Chinatown and Lincoln Heights are two of Los Angeles’ oldest and most diverse neighborhoods. Roughly half of the residents are foreign-born, and roughly half lack a high school diploma. A third live in poverty. And as these areas gentrify, long-time residents are at risk of losing their homes.
Because these are heavily limited English proficient communities, they often don’t have a voice when it comes to how their neighborhood changes. This is where the Southeast Asian Community Alliance, or SEACA, has stepped in.
Created in 2002 to address the lack of resources for Southeast Asians in Los Angeles, SEACA works with teens in Solano Canyon, Chinatown and Lincoln Heights, providing training and other resources so they can advocate for their community.
Sissy Trinh, herself a daughter of Vietnamese refugees, is the founder and executive director of SEACA. “High school kids are the leaders of tomorrow,” she said. “We’re giving them training, mentorship, and hands-on experience.”
The Youth Leadership Project has a two-year curriculum for students that meet weekly at SEACA’s office in Chinatown. After learning the nuances of issues in their communities, students then turn inward and examine identity politics through self-reflection. Many students go on to become a Youth Organizer in a related SEACA program that has surveyed the community and lobbied City Hall.
Trinh capitalizes on the wealth of knowledge in Los Angeles to train these students in professional-level research and lobbying techniques. “We have a partnership with experts at USC and UCLA,” she said. “Students bring their vision for their community, and the experts contribute the legal and policy experience to execute it.” With their help, Youth Organizers designed, executed and analyzed Community Health Surveys, the findings of which were published by the Kellogg Foundation and the Asian Pacific Islander American Health Forum.
Because many of these students are bilingual, they’re uniquely suited to serve as a voice for their community. “When they’re knocking on doors to collect survey data, they’re talking to residents in five languages,” Trinh said. These include Vietnamese, Khmer, Cantonese, Spanish and English.
Policymakers have learned to take this group seriously, but it took work. An early meeting with the L.A. Mayor’s office was initially treated as a field trip by officials, but once the students started speaking, it became clear it was actually a lobbying trip. “We had the data to back up what we were seeing in the neighborhood,” said Trinh. “With that, it became a different conversation—it became about policy change.”
Now, they’re seeing results. “Three years ago we passed a policy with City Hall that’s now touted as a model for L.A.,” she said, referring to their efforts on the Cornfield Arroyo Seco Specific Plan, which is transforming neglected areas in Chinatown and Lincoln Heights. Worried about gentrification pushing out their families, SEACA students lobbied key policymakers to ensure locals were protected. “Over the lifespan of the policy it will generate $200 million in affordable housing,” said Trinh.
Trinh now wants to deepen the relationships between the students and the seniors in the communities on whose behalf they’re advocating.
“Intergenerational work has always been part of SEACA’s vision, it’s just that capacity has limited our ability to implement it,” she said. “We want our students to have more opportunities to interact with seniors, and we want seniors to see that the kids care. We want them to work together more.”
Indeed, their work has already challenged stereotypes. “Seniors have certain assumptions about the youth being disinterested, but here you have this group of kids canvassing their neighborhoods,” she said. “They’re see them not only taking their afternoon to do this, but they also see them as a voice.”
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