Thank you to Chinatown Community Development Center and the Urban Institute (namely, Erika and Deland) for facilitating this summer experience. I loved the breadth w/ which we got to experience and see urban studies – from transportation justice to affordable / public housing to sustainability.
It makes me realize how different public service can be. Growing up in the Bay Area, as the son of software engineers, I was a bit disillusioned by private sector work and the prospect of working in the Bay Area – I was drawn, perhaps by the dreams of my father, to the prospects of public service – of working in government, of serving the people. Yet, my dreams manifested in such a different light – in enlisting in the military, in going far away from home for naval training, and for the next 6+ years – going wherever the Navy will call me. It is so different from municipal governance and community service at the grassroots level – embedding yourself into a community to fully know its alleyways (in acknowledge of the nooks and crannies of Chinatown), to canvass the streets to talk to citizens, to advocate for disadvantaged communities right here at home.
And somehow, going to the Navy fulfills it in a different way. I thought a lot of the movie Southside With You which recounted Barack Obama’s earliest community organizing days – and the disillusionment Michelle Robinson recounted in her corporate law work. In the Navy, we worked w/ people – trained them, disciplined them, held them accountable – which was so different from the vote canvassing, civic organizing, community engaging that characterizes public service at the community / municipal level.
So, I really appreciate Urban Institute for finally opening the lens into what public service back at home in the community looks like.
My first big surprise going through Urban Institute is that of a personal reckoning – that being Chinese-American truly is not as monolithic as Dougherty Valley High School / San Ramon. It was the first time that I really interacted with Chinese folks at a much lower socioeconomic stratum than the residents of San Ramon – folks who were monolingual (and that language not even being Mandarin), citizens who didn’t have much education, residents who experienced food insecurity and needed the food bank, and public housing tenants. Meeting Gordon Chin was the first time that I met a Chinese-American around my parents’ age – indeed, in San Ramon, I had hardly met a Chinese-American, born and raised in the States, above the age of 40. It made me wrestle w/ my Chinese-American identity – that Chinatown was not just a fun center of culture and dim sum, but historically a ghetto to protect and harbor Chinese immigrants in a hostile America.
My second surprise going through Urban Institute is that of a personal-societal, micro-macro conflict w/ which I try to understand socioeconomic inequity. As a Christian, I know that Jesus’s treasure were the sick, the poor, the widows, the children, the homeless – and I do spend some efforts to personally reach out to the ignored, the dismissed, the disadvantaged. Yet, the Academy instilled in me this sense of personal discipline, of holding people completely accountable to their decisions – I still remember when we had a military trial, and the presiding officer directly named the defendant’s fault as a “character flaw,” pinning responsibility on the defendant. Yet, I have taken Causal Inference in the Graduate School of Education, and I am continually shocked by how much a person’s background covariates (to include race, ethnicity, zip code of birth, parents’ usage of alcohol or drugs, generational incarceration or addiction) can predict a subject’s future outcomes. I understand that there are systemic reasons for generational poverty, crime, and inequity. Yet, I found myself struggling to understand how and what community programs can do to systematically solve problems of inequity. How can low-income programs be continually tied to mechanisms of socioeconomic mobility? How can reparations not only close the income gap but also start closing the wealth gap? In no way am I discounting programs to house the currently homeless, transportation / programs discounts to help low-income residents, but what can be systemically done to close such inequity?
I appreciated Urban Institute for bringing together so many different stakeholders – from those sitting in City Hall to those conversing w/ the homeless, from real estate developers scouting out public housing to residents service managers directly interacting w/ the residents, from transportation advocates to transportation planners, and of course, the Urban Institute fellows, this younger generation of college-aged folks who most likely will proceed into this pipeline of urban studies. From spending four years at the Academy to immersing myself for two years into the tech bubble at Stanford, I appreciated a change of pace in interacting with students and practitioners of tough and complex social policy and dynamics.
One last interesting take-away for me is to open up my eyes to what I could do in community service in the future. Even though I must return to the Navy for the next few years, I look forward to coming back to the San Francisco Bay Area – a place that is worth fighting for. It might be a role as a consultant or data analyst for transportation planning or housing research, it may be as an academic in urban studies or policy experimentation, it may be as a teacher or education administrator, it may be in law enforcement – but this place is home and I am proud to call the Bay Area a good place to live and home