Local heroes 2014

Making Rhode Island a better place
By PHILIP EIL  |  May 14, 2014

STRENGTH IN NUMBERS Suong (center) and PrYSM members. [Photo by Richard McCaffrey]

In this 17th annual edition of the Providence Phoenix’s Best issue, we highlight people and organizations who are doing exceptionally good work — local heroes who often labor behind the scenes to change their communities for the better. Whatever neighborhoods we live in, we are all in their debt.

PrYSM: Seeking balance for local youth

The Providence Youth Student Movement’s 2010 report, For Justice and Love: The Quality of Life for Southeast Asian Youth, is, itself, an act of Rhody heroism worthy of an entire article. The 100-page report — with forewords written by professors from Brown and UCal Berkeley — is meticulous, ambitious, deeply personal, and gut-punchingly powerful. To offer just a small sample:

•  The report includes descriptions of the organization’s origins and mission, including, “PrYSM started on November 8th, 2001, when a series of repeated Cambodian gang fights and resulting deaths, inspired youth and local college students to fight for positive change in the community . . . Our purpose is to mobilize Southeast Asian youth into community organizing campaigns which, foster the process of healing and dialogue, build support and love for those who are isolated and marginalized, and build power in the Southeast Asian community.”

•  There are first-hand accounts of life inside Southeast Asian gangs in Providence. (“The biggest incident was at Classical field in 1988 or ’89. We had a rumble. There were all Asians at one side and on the other were blacks, latinos, and whites,” one gang member recalls.)

•  There are definitions of the “model minority” concept (“a stereotype which suggests that all Asian Americans are successful and free of problems”) alongside statistics that illustrate how misleading and damaging this idea can be. For example, while the 2000 US Census reported that 42.7 percent of Asian Americans over age 25 hold at least a bachelor’s degree, the same census reported that Cambodian Americans, Hmong Americans, and Lao Americans all fall under 10 percent in that same category.

•  Perhaps most importantly, the report offers a wide-ranging list of Rhode Island policy recommendations, ranging from a call to schools to “integrate Southeast Asian history, culture, and politics into the core curriculum and provide opportunities for independent exploration” to challenges to law enforcement officers to “establish a clear, fair definition of gang involvement and clear, fair polices around collection of data about gang involved.”

But PrYSM is about more than just a report. Talk with the organization’s co-founder and co-director, Sarath Suong — who was born in a refugee camp in Thailand and raised in Revere, Massachusetts, before coming to Providence to study at Brown University — and you get a sense of the ground the group has covered in the last 13 years. They’ve lobbied for increased translation services in local schools and courtrooms. They’ve fought against widespread deportations occurring within the Cambodian community, once marching in protest from the Buddhist Temple on Providence’s West End to the offices of the Department of Homeland Security downtown. More recently, they’ve worked to combat racial profiling of Southeast Asian youth and other people of color on Providence’s streets.

In many ways, PrYSM’s work represents a balance, says Suong’s co-director, Chanravy Proeung. On one hand, they are still working with Southeast Asian families — many of whom were displaced by the Vietnam War and Cambodian genocide — to address the effects of the traumas that brought them to the US less than 40 years ago (new PrYSM members are required to interview family members as part of their orientation and training). On the other hand, media outlets and others have often portrayed local Southeast Asian communities as helpless and isolated. “I don’t want that same old story for our community,” she says.

But, of course, the most important PrYSM spokespeople are the folks who put the “Y” in the organization’s name. PrYSM is made up of a core group of 10 stipend-paid high school Youth Leaders and Youth Organizers, plus larger circles of volunteers and alumni. And during a recent visit to the group’s loft space on Elmwood Ave. we got the chance to speak with two of those core members.

Eric Khiev, a 17-year-old Youth Coordinator who plans to study nursing at URI after graduating from Dr. Jorge Alvarez High School this spring, told us, simply, “Without PrYSM, I would have not been exposed to the outside world.” As a PrYSM participant, he’s traveled to Detroit for a conference on media strategies for political organizing. He’s participated in political rallies, even when that means calling his parents mid-march to assure them he hasn’t been arrested. And he’s explored what he calls “controversial” subjects like racial profiling and homophobia — subjects that initially made him uncomfortable and shy.

Darianny De La Rosa, a 16-year-old Classical High School student, aspiring engineer or architect, and fellow PrYSM Youth Coordinator, was similarly enthusiastic. Thanks to PrYSM’s twice-weekly meetings and involvement in documentary screenings, marches, and other events, she has become a skilled public speaker who is more organized with her work.

She’s also received a slightly less tangible, but no less important, reward.

“Even though we’re this one tiny organization in Providence, Rhode Island, which is like a state no one has heard of,” she says, “it’s really cool to be able to go out of state and have people be like, ‘Hey, you’re from PrYSM! I saw you in that documentary!’ Or ‘Hey, I saw pictures of you in a march or rally.’ So that’s really cool.”

Yes, it is.

For more on the PrYSM, go to prysm.usfacebook.com/PrYSMProvidence, and twitter.com/PrYSMFam.



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