A yellow fist, outlined boldly in black, punches through the logo of the Providence Youth Student Movement (PrYSM).
The fist is a symbol of solidarity and struggle, appropriate to PrYSM's tenets of "love, family, ghetto-roots and movement." Movement toward a more just Rhode Island and a state government accountable to all its citizens were what PrYSM members Lucey Ok and Tam Nguyen demanded from Governor Donald Carcieri last December.
The two high schoolers criticized the layoffs of the only interpreters employed by the state Department of Human Services to work with the Cambodian, Laotian and Hmong communities as inappropriately targeting and undermining Southeast Asians in Providence. The layoffs came as part of the governor's attempt to trim the state's budget deficit. Ok and Nguyen argued the Governor cared more about balancing the budget than attending to the needs of its citizens. In response to the criticisms, Carcieri spokesman Jeff Neal commented, "It would be more helpful if they provided concrete suggestions about what other spending coud be cut instead."
A month later, on January 22, the governor's wife, Sue Carcieri, told Providence Journal columnist M. Charles Bakst that the two teens had unfairly attacked her husband by calling his actions racist. "First of all, I think they have mentors who are much older than them who are training them up. You know—how those terrorists have kids blow up, you know, Benazir Bhutto and so forth? You think the kids thought of it? I don't think so," she said. When the comments came to PrYSM's attention, the student group responded with outrage.
He said she said
Lucey Ok is a 15-year-old of Cambodian descent who participates in PrYSM. She attended a news conference held at the International Institute of Rhode Island on December 1 and spoke in protest of the layoff of the interpreters. The Journal quoted Ok as saying, "The governor is sending a clear message to my community that we are not valued or welcome. Well, this is my message: our community has been here for 30 years, and we are here to stay." 16-year old Tam Nguyen also spoke up, contrasting the state's fiscal needs with the economic interests of the Southeast Asian community: "Taking away interpreters from our community is not going to solve the state's financial crisis; it's going to create another financial crisis in my community, as elders lose their benefits and connections to state services."
According to official census figures from 2000, there are 11,600 Southeast Asians living in Providence, making up about six percent of Providence's total population. The unofficial data says the community numbers closer to 30,000. Ok and Nguyen spoke on behalf of themselves, PrYSM and the larger community. They did not expect to be targeted for speaking out, especially not by Rhode Island's first lady.
Mrs. Carcieri's comments have since come back to bite her. PrYSM has protested her remarks, holding a news conference last Wednesday, inviting the Carcieris to dialogue with Ok and Nguyen and demanding that the governor and his wife apologize. Mrs. Carcieri has refused to do so, and her spokespeople have claimed that her comments were not meant to compare the kids to terrorists.
What man behind the curtain?
Whether she meant to call them terrorists or not, Ok and Nguyen, as well as other youth involved with PrYSM, were insulted by the suggestion that they could not think and speak for themselves. At the February 6 press conference, Pirom Ting, a member of PrYSM, denied Mrs. Carcieri's accusation: "As youth, we are not brainwashed to speak up about the issues in our community. We are not mindless individuals and we can function without somebody telling us what to think." She defended Ok and Nguyen, saying, "My peers spoke in protest of the dropped interpreters, and what they said came from their own minds and their own hearts."
Marylin Soum, the 15-year-old daughter of one of the laid-off interpreters, also spoke at the conference. Addressing an absent Mrs. Carcieri, she said, "Yes, Sue, PrYSM has taught us to speak up, but they have not made us mindless puppets, unable to make our own decisions. If anything, they have taught us it is okay to think freely and that it is okay to help our community." She continued, "You have provoked us to use what we have learned to fight for, what we are entitled to, and what is our right as humans."
The speakers' commitment to their words is important for youth in a marginalized community. PrYSM, formed in 2001 as a grassroots response to gang violence and the threat of deportation in Providence's Southeast Asian community, aims to provide them with the confidence to become social activists. PrYSM runs three programs targeted at high school-aged kids: one for general leadership development and two specifically for women and queer youth. Members apply PrYSM training to advocating for themselves and their community. The four staff members are in their twenties.
One of them, Davide Gnoato, told the Independent, "It's all about civic engagement and training our youth to be strong leaders in the community." He said, "I learn a lot from the kids and the kids learn a lot from us--a mentorship between all of us. We mentor each other." He emphasized the youth-led nature of the organization as well as the social consciousness and activism coming from the kids themselves. He said the kids decide what happens; they are not told what to do. He agreed with their interpretation of Mrs. Carcieri's comments, saying she "insulted [Ok and Nguyen] by saying their speeches weren't even theirs."
Meet the press
Before Mrs. Carcieri's comments, Ok and Nguyen invited Governor Carcieri to revisit the layoff decision and to get more in touch with Rhode Island's Southeast Asian community. In his column, Baskt encouraged the governor to "reach out" to Ok and Nguyen. Mrs. Carcieri told Bakst that in doing so, the governor would be "rewarding bad behavior." She told him she didn't think it was appropriate for the teens to "say something really obnoxious and nasty [in order to] get somebody important" to listen to them. Despite these comments, the members of PrYSM again invited the governor and Sue Carcieri to meet with them to discuss issues affecting the Southeast Asian community. The Carcieris were also invited to the February 6 press conference.
Gnoato said he could not understand Mrs. Carcieri's position. "Calling kids who are actually doing things to change the community and do good in the community as participating in bad behavior makes no sense to me at all," he told the Independent. "I almost feel sorry for her 'cause she's just so out of touch with everything."
He noted that PrYSM genuinely hoped the Carcieris would come to the press conference: "We wanted an apology." But even better than an apology would be meeting on equal ground. "A way [for the Carcieris] to show [their remorse] would be to come to the facility and meet the kids," he said. "You're making decisions that affect these kids, why not come see what your decisions are doing, why not come see why these kids are outraged?"
The Carcieris declined PrYSM's invitation. Their absence at the conference gave more fodder to the kids who spoke. "It is unfortunate that we have leaders--both Donald Carcieri and his wife--who are not responsible for their words or actions," Soum said. Nguyen extended the invitation once again: "I have one and only one challenge to the Governor: will you meet with us? Will you come down the hill and meet with the people whom you make decisions about?"
What is to be done
PrYSM and the Southeast Asian community have received the active backing of the Rhode Island American Civil Liberties Union. The ACLU's Steven Baker, who attended Wednesday's conference, filed a suit against the State of Rhode Island for violating Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which forbids state agencies from discriminating against those who have a limited ability to speak English. According to a 1997 settlement of a suit brought against the RI Department of Human Services, this requires providing for translation and interpreters.
Gnoato noted that the ACLU's lawsuit ties in with PrYSM's Translation and Interpretation campaign, started last April. The campaign calls for greater access to these services in public schools. Gnoato said that PrYSM organizers believe the high dropout rate among Southeast Asian students is due in part to the inability of their parents to play a role in their education because of language barriers.
Soum also linked dropout rates to the interpretation work expected of teenagers by their families, especially in light of the state layoffs. "We are expected to be in places like doctor's offices, lawyer's offices, the DMV, school meetings and, don't forget, welfare offices. We are expected at all times of need whether it's before school, after school or even during school," she said.
Nguyen echoed his original statement from December, emphasizing the racist undertones of the layoffs: "The governor could have cut back many programs and reduced many salaries, but instead he is choosing to cut programs for low-income communities of color." He placed the plight of the Southeast Asian interpreters and the PrYSM youth in the larger context of issues plaguing immigrant and minority communities in Providence, stating unequivocally, "I stand in solidarity with my Black, Latino and Native American brothers and sisters; I stand in solidarity for all those who are struggling to make ends meet and I stand in solidarity with all immigrant families." Nguyen said he is no longer concerned with an apology from either of the Carcieris; he is more interested in advocating for change in Rhode Island.
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