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Remarks from NAACP chapter induction at South Philly High

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

On Tuesday, the local chapter of the NAACP, headed by J. Whyatt Mondesire, held a ceremony to induct students at South Philadelphia High School into a new NAACP chapter. The inductees received a one-year membership to the NAACP and a trip to a 76ers game. They included a number of the students involved in the 8-day boycott of South Philadelphia High School following attacks against Asian immigrant students at the school Dec. 3rd.

Helen Gym, a board member of Asian Americans United, gave the following remarks:

It should have ended before you. It should have ended with DuBois, with King, with Malcolm, Rosa Parks, Cesar Chavez, with Yuri Kochiyama. It should have ended with me, as a child of immigrants who’s devoted much of my own life to uplifting our schools.

It should have ended with my generation – but it did not.

The history of struggle, of protest, of standing up for others and ourselves is not just a story out of textbooks. It’s a story lived in your time, in the hallways of South Philadelphia High School. It’s a story in which you yourself play a part whether you realize it or not and whether you choose to or not. What happened at South Philadelphia on Dec. 3rd is neither a beginning nor an ending but another chapter in a story whose end you’ll determine. I want to thank the NAACP for putting us on that path together.

When I look around this room and see and listen to your voices, it’s almost impossible to imagine that what happened two and a half weeks ago at South Philly could have happened here. In this room is community. In this room is good will and honesty. In this room is hope.

But I also know that outside this room, a different story may unfold for different people among us. And though I am encouraged by what I hear in this room, I also know that there is much work to be done even among ourselves.

There are racial and ethnic differences among us – a language and communication gap that takes time and concerted effort to bridge. When a young student gave a shout out in Vietnamese – “Go up!” – he said it with joy and pride. Yet, others met it with confusion and even some suspicion. We don’t naturally understand one another even when we share the same vision.

There are tremendous gaps in our knowledge about the ESOL/bilingual program in this school. There is a history to the second floor ESOL program at South Philly that explains why things look the way they do today. For decades, communities have grappled with different ways to address safety concerns and academic supports for new Americans. Communities fought hard so that sheltered settings like the one you have in South Philadelphia could exist for recent immigrant students. In the same way that deseg and bussing has a complicated narrative and history, other communities too have their complicated stories that we must seek to understand first. So before we make assumptions or hold fast to our own view of things, let us all check ourselves. We have to communicate about the lived experiences of others and add our own stories to this mix before judgments are passed – before, possibly, other mistakes might be made.

And in saying all of this, I hope it underscores the fact that solutions don’t just lie with one group, with adults only or students only. Powerful as you are, you need the presence of guiding adults just as much as we need your voices.

To the School District: there are many debates we can have over what’s best for our children. But one issue which is not debatable is that the safety of our children is paramount and that violence against any one of our young people – no matter the color of our skin or what language we speak – can not and will not be tolerated. We must learn from what happened at South Philly High and we must do better. To our young people, know that we stand with you and by you as adults, your parents, and your community that loves and cherishes you. We are always your strongest advocates.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., said: True peace is not the absence of tension but the presence of justice. As we move forward, know that we are committed to the cause of justice not for any one group but for all the students of South Philadelphia High School.

Helen Gym is a board member of Asian Americans United and worked with students involved in the 8-day boycott of South Philadelphia High School following an attack against Asian immigrant students at the school Dec. 3rd. She is a former Philadelphia public school teacher and the mother of three children in the public and charter school system in Philadelphia.

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