After graduating from Baruch College in 2014 with a degree in marketing, Brooklyn native and graphic designer Jacqueline Liang wanted to make the most of her weekend instead of wasting it away. She knew she wanted to give back but wasn’t exactly sure how.
“I was always very into mentorship and youth development because I feel like, you know, inspiring the next generation of potential leaders,” she told In The Know over the phone. “I think it’s very important.”
So Liang searched for programs in New York and came across Apex for Youth, a Chinatown-based nonprofit that supports underserved Asian and immigrant youth from low-income families. Following 10 minutes of research, she knew she had found the right community — like the organization’s children, she too had grown up in an immigrant family with few resources and had to mostly navigate high school and college on her own. Now, as an adult, she wanted to be the mentor she had never had.
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“I was like, ‘This is everything I’m looking for. I don’t have to look any further,'” Liang recalled.
Apex was founded in 1992 by a group of young Asian professionals who noticed there weren’t any services that catered to Asian American children, many of whose experiences seemed to run counter to the model minority myth. Though lauded as wealthy high achievers, Asian Americans, at the time, were suffering from poverty at an alarming rate. Just three years before, the U.S. Census Bureau had reported that 17.1 percent of Asian American children lived in families with incomes below the federal poverty rate across the country. Over time, that reality, however, became starker in New York City alone, where the poverty rate among non-Hispanic residents (primarily Asian) grew from 15.8 percent in 1979 to 20.9 percent in 1999.
To address this issue, Apex drew on grassroots support to provide services — from mentoring to academic assistance — to those who most needed them in the city. Operating on a budget of $150,00, the organization initially served between 80 and 100 children. Yet, that came with its own set of challenges, Preeti Sriratana, the chairman of Apex’s Board of Directors, said. In the nonprofit’s effort to help marginalized youth, it was often spurned by other organizations that seemed to dismiss the Asian American struggle altogether.
An Apex mentor and her mentee
Credit: Apex for Youth
“Back in the early days of Apex, we would try to go out and get that institutional grant money,” said Sriratana, who came to New York from Illinois in 2000 and is now a partner at an architecture firm. “And companies and foundations would be like, ‘At-risk Asian American youth? Uh, that’s not a thing.'”
For Sriratana, the child of hardworking Thai immigrants who was raised in the small town of Normal, that sense of rejection felt all too familiar.
“I was always an outcast, always a loner, exposed to a lot of racism,” he said. “I can go down the rabbit hole and talk about the bullying, the graffitiing, the physical abuse and the rest toward my family. I was a pretty solid B-minus [student] throughout high school and college, but I had a lot of great mentors who helped me along the way, and I never would have made it to New York without them.”
Still, Sriratana, along with his colleagues, persisted in their fight to secure funds for Apex — surprisingly with help from the Asian community this time.
“We’ve been raised to be so competitive with each other,” he said. “It’s like who got the best grades? Who went to what school? Who’s working where, for what company and makes how much? It’s like we’re raised to be super competitive, which is why Asians don’t help each other out.”
Fortunately, for Apex, the community’s support came in a huge way. Since 2012, the nonprofit’s budget has increased to $4 million, thanks largely to the backing of some high-profile figures, including designer Phillip Lim and former Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang. In the process, Apex’s purpose has evolved.
“Our mission is to empower at-risk Asian American youth,” Sriratana told In The Know. “But the vision for the organization is we want to see more Asian representation across all levels of senior leadership in every industry.”
To that end, mentors like Liang play a crucial role in instilling confidence in the next generation of Asian Americans. In November 2015, the graphic designer was paired with then 9-year-old Yumi Cheng, who, at first, was very reserved.
“It was, I think, a very scary moment for both of us,” Liang said. “Scary for her because I’m like an adult to her, a stranger. Scary for me because I wanted to make sure I make a positive impact, and I wasn’t sure whether she would like me.”
Liang said the first few meetups with her mentee were often filled with silence. Whenever she asked Yumi a question, she would get a one-word answer in response. Their second year together wasn’t that much better, as the two found themselves dealing with separate family issues, Liang added.
“I actually thought she would leave the program because we just didn’t bond the second year at all,” she said. “I was like, ‘Oh God, she’s probably going to leave because she doesn’t like me.'”
Jacqueline Liang (right) and her mentee Yumi Cheng
Credit: Jacqueline Liang
It wasn’t until Liang shared some details about her own family that Yumi came around and started conversing with her, the graphic designer said.
“She started to open up to me more because I was letting her into my life as opposed to me just constantly asking her questions like, ‘Hey, how are you. doing? Hey, what’s going on with you?'” Liang said.
Since then, the two have gotten closer, regularly exchanging text messages and even grabbing dinner together.
“Now, we’re really good,” Liang said. “I think it all started with me giving her perspective on my emotions and my mental health.”
In truth, the volunteer work that mentors, like Liang, do is particularly important for young Asian Americans, as the community struggles to confront the largest income gap among all racial groups. According to 2016 data from the Pew Research Center, Asians in the top 10 percent of the income distribution earned 10.7 times as much as those in the bottom 10 percent, making Asians “the most economically divided racial or ethnic group in the U.S.” In New York, where there are approximately 140,000 Asian students who attend public schools, one out of every two Asian students is born into poverty and one out of four lives in a home where English is not the primary language, Apex’s website further notes.
“You know a lot of the kids can’t foresee themselves either going to college or aspiring to be a creative or in a x, y, z profession,” Sean Wang, a Bronx native and associate board member at Apex, explained.
To ensure its students are equipped to handle the day-to-day rigors of school, the nonprofit currently offers reading lessons to children as young as those in the first grade. Apex also provides basketball and arts mentoring, along with SAT and college prep courses. The hope is that, one day, its youth become “Apex volunteers themselves in the future: confident, college-ready individuals who want to give back to the community,” the organization asserts on its website.
An Apex mentor walks through an assignment with three students
Credit: Apex for Youth
“In New York City, while it is true that the majority of top high schools — like Stuyvesant, Brooklyn Tech, Bronx Science — are overpopulated by Asians, they are only 8,000 of the 140,000 Asian American children in New York City public schools,” Sriratana said. “And so if you look at the larger body of Asian students, we have half of these kids who are born into poverty and they continue to live in the largest ethnic population living in the city.”
Today, those children face another challenge: increasing racism amid a global pandemic. In the months following the outbreak of COVID-19, Asian Americans across the U.S. have reported nearly 1,500 incidents of hate crimes, according to Asian American blog NextShark. In New York, the city’s police department counted 14 hate crimes against Asian Americans just in April — all of which were seemingly connected to misperceptions surrounding the virus. The growing cases of anti-Asian discrimination has since pushed New York Attorney General Letitia James to launch a hotline to fend off hate crimes.
It has also forced Apex to shift much of its services to tackle an issue that has long plagued the Asian American community: xenophobia.
“From a programming standpoint, what we’ve done is sort of pivot a little bit and create more programming that [focuses on how] to deal with racism, how to deal with xenophobia, etc.,” Wang said.
That includes hosting online workshops and curating resources that touch on how to deal with stress and adjusting to distance learning. In addition, the nonprofit recently launched its One Community One Mission campaign, which will fund new programs surrounding mental health and anti-Asian racism, along with its existing operations. The goal is to raise $1 million by the summer.
“There’s a ton of organizations that are doing a lot of really important work,” Sriratana said. “I know that when it comes to the Asian community and specifically our kids, we are the ones doing it.”
If you would like to donate to Apex’s campaign, click here. You might also want to consider reading about this ceramic artist who creates hyper-realistic replicas of Asians.
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