Doors of Diversity

professor’s book chronicles how community centers help immigrant families

Diana Peterson

More than half of U.S. school children are now people of color, many from immigrant and refugee families. These students have a variety of issues to deal with as they traverse from school to family life. Community-based organizations (CBOs) can often be the bridge to help students accept and validate their ethnic and racial identities while navigating the U.S. educational system. Dr. Nga-Wing Anjela Wong’s new book, Opening Doors: Community Centers Connecting Working-Class Immigrant Families and Schools, explores the positive influences these CBOs provide to working-class immigrant families.

Wong grew up on the East Coast and then migrated west to San Francisco where she received her bachelor’s degree. She then made her way to the Midwest, earning a Ph.D. in educational policy studies from UW-Madison. She has been an associate professor and activist scholar at UW-Eau Claire for four years.

CBOs offer educational day care for younger children, after-school care for students, and youth centers for older students and young adults. CBOs can also provide services to help families receive the necessary information, support and advocacy for low-income families, flexible times for adults to take English classes, and help with social and emotional adjustments for all ages.

Wong focuses on a specific CBO in her book, the Harborview Chinatown Community Center, which is located in an unnamed East Coast city. HCCC serves primarily Asian immigrant families as they settle into a new and confusing life, often not the life they expected.

When these CBOs are not available, children of immigrants are often under pressure to become “Americanized,” which does a disservice to themselves, their families, and the U.S. population as they lose their cultural identity and communication barriers develop between generations. CBOs can help youths find a balance in adjusting to a new culture while still retaining and valuing the language and customs of their old culture.

Wong explains that too many burdens are placed on educators and schools to “fix” societal problems. Rather than focusing simply on schools, she argues that CBOs have a lot to offer communities. She believes families, communities, and schools need to view themselves as a collective group to better serve children and youth, and that we all have a responsibility to help the current generation of students, just as we relied on past mentors and educators who influenced us. Wong is a strong believer in Angela Valenzuela’s concept of “authentic caring,” which focuses on caring and demanding success from all students.

Wong explores the way CBOs help amplify the voices of groups who have important stories to share. Oftentimes this means unlearning and relearning concepts. When communities are made of residents from mixed ethnic backgrounds, they encounter fresh perspectives on issues that face our towns and cities.

We are facing these same concerns in Eau Claire, and that trend will continue in the future. According to the Eau Claire school district’s website, Hispanic students grew from less than 1 percent of the district’s enrollment in 2000 to 5.3 percent in 2017. The Asian student population has stayed somewhat stable at 9.5 percent in 2000 compared with 9.7 percent currently. While the Native American populations decreased from 0.83 percent to 0.4 percent, the African-American population increased from 1.2 percent to 3 percent. The number of school-aged children who are homeless or living in poverty has also drastically increased over the past several decades. CBOs are essential to help schools tackle the hurdles these children face.

Wong’s study of HCCC, the struggles it faces, and the successes it realizes, helps us evaluate our own struggles and successes. This book could be a resource for a book club or a community discussion group to inspire citizens to put practices into place that will continue to serve our students and ethnically distinct families now and in the future, creating a more interesting and diverse city.

Dr. Nga-Wing Angela Wong, an author and UWEC professor, will read from and sign her new book, Opening Doors, at 7pm Friday, May 11, at The Volume One Gallery inside The Local Store, 205 N. Dewey St., Eau Claire.