Minneapolis (June 15, 2011) Four DREAM students who walked 1500 miles from Miami to Washington DC to dramatize the barriers facing undocumented immigrants.
Two men – one American and one South Asian – who rescued trafficked workers from virtual bondage. A police chief who was vilified for speaking up against local enforcement of federal immigration laws.
An African American legislator in the Deep South who led the fight to defeat passage of an Arizona-type “racial profiling” bill in his state. LGBTQ and undocumented youth spurring others to come out of the shadows.
These and other “unsung heroes” are recipients of the first Freedom from Fear Awards, honoring “ordinary people who have committed extraordinary acts of courage on behalf of immigrants and refugees – individuals who have taken a risk, set an example, and inspired others to awareness or action.” Fifteen winners were announced at the 2011 Netroots Nation conference on June 15 in Minneapolis.
The Awards are particularly fitting on the 50th Anniversary of the Freedom Rides that helped dismantle segregation in the South, and on the heels of the Arab Spring that has shown the power of ordinary people overcoming their fear, said sponsors of the Awards.
The Freedom from Fear Award, www.freedomfromfearaward.com, was created by long-time philanthropic leaders Geri Mannion and Taryn Higashi as a way of “paying forward” $10,000 they received as co-recipients of the 2009 Robert W. Scrivner Award for Creative Grantmaking, presented by the Council on Foundations. Friends and colleagues contributed additional funds to meet a $100,000 challenge grant from the W.K.Kellogg Foundation, thus enabling 15 winners to receive $5,000 each and a commissioned art piece by Favianna Rodriquez. The awards were administered and produced by Public Interest Projects.
Higashi, executive director of Unbound Philanthropy, explained the founders’ motivation, “Immigration is a very controversial issue right now. We wanted to recognize some of the incredible unsung heroes who are standing up in their communities – sometimes at great personal risk – to make this a more just and humane society for immigrants.”
The new one-time prize attracted 380 nominations from 42 states through online outreach and word-of-mouth.
“We were so inspired by reading all these stories—young people risking deportation to educate policy makers, police officers who resist racial profiling, business people who challenge their peers,” said Mannion, director of the U.S. Democracy Program of the Carnegie Corporation of New York. “It’s worth celebrating how many courageous people are working to keep us strong as a nation of immigrants.”
Award winners are the following (in some cases, one prize was given to a group of winners working together; see separate award sheet for descriptions of their work): Erika Andiola, Phoenix, AZ; Osfel Andrade, Anaheim, CA; Xiomara Benitez Blanco, Chapel Hill, NC; Maria Bolanos Hernandez, Hyattsville, MD; Wei Chen, Xu Lin, Bach Tong, and Duong Nghe Le, Philadelphia, PA; David Cho, South Pasadena, CA; Jack Harris, Phoenix AZ; Gene Lefebvre and Sarah Roberts, Tucson, AZ; Chokwe Lumumba, Jackson, MS; Mark Massey, Sand Springs, OK; Gaby Pacheco, Juan Rodriguez, Felipe Matos and Carlos Roa, Miami, FL; Antonella Packard, Saratoga Springs, UT; Rigo Padilla, Reyna Wences and Tania Unzueta, Chicago, IL; Aby Raju, Macon, GA; and Elizabeth Ruiz and Rick Covington, Vancouver, WA.
Aby Raju of Macon, Georgia, was one of hundreds of guest workers hired by a U.S. company and held in an isolated labor camp. Along with 250 others, he escaped and traveled on foot from New Orleans to Washington, DC in the spirit of Gandhi, building relationships with African Americans along the way.
In DC the workers launched a 29-day hunger strike and testified in Congress against abusive labor traffickers. Raju’s four-year efforts have led to national recognition from the labor movement and the civil rights community about the ugly realities of the guestworker program.
Wei Chen, Bach Tong, Duong Nghe Le & Xu Lin of Philadelphia, are Asian immigrant high school students who led an eight-day boycott to stop school violence South Philly High is a tough place. Its grim structure occupies an entire city block, and inside its imposing walls student groups stake out their own territory. It used to be a very violent place, especially for recent Asian immigrants.
When Wei Chen’s father brought him to Philadelphia from China, he spoke no English and had no knowledge of the community’s history of tense race relations. But he discovered immediately that Asian students at the school were being systematically beaten by groups of other students, and that the school administration was doing nothing to stop it. Not knowing what else to do, Wei believed his best chance lay in keeping his head down, working hard and not attracting any attention.
That didn’t work. A month after starting school, he stood at his locker reaching for a book when a fist smashed into the back of his head, and another into his neck.
Hundreds of Asian students lived in fear for most of the school day. Most of the school staff had given into the violence and accepted it as inevitable. Instead of fighting back, the students often begged their parents to drop out of school.
Wei studied the civil rights movement tried to organize students to stand up against the attacks, boycott classes and demand that the school administration take more aggressive action to prevent them. But too many were fearful of reprisal and disapproval from their own parents, who were culturally resistant to challenge authority.
Wei formed a new group called the Chinese-American Student Association. He greeted all new Chinese immigrant students as they first arrived at the school to help them make the transition. And he started keeping a notebook, detailing assaults on immigrant students. Before long he had filled it with excruciating details of violence and administrative neglect.
On December 3rd, 2009, 30 Asian immigrant students were violently attacked and sent to the hospital emergency room. In the days following the melee, Wei brought forth his notebook, full of names and phone numbers for every student he had welcomed to America in the past two years. In the weekend after the attacks, he called each of them, calling anew for a boycott.
He got to work encouraging other students to stay strong and resist the adults who demanded they return to the school. In a city that struggles to get its young people to attend school, Wei had to fight to keep his friends from sneaking back into class. He drafted a letter for the other students to take home to their parents, explaining the cause. He sent a representative to the school to collect homework assignments, and created an enrollment form that concerned students could sign to show they weren’t just taking an unauthorized holiday.
More than 50 Asian students joined Wei in protest over the next eight days. They eventually filed a civil rights complaint against the District. Their actions garnered national attention and created change at the school. The principal resigned and her successor has made school safety a priority. Some 126 new security cameras were installed throughout the school and extra security staff and counselors were brought in. Most importantly, Wei and his fellow students refused to blame other students of color for the violence, instead insisting that the administration take responsibility for school safety.
Wei showed a level of maturity, clear headedness and equanimity beyond his years. His example has inspired other Asian immigrant students across Philadelphia to create Asian immigrant student organizations in their own high schools. Wei and others have also started a citywide Asian student organization, Asian Student Association of Philadelphia (ASAP), which is working with other youth organizations on Philadelphia’s Campaign for Non-Violent Schools. Wei’s physical and moral courage have inspired students citywide to see the possibility and necessity of challenging schools to creating safe learning environments for all students, including immigrants.
David Cho of South Pasadena, Calif., is the drum major who conducts the 250-member UCLA marching band with great fanfare in front of 75,000 people at the Rose Bowl. Majoring in international economics and Korean, he maintains a 3.6 grade point average and is on schedule to graduate a quarter early. After emigrating to the U.S. from South Korea at the age of 9, he is the picture of the American success story. He is also facing possible deportation.
Cho didn’t even know he was undocumented until he was accepted to UCLA. That was when his father showed him a letter saying the family’s visa wasn’t valid. He recalls staring at the letter feeling as if his world had turned upside down.
Without immigration papers, Cho can attend school in California but cannot legally work, drive or receive financial aid. He sleeps on a friend’s couch or sometimes at the UCLA library. He tutors SAT students 30 hours a week.
Many in his situation would keep a low profile hoping to avoid discovery. Cho has instead chosen to be a leader in raising awareness of the plight faced by so many similar young people, including many Asian Americans, and an advocate for the DREAM Act. David has spoken out on his campus and in the media on behalf of undocumented students like himself who are seeking citizenship in the U.S.
At first Cho’s parents discouraged him from speaking out, afraid of the attention. But he insisted that, with so many trapped in a broken system just like him, he had to take action. He said, “Unless our generation speaks out, the politicians won’t tackle it. They have to see our faces.”
David was profiled in a major piece in The Los Angeles Times as the personification of the type of hard-working, successful young people being adversely affected by the current system. He said he was terrified the night before he stood at a rally in Los Angeles for the DREAM Act where he declared so loudly and publicly, “I’m undocumented.”
David has risked deportation for himself and his family. He faces limited job opportunities as he approaches graduation from UCLA this spring. Still, David continues to work with a number of college-aged students who speak to various groups, educating them on the plight of undocumented young people and the need for immigration reform.