to show them, it’s frustrating -- but there are ways out of the situation."
At one point during the workshop, Britt asks for feedback. Several teens respond that it made them realize the dark reality for many their own age.
“It made me think, like, ‘Does this really happen to people younger than us?’” one participant offers. “‘And what if they don’t go to college because of that?’”
The teens may have started the morning sleepy, but by the time this exercise is over, their eyes are wide open. Britt says he hopes they’ll spread the word about what they’ve learned.
That's the point. "Honestly, just keeping an open mind and being more informed about it," says Britt. And the most important thing is to share this knowledge of what you have."