Bullies and building communities

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It’s October, so this is a good month to talk about the things and people that have scared us or tried to scare us over the years. Some of those fears were justified, and many were not. For those of us with roots in Laos and other parts of Southeast Asia who escaped the wars, this is an interesting question.

Before I start, I want to thank Councilman Frey and the 3rd Ward for recognizing me on October 5th with Ketmani Kouanchao Day. It was a tremendous honor and brought back so many wonderful memories I had growing up in Minneapolis. When we first arrived to the US there were so many uncertainties about our future. What would happen to us? Who might we become? I am thankful there were many in Minnesota who welcomed us, and took us under their wings and didn’t give up on us. As we get ready to recognize 40 years of our diaspora next year, we must remember those who supported us and taught us. We should never hesitate to help those who are coming to America today. You never know who they will be years from now as a part of our community.

This ties into October being National Bully Prevention Month. It’s not something that Southeast Asian youth and families talk about often, but almost all of us experienced it. In Philadelphia, bullying got so serious that Southeast Asian American students quit going to school collectively in protest because school officials wouldn’t do anything about it. I hope that never happens in Minnesota.

I remember my own experiences getting picked on and bullied in school if I didn’t stand up for myself or for my younger sisters. Sometimes all it took was talking to the bully with my parents or someone older. Other times, you had to find ways to settle things once and for all that sent a message to the bullies. I think these days we have more who see how traumatizing this can be to immigrants and refugees that goes beyond just schoolyard antics, and what it can do to our entire communities.

When bullies aren’t dealt with and disrupt our youth from getting good grades and cause depression and anxiety about school, that has real consequences. How many of our bullied kids don’t make it into college, don’t create businesses, don’t innovate or help us build the community we want to have? This becomes a problem for ALL of us when we don’t take a real stand.

Parents and advocates have to be firm in asking our teachers and school administrators to deal with these issues effectively and to go beyond handing out brochures.

We need to encourage constructive solutions that prevent bullying from becoming systemic. All bullying is problematic, but the bullying of Southeast Asian American students can include kids being targeted because of their race, gender, faith, and economic class, and the perception of these kids or their families being immigrants or refugees. Incidents of bullying are reported anecdotally enough across all of the states it’s clear we should have both national and local dialogues on the subject. Parental responses have to go beyond “study harder, ignore the bullies.”

WWW.Stopbullying.gov is supposed to be one resource for parents and community members to learn more about bullying and preventing it in their schools and beyond. Unfortunately, at the moment, the bullying of Southeast Asian Americans isn’t on their radar. When discussing at-risk groups at http://www.stopbullying.gov/at-risk/groups/index.html under race, ethnicity and national origin, the text simply reads:

“It is not clear how often kids get bullied because of their race, ethnicity, or national origin. It is also unclear how often kids of the same group bully each other. Research is still growing. We do know, however, that Black and Hispanic youth who are bullied are more likely to suffer academically than their white peers.

Although no specialized interventions have yet been developed or identified, some federal partners have developed campaign materials for specific racial and ethnic minority groups. For example, the Indian Health Service within the Department of Health and Human Services has developed a series of materials for American Indian and Alaskan Native youth called “Stand Up, Stand Strong.”

They do helpfully suggest that when bullying is based on race and ethnicity that it can be considered harassment that violates civil rights laws. It remains questionable, however, how many institutions and communities are prepared to escalate it to this level, and who has the resources for a protracted legal solution on the subject, especially in individual cases of bullying. The last thing we need is a generation of bullies who grow up to say, “not only was I a bully, I broke civil rights laws regularly and didn’t get touched.”

There’s much within the best of Lao traditional values that support taking a stand against bullying. While we encourage self-reliance and independence, we also value compassion, harmony, non-violence, justice and an appreciation of diversity. We value the many different ways of being who you are. It’s ok to be different. We need to share those values, and also our expectations if we are going to create a harmonious community.

Our community needs to become proactive on this issue, supporting our youth who are involved in effective bullying prevention, and working together to develop resources that give everyone an opportunity to prevent tragedy and to encourage lifelong success and learning. If you find a solution that works for your family, share it with others. Begin the dialogue and start the change.

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