Reducing violence from one ‘hood to the next
on October 22, 2009
In front of a diverse crowd of about 300, 19-year-old Phon Chanthanask made a declaration he was proud of.
“I am not a high school dropout. I am not a drug dealer or a gang banger. I am not the negative of Richmond, California,” said Chanthanasak at the Sixth Annual Youth Stopping Violence Summit on Saturday.
But Chanthanasak, a Khmu youth now a student at San Francisco State University, told the crowd inside the Richmond Auditorium he could have easily fallen into any of those descriptions. Mentors from Richmond’s South East Asian Young Leaders (SEAYL) program, which organizes the summit every year, are responsible for encouraging him not to, he said.
The summit–once focused on lowering tension between Asian communities in and around Richmond but now between all racial and neighborhood divides in the area–included talks from other youth, an ex-Sureno gang member, and Mayor Gayle McLaughlin, whose office helped sponsor the event. Youth of all ethnicities were also treated to a free lunch together and workshops on topics such as anger management, positive hip-hop and how to use the law as protection instead of violence.
Gwai Boonkeut said SEAYL has made an obvious impact on the South East Asian community in Richmond. His 15-year-old daughter, Chan Boonkeut, was murdered at her front door by an Asian gang targeting her brother in October 2003. Her death inspired the first summit.
The message that murder was not acceptable behavior between rival South East Asian gang members–almost all of whom are related to families that came from Laos after the Vietnam War–was a little easier to spread because of the small size of Asian communities, said Sean Kirkpatrick, program supervisor for SEAYL. Though tensions between communities like the Khmu and Mien still exist, there has not been a murder of an Asian by an Asian in Richmond since 2003, he said.
Now the challenge is to reduce violence as much in neighborhoods nearby, especially in light of the recent murder of SEAYL member Aye Alan Lee, 19, Kirkpatrick said.
Lee was shot in San Pablo on Oct. 5 after a small marijuana drug deal went wrong, according to murder investigators. Regardless of his activity at the time of his murder, SEAYL members who organized a vigil for him at the end of the summit said that the youth activist and musician was like a family member to them.
“(Before I was in SEAYL)I would think what they did was wrong, so the only thing we can do for ourselves to feel better is to go back and just get him–that would be my mentality. And that’s every human being, you know. Anger–it takes over us. It makes us think that way,” Chanthanasak said about the murder of Lee, who had been a close friend since middle school. “This really opened my eyes to see if what I learned through SEAYL … would I put it to the test? Would I go out here and retaliate or would I make a second thought about that?
“There are other ways to retaliate than harming another person, things like this–speaking on it.”
Chanthanasak said being able to speak to people he has met through SEAYL has made it possible for him to react in more constructive ways to traumatic events such as Lee’s death.
“When Alan died, I called up my mentors and cried on their shoulders. I didn’t talk to my family about any of this,” Chanthanasak said.
Mory Saengsurith, emcee for the event, said Chanthanasak’s change in attitude affected his own.
“We grew up together. He’s older, so he’s always been a role model for me,” Saengsurith said. “I wouldn’t be here without him.”
Richmond Police Chief Chris Magnus, who attended the summit, said he sees programs like SEAYL and the Youth Stopping Violence Summit as essential for reducing violence in Richmond.
“Our whole force is trying to build and strengthen relationships between the police and the youth,” Magnus said. “I think they’ve made a huge difference. This is really what’s going to change things.”
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