by Isaiah Thompson
As the new freshman class entered South Philadelphia High for the first time last month, students had reason to be wary. Last year, a pattern of violence against Asians at the school culminated in an attack on 20-plus Asian students by a large group of their peers. The incident was ugly; uglier was the School District’s response, downplaying race and brushing aside the school’s Asian students as they went on strike, demanding accountability.
Luckily, there’s reason to be hopeful, too: In the wake of the attacks, students, victim advocates and community leaders organized into a movement. When school started this year, South Philadelphia High School Asian Student Advocates (SASA) — a coalition including Asian Americans United (AAU), Victim/Witness Services of South Philadelphia, Boat People SOS, the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, current and former SPHS students, and community leaders — was ready.
In a boggy terrain of politics, finger-pointing and understandably high sensitivity, SASA has stood firmly on the high ground, refusing to be dragged into a racial blame game while directing its efforts squarely at District administration and emphasizing the role the grown-ups are supposed to play in protecting all students from violence.
To this end, SASA is fortunate to have as a member and occasional spokeswoman Helen Gym, a tireless activist for better schools and Philadelphia’s Asian community. Although she’s quick to deflect praise to fellow coalition members, including Chinatown organizer Xu Lin and former SPHS student Wei Chen, Gym’s background in journalism and the politics of school reform (she is a former editor of the Daily Pennsylvanian and writes for the Notebook), and her ability to communicate between different worlds, have been crucial in making sure the students’ voices, and not just the District’s, are heard.
With recent episodes of violence against Asian students at yet another high school–and, again, a rapid denial of racial motivations by District officials–it’s as important as ever, for all of Philadelphia’s kids, that SASA’s looking out for them.