Student Spotlight with Duong Ly

OPEN SPACE: Freshman Duong Ly is a co-founder of the Asian Student Association of Philadelphia (ASAP), a youth-led organization he helped establish as a high school senior in September 2010. ASAP aims to create a space for Asian students in the city to come together to discuss politics and develop critical thinking and analytical skills about world events.

ASSAULT ON LEARNING: A graduate of South Philadelphia High School, Ly was moved to form ASAP after more than two dozen Asian students at South Philly High were attacked by a group of students in December 2009.

POWDER KEG: Ly, who emigrated from Vietnam in March 2008, says racial tensions at the school had been brewing for a decade without proper intervention from school officials. “It was especially bad during my years because the school was in a state of confusion and didn’t know how to handle an influx of immigrants from Asia,” he says.

LOST IN TRANSLATION: Ly says the problems plaguing South Philly High were more institutional than interpersonal, rooted in stereotypes and misunderstandings. For example, the school’s English for Speakers of Other Languages classes were primarily located on the second floor. He says African-American students mistakenly believed that the second floor was exclusively for Asian students and questioned why Asian students had their own floor and their own educational program while the black students didn’t even have enough textbooks. “That can add up to a lot of tension,” Ly says. “And the school did nothing to address that.”

BAND AID: In the aftermath of the attacks, Ly says South Philly High administrators instituted programs to ease tensions, but these programs “only addressed the symptoms, not the root of the problem.”

HALF TIME: Funded by an outside organization, the school’s 50/50 Club paired 50 African-American and Asian immigrant students on a bus and brought them to a basketball game. Students were supposed to sit together and talk, without any mediation. “I don’t know how that would facilitate the process of healing the tension,” Ly says.

NEW BEGINNING: Since the attacks, a new principal has been appointed to South Philly High, whom Ly says has been a great addition to the school. Although tensions among students still exist, he says things are slowly improving.

E PLURIBUS UNUM: ASAP has visited Philadelphia high schools to speak with students about similar racial issues. The organization has also collaborated with South Philadelphia High School Asian Student Advocates and the Philadelphia Student Union to devise programs to improve race relations.

Duong Ly - story