Former youth leader at Southern honored as 'champion of peace'

Wei Chen speaks at City Hall , joined by Mayor Nutter (right) and Eric Dawson, founder of Peace First, which awarded Chen a $50,000 grant in October. MICHAEL S. WIRTZ / Staff Photographer
Wei Chen speaks at City Hall , joined by Mayor Nutter (right) and Eric Dawson, founder of Peace First, which awarded Chen a $50,000 grant in October. MICHAEL S. WIRTZ / Staff Photographer
Posted: December 21, 2013

PHILADELPHIA He's a leader among young Asian immigrants, an explorer of activist ideals, a part-time teacher of Chinese opera, a son of South Philadelphia by way of Fujian province.

And on Thursday, he was honored at City Hall, praised by Mayor Nutter as "a champion of peace."

Wei Chen, 22, smiled nervously in the glare of TV lights as friends and colleagues applauded.

In some ways, the last four years have felt to him like four lifetimes, carrying big rewards and huge challenges.

Chen described his single-minded goal: "Making more peacemakers."

The midmorning event was not an awards ceremony but a chance for Chen to be recognized in his hometown for something special: In October, he was one of 10 young people nationwide to receive a $50,000 prize from Peace First, a Boston group. Nearly 700 applied.

"He has these distinctive organizing skills, but also has room to grow in them," said Ellen Somekawa, executive director of Asian Americans United in Philadelphia. "I expect to see him at the center of vibrant ideas about how we make change."

Chen's love is the Chinatown Youth Organizing Project, a group he cofounded to help new immigrants build leadership skills.

In the weeks before the award was announced, Chen was fast reaching a point where he would have to give up his work, bury the activism in his heart, and get a job to pay the bills.

"Now I don't have to think about income," Chen said in an interview. "This fellowship helps me focus on the organizing world, and focus on youth programs."

Peace First cofounder and president Eric Dawson, who was at the ceremony, said society often regards some children as problems, to be medicated or incarcerated, when in fact many work to make their communities more peaceful. Chen stood out for his compassion and courage, Dawson said, "a shining example of what's possible when young people are given opportunity."

People who follow the news know Chen's name from South Philadelphia High and a time when the school was a symbol of anti-Asian violence.

On Dec. 3, 2009, groups of mostly African American students carried out a daylong series of attacks on their Asian peers, most of them recent immigrants. Thirty Asian students were assaulted, and seven went to hospitals.

Chen, a senior, helped lead a contentious eight-day boycott of classes by 50 Asian students, in the process becoming a spokesman for immigrants. He noted that many black youths befriended Asian students, and said blame for the violence lay with school supervisors who had failed in their duties.

The boycott helped spark a federal Justice Department inquiry that led to a settlement in which School District officials agreed to correct "severe and pervasive" racial harassment against Asians.

In 2010, as a senior, Chen was awarded the Princeton Prize in Race Relations from Princeton University for "exceptional and sustained leadership" that encouraged ethnic understanding.

After graduating from Southern, as the school is known, he briefly attended community college while working part-time jobs, always more interested in social causes.

His mother, who works in a factory, and his father, a long-distance bus driver based in Indiana, have never understood their son's activism. They knew that in China, confronting the authorities could be badly, permanently, life-altering.

Neither attended the event at City Hall. Most Fujianese, Chen said, believe that only money will make their children happy and secure.

"I want my life to have a choice," he said. "I may be an immigrant, but I want to choose my life."

Chen was a boy of 9 when his father left China and immigrated to the United States, hoping to assure his children a good future. He worked in construction, sending home money that allowed his family to build a sturdy house in coastal Fujian.

Chen was 16 when he next saw his father - in the United States. He, his mother, and two sisters arrived in 2007, settling in South Philadelphia.

For Chen, his new American life was a school where he struggled to speak English and Asians were taunted and punched. One day, Chen was standing at his locker when he was suddenly slugged in the head.

In response, he formed the Chinese-American Student Association, made it his job to help immigrant youths, and began keeping a notebook in which he recorded details of assaults on Asians.

In the 2009-10 school year, administrators reported 87 violent incidents, including 45 assaults on students. The following year, violence dropped under the direction of new principal Otis Hackney.

Through November of this year, statistics show four violent incidents at Southern. During the same three-month period last year, there were a dozen, including seven assaults.

Chen gets part of the credit for having "made South Philadelphia High School a safer, more welcoming community," Nutter said. "We need more individuals like Wei."

The Peace First prize means more than money. The group provides mentoring and feedback, helping young people like Chen think more deeply about their goals.

"Peace First means a lot to me," Chen said, adding that the award would "support me in learning more and doing more. ... I love making change in my community."


jgammage@phillynews.com

215-854-4906

@JeffGammage

Inquirer staff writer Dylan Purcell contributed to this article.

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