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Dreams of organizing Suzhou, China

l chen.jpg I am Letian Chen, a sophomore majoring in aerospace engineering at the University of Minnesota. I chose to take PA1401: Community Organizing Skills for Public Action this semester because, as an international student from China, I had been interested in American culture.

Ironically, even if I have been in the States for almost two years, there had been little chance for me to actually have a direct recognition of the real America...

I had been so filled up with all the major and technical courses during the first two years that I had little time to think constructively about what was happening around me. I figured that every single piece of soil of this country kept trying to tell me something, but I had been just far too busy to hear it. It also took a while to shape a view of world that was helpful enough for me to understand the things that didn’t look so familiar to me. This semester, I imagined taking PA 1401 would be a great opportunity for me to get to know a bit more about America, and in the meantime, jump out of the endless calculations and formulas. It turns out that I learned a lot more than I expected.

There hasn’t been such a course at any university in China that deals so specifically with the education of public organizing. Numerous examples of civil rights movements incite me to try to find the cultural connections between U.S. and China. I was driven to ask myself why such things could often happen here, but not so much in China. From what I understood, citizens living on this land are encouraged to make changes to fight for the equity and justice they deserve. However, throughout my entire school time in China, such thing never seemed to be taken as a high priority or something that one must be aware of. It is really taken as a big thing here, which I didn’t expect to see before I came to this country.

After reading several articles written by the leaders of the civil rights movement, one essential concept that I noticed is that here in America, people believe that their rights and freedom do not belong to anyone but themselves, and if you find you have not got what you deserve and it’s been taken advantage of by someone else, you shall take it back. And there are also numerous people out there willing to help those who are still suffering from inequity. Civil rights movements are the most representative one. To my understanding, public work is one of the critical components of the United States. Why were so many civil rights movements successful? “Non-violent” means people don’t use weapons to fight for the rights they deserve, instead, the invisible, yet the most powerful, which is called “morale,” is what made anything possible. Those who kept enjoying the benefits at the expense of other people’s pain were forced to understand what is right, and what is wrong, therefore giving in to justice and equity.

One thing that might be trivial to someone but I found particularly striking is a Public Achievement video I watched in class that shows kids aged four or five encouraged to make a petition for more swings simply because there were not enough at their school. “Kids and swings” example was definitely not something I expected to see in this class. But at some point, isn’t that a decent and detailed example to show what public organizing means on children’s standpoint? The fact that the skills and techniques of that are taught in some schools really gives me a concrete idea of how things here are different from China.

Suzhou.jpg In my city of Suzhou, there have been a group of people that account for the biggest proportion of population among all workers. In order to break away from poverty, they come all the way up from remote rural areas and cities in other provinces that have not got to enjoy the same amount of richness as Suzhou. It has been brought to my attention that these workers’ children often do not get the chance to attend the regular elementary schools that the local kids attend. They are physically living in Suzhou, but are highly confined in their own small circle so there is no way for them to actually get engaged in the local environment and connect to the real Suzhou culture.

As a student who has been studying public organizing and trying do something about it, I am planning on a project that deals specifically with this issue. As I believe, various knowledge resources need to be provided to enrich the children’s horizons both culturally and academically. In the meantime, students need to get engaged in the local society so that theories can be put into practice. As for the teaching resources, we are going to mainly focus on the culture and social parts instead of the book knowledge. The task of getting students immersed in the local society would be the counterpart of the former. They should ultimately lead to the realization of the goal: Minimize the distance between the hearts of the non-local workers’ children and Suzhou, therefore helping them truly become part of it. In here, the “kids and swings” video would be a great example in showing the importance of teaching children to be spontaneous about making changes, because eventually the only one that can save you will be yourself.

Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs