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Poetry as Community Building at Detroit Asian Youth Project
On May 26th, the Detroit Asian Youth (DAY) Project hosted the Detroit Future Youth network of organizations for a day of youth centered poetry workshops and media creation. Detroit Asian Youth Project is a group of Asian Americans in Detroit that is developing youth leaders and their awareness of social justice issues by engaging the participants in community service learning and other programs that foster greater appreciation towards Detroit and its Asian American community.
Participants kicked off the day by feasting on different types of curries and noodle dishes from Bangkok 96 Restaurant. As participants finished eating, DAY Project youth and members were invited to read poetry they had created for their book, A Summer’s Day. Featured readers included youth Merly Chang, Sarah Vang and Abdul Jolil. Adult allies also took the opportunity to read, including Emily Lawsin, Aurora Harris, Matthew Olzmann, and Peggy Hong.
Poets focused on topics as varied as prejudice and violence directed against the South East Asian community, community relationships to food, being mixed race and odes to Detroit. Detroit organizer and DAY co-founder, Emily Lawsin remembered murdered community members Vincent Chin and Joseph Ileto in her reading, which focused on her resistance against the “moments of silence” that are asked for when yet another community member is murdered.
The memory of Vincent Chin, an Asian American man who was attacked by two white men who lost their jobs in the automotive industry on June 19, 1982, inspired many of the day’s events. Chin died four days after the attack, but the men who attacked him were sentenced to three years probation and a $3,000 fine after the judge declared, “These aren’t the kind of men you send to prisons.”
Explaining the influence of what happened to Vincent Chin on DAY Project youth, DAY Project coordinator, Soh Suzuki, stated, “I think the mistake that many of us make is making the Vincent Chin incident a thing of the past, rather than thinking of it within the scope of history of Asian American presence in the United States, and history of movement organizing. The Vincent Chin incident may be an entry point to critically thinking about where we were and where we are going from here.”
DAY Project’s attention to critically examining the current Asian American experience in Detroit was emphasized when DAY Project youth led participants through a writing workshop centered on finishing the sentence, “I am from...” The workshop asked participants to reflect on questions such as “Where are your parents from?” and “What sort of spices would you need to buy to create a traditional dish from your homeland?” to then create a poem out of their “I am from...” answers.
When answers are shared, commonalities in experiences are usually found between participants, making the “I am from...” poems a way to build community. States Suzuki, “We generally find many similarities and some differences. Asian American youth in Detroit experience the city neighborhood very much the same way other youth in the city may experience it, but expectations vary if matters are related within household, like family expectations.”
Some of the answers from Saturday’s “I am from...” poems included:
I am from dandelions and cracked sidewalks.
I am from not much, but enough to live on.
I am from Pentecostal church hats.
I am from sofrito, sazón, garlic, and cilantro.
I am from family I never met.
I am from abandoned houses that are not dead.
We are from backyards with growing vegetables.
Answers were live-tweeted and were so inspiring to readers that one twitter user named “shebonkers” tweeted, “I'm not even at the #DFY gathering but these tweets are inspiring me. I'm about to tell you where I'm from.”
The day wrapped up with participants using individual answers from each person in their group to build a group poem that reflected the experiences and values of the entire group. Each group then performed the poem for the gathering. Says Suzuki, “In essence, these poems act as a way to share about yourself at your own comfort level. It turns into a poetry of your own experience with a flow of starting from a sense of ownership.”