Ikaw Na: What is to be done
Last Sept. 26, dozens of young and not-so-young members of the Filipino community gathered at the YWCA in Toronto in a meeting tagged “#Ikaw Na, Empowerment in Action”. Its stated mission was “to empower our youth and encourage them to create networks uniting Filipino communities as a visible minority in Canada.”
The vision, as stated in the flyer: “The Summit hopes to provide a space and opportunity for youth of Filipino descent to explore and create a fuller sense of their identity towards the ultimate outcome of inspiring a generation of youth who will be a visible and productive force in Canadian society.”
Immediately, these themes are identified:
• Empower our youth
• Unite Filipino communities as a visible minority in Canada
• Explore and create a fuller sense of identity among the youth
• Inspire youth to be visible and productive force in Canada
Let’s look at what actually transpired and see if the content and the proceedings significantly contributed to the stated intended results.
Empower the youth
To the extent that a number of youth considered leaders were able to share their stories of success and challenges, this, for sure, would have contributed to empowering the youth in the audience. Some of the stories were inspiring, encouraging or at least reminders that obstacles could be overcome. Others were simply sharing of moments of truth or exhortations that success comes with a price and that price has to paid: work hard, don’t-give-up kind of thing.
When shared with touching stories, these moral lessons are delivered with a strong impact on the listeners. But when you hear them repeated again and again towards the dying hours of the long day, they start sounding like clichés coming predictably from the speakers.
Many of the speakers were unexpectedly articulate and passionate, which was what made the conference worth attending, experiencing the emotionally-laden stories and strong determination to succeed, told by young kids in their early twenties or early thirties. This age is the time to make a leap of faith, it’s the time to make an impact and make a difference, if not for yourself and your career, for others, for a group, or for society as a whole. And it’s exhiliarating to hear young speaker after young speaker make their declaration of intentions at the time when they have their whole lives infront of them.
Problem is, about half of the twenty main speakers and panelists would not qualify as youth, prodding one youth speaker in the third panel to ask the audience, “Do you see yourself represented here?” referring to his panel of six of whom he obviously was the only youth. That drew laughter from the audience.
The previous panel, about business and career success stories, had a long tedious session that sounded more like a business conference by itself. There’s nothing wrong with highlighting examples of career or business success but to go into the nitty-gritty of it like how to get into the mainstream market, deviates from the whole point of the youth leadership conference. There was obvious restlessness from the audience and a member of the next panel observed that the timelines were apparently not followed.
Uniting the community
In terms of uniting the Filipino community as a visible minority in Canada, this seems to be ignored throughout the day. No one talked about the need to unite this ethnic community except to get people out and vote in the current federal election in Canada. One speaker, who ran for an MP nomination but backed out in the last minute, pointed out that 70,000 Filipino Canadians don’t vote. It’s a substantial voting power, considering that some candidates win with a margin of hundreds or a few thousand votes.
It was pointed out too that there’s a specific campaign launched recently to mobilize Filipino Canadians to come out and vote. “Wake up the sleeping giant,” is one of the slogans.
It’s good to emphasize the need for members of a community to exercise the right to vote. There are numerous benefits and advantages for a community to be actively involved in the election process, primary among them is the exercise of political power.
Yet what obviously was lacking in the leadership conference was a discussion of important issues that affect the community as a whole. Except for mentions in the keynote address of Dr. Philip Kelly of issues like lack of education and employment achievements among the Filipino youth in Canada, brought about by multiple causes like low family income exacerbated by deprofessionalization or non-recognition of professions, and lack of inspiration coming from the parents, or “lack of role models”.
The keynote address, despite its purely academic presentation of possible reasons for the state of Filipino youth in Canada, could have set the tone of the day-long youth conference. Even as it did not point the direction for the youth to resolve issues, these issues were already identified with the benefit of a long study involving youth from Canada’s major cities. The speakers could have been asked to react to the issues mentioned by Kelly. What followed was mostly story after story of success and efforts to achieve individual success. There was no common thread that could have tied each story to the essential goals of the whole-day exercise.
How can you unite the community when you don’t talk about important issues that affect the daily lives of a large section of that community if not the whole community?
There is no lack of precedents in the community’s history. In the early 90s, the issue of racism was raised against the Scarborough Town Centre management when its security guards banned Filipino youths from its premises. Quickly, established organizations, composed of adult and youth members, even the community media, professionals like lawyers and doctors, banded together and staged protest rallies in front of the town centre entrances.
The management, due to negative publicity (it was profusely covered by mainstream media), asked for negotiations and gave in to some demands like employing security guards of color including Filipino Canadians. The negotiations bogged down and the case was brought to the Ontario Human Rights Commission where it gathered dust. The positive thing was hundreds of leaders and members of the community protested against a racist policy targeting Filipino youth. It was a mini-exercise of people power.
Another example is the fatal shooting of 17-year old high school student Jeffrey Reodica by a Toronto police officer in civilian clothes in May 2004. He was shot three times in the back in an incident involving the confrontation between the Filipino youth group and another youth group, mostly white kids. The community was aroused in several protest actions questioning the police use of guns against unarmed youth.
There were protests of hundreds in front of the police headquarters in downtown Toronto and in front of the office of the Attorney General of Ontario to demand for an inquest and justice for Jeffrey. Lawyers in the community offered their services pro bono. The Justice for Jeffrey Coalition was initially organized. A community conference was called in October 2004 and after a day-long plenary session and workshops, the gathering decided to form an umbrella organization later to be called Community Alliance for Social Justice (CASJ). The main issues identified by the conference were: 1. Non-racist policing of ethnic communities, 2. End to deprofessionalization and subsequent accreditation of foreign-trained professionals, and 3. Reform of the Live-in Cargiver Program.
One concrete achievement of CASJ was the approval of legal aid to hire two young lawyers to represent it in the inquest into the fatal shooting of Reodica. For many weeks while the inquest was held under the glare of mainstream media coverage, the two CASJ lawyers fought it out against a battery of highly-paid Bay St. lawyers hired by the Toronto Police. The inquest jury came out with seven recommendations to police and other agencies, five of which were CASJ recommendations.
Another concrete achievement of CASJ participation in the inquest (together with the Reodica family’s representation in the inquest) was the earmarking of a Toronto Police budget of $439,000 for the implementation of the inquest jury’s recommendations like mandatory use of clothing marked “police” and use of police-identifiable vehicles by plainclothes police when responding to 911 calls.
CASJ went on to attend advocacy meetings to push those three issues and conducted research, in partnership with York University and Ryerson University professors.
My whole point is you cannot unite a community or any group for that matter, in a vacuum. You cannot just tell them to go out and vote without emphasizing the urgency to undertake actions, and voting is only one of them, in relation to some issues profoundly affecting their community. Vote for whom? For Filipino Canadians? I think the more relevant question is, what do these Pinoy candidates stand for? Not just because they’re Pinoys, we are obliged to put them in decision-making positions. Where do they stand on the current government’s changes in the caregiver and temporary foreign workers programs? On accrediting foreign-trained professionals? On immigration issues as family reunification and sponsorship of parents and grandparents?
Creating a fuller sense of identity
Judging from the individual testimonials of the panelists, except for one or two, there seemed to be a lack of a sense of identity for these Pinoy youth. And from the conference organizers, who should have reminded the attendees that this was a major theme of the whole exercise, there was no guidance at all as to how to tackle this situation.
Pinoy youth in Canada need not be told that their roots are in their homeland Philippines, that their parents came to Canada to give them better lives and not suffer the poverty, the political instability and career insecurities back home. It doesn’t take a genius to be aware of that but the utter lack of awareness of how this identity crisis impacts on the lives of our youth is what is surprising. Which perhaps made a youth moderator quote Filipino national hero Jose Rizal, “Ang hindi marunong lumingon sa pinanggalingan ay hindi makakarating sa patutunguhan.” (He who does not know how to look back at where he came from will not reach his destination.)
The uneasiness felt as the discussion on individual successes went on prodded me to speak from the audience. I said the Pinoy youth in Canada, whether born in the Philippines or in Canada, have a long and proud history of their people behind them. Their identity did not start when they were born. They have the genes of their ancestors who launched the first anti-colonial revolution in Asia. They have a culture that flourished long before the colonialists imposed their Euro-centric view of world history. Their heroes are legion and their people’s struggles are proud examples for other peoples to replicate.
What irked me most was the repeated mention of the lack of role models in the community and specifically among the parents and this was cited as a reason for lack of achievements among the youth. There was even a derisive mention of boxing champion Pacquiao as now a role model of the youth.
On the contrary, there are plenty of role models if you just look around. There are many Pinoy achievers all over north America and the world and their successes are chronicled even by the western mainstream media. In the Canadian media alone, you watch them everyday on TV – Marivel Taruc, Pauline Chan, Kris Reyes, Zuraidah Alman, Melissa Grelo, etc. In culture, entertainment, sports, business and the professions, there is no lack of Pinoy achievers. There is Jeff Rustia making waves in the fashion scene in Toronto; Ma-Ann Dionisio and Lilac Cana in stage and musical performances. There is Manitoba Culture Minister Flor Marcelino; BC Member of Legislative Assembly Mable Elmore; Niagara-on-the-Lake former Lord Mayor Art Viola and former Winnipeg MP Rey Pagtakhan. We have current education trustees and Councillor Alex Chiu of Markham and Senator Tobias Enverga, Jr. We just featured in our last issue Marie Alvie de la Cruz who won gold medals in taekwondo Pan Am competitions. We featured Pinoy filmmakers and actors whose works were shown in the recent Toronto International Film Festival, one of the most prestigious film fests in the world. On page 3, read about legend human rights lawyer Joker Arroyo. Check the Filipino Australian Jason Day who recently surpassed Tiger Woods as world’s number one in golf.
Why restrict your search for role models to your parents? In fact, some of the panel speakers said that they didn’t want to be like their parents who had no ambition and were not models for success. Yet most of these parents thought of them enough to bring their families to Canada for a more secure future. They should not be thrashed now in these unfair bursts of parent-bashing.
With the Internet, Google and other search engines, with Facebook and other social media, Wikipedia and instant access to any information ever written, there is no problem for the youth to find role models. In history alone, there is Rizal, Bonifacio, Mabini, del Pilar, the Luna brothers, and many others. Right now, there are numerous leaders and advocates who are struggling for reforms against corruption, landlessness, foreign intervention, human rights violations, environmental destruction, economic inequity. In our time, we had to read the hard copies of books in the libraries, the daily newspapers and weekly magazines, listen to radio and watch documentaries on TV. Now, you only have to click an icon on your smart phone, tablet or laptop. Why can’t the youth find role models? Are they really looking? Stop these excuses.
Inspire the youth to be visible and productive force in Canada
This last theme seems like an effort to tie everything together in the conference. In short, to contribute and be seen. Or to make a difference in this country. This is good and positive because it is a way of giving back, of paying forward. A way of thanking Canada for being good to us, in a way for saving us from a life of poverty and misery, of lack of opportunity where we came from.
But how can you inspire the youth to be and to do the above when there is a lack of a strong leadership in the community? And there is an utter lack of direction where the community wants to go. You can inspire people only to a certain limited extent with stories told with passion in the comfort of a conference setting. Sure, it could be a first step in a journey of a thousand miles. But leaders are made in the trenches, in the battlefield for social change and revolutionary endeavors.
I have cited two struggles of the Pinoy youth and community in Toronto. These stories should not be left to gather dust in the archives. They should be discussed and lessons drawn from them for future struggles.
You can be an individual success story and get lost in the mainstream society and can be visible and be an example of an immigrant success story. But that is individual success. There is a more profound impact if you work with others to bring your community to greater heights of success, to shed light on issues that serve to stunt its growth and prevent a more meaningful participation in the political, cultural and economic life of this nation. And this entails struggle, not merely talking about stories to inspire us all in a fleeting moment, only to go back to the daily grind of our jobs the next day and until the next summit meeting in a year when we’ll be ready for another injection of inspiration. What we need is action to wake us all up to realize that we’ll remain in the margins of this society if we don’t become critical enough to clarify the issues that precisely create these conditions. And the will to make the social change happen.