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Is there more that unites us than divides us? - Reflections on Civic Engagement and Community Empowerment

I was born and raised in the Philippines. I came to America right after graduating from college. I am married to a Jewish American who was born and raised in Brooklyn.

I live in a town where there are only a handful of Filipino-Americans.  My children learned about the Philippines – its tradition, values and culture – through their interaction within the family.  Only in the recent years did I get involved with the Filipino-American community in New York.  Through my involvement I learned of the many activities sponsored by various organizations in different venues.  

(NaFFAA 's Steven Raga, Dr. Aida Rivera, Merit Salud, Jen Furer (that's me!), Consul General Mario de Leon, Jr., TNO's Myrna D. Santos) 

On Jan 31, 2015 me and my co-hosts of Makilala TV (Rachelle Ocampo, Cristina DC Pastor) were asked to moderate a panel discussion organized by the National Federation of Filipino American Associations (NaFFAA) of New York.  The first annual symposium on Civic Engagement and Community Empowerment was held at New York University’s Palladium Hall, which was hosted by the International Filipino Association at NYU.
I was tasked to moderate the discussion on the importance of Filipino-American Community Centers.  Since I didn’t have an opinion on its importance, I posted the question to my friends on Facebook: “Is there a need for Filipino-American Community Centers?” 
I thought I wouldn’t get any response but to my surprise, many of my friends voiced their opinions on the value of the Community Center:  
“A place to stay in touch with your roots”
“A support group”
“A cultural gathering”
“A place to learn from each other”
“A place of refuge”
“A place to be safe void of tsismis (gossip) or competition”
“A place to belong“
“A place to network”
The ever passionate Atty. Merit Salud of NaFFAA wrote,
      “The Filipino psyche finds itself free and alive only when it feels it is at home, its refuge and the oasis to its wandering nature. A Filipino Center is that “home away from home “.  There the Filipino psyche could find kinship, freedom and comfort to seek and express its best because of the friendship, security and safety it provides, being among his cultural peers. It is confident that, in that alien land, it is not alone anymore in the company of his historical and cultural paisans.”

Melody Garcia-Muniz, the creator and founder of “One Night One Voice” commented,
       “In a country that celebrates diversity and promotes inclusion, why shouldn't we have a FIL-AM cultural center? This venue is representative of a piece of our home, our culture and heritage which can be preserved and passed down to future generations. I grew up here most of my life and have not had the opportunity to go back and visit since we moved here in 1986. Having a community center offers up a chance to folks like myself to bridge that gap whether geographically , emotionally or even culturally by having a distinctive cultural arts center to go to, that fully incorporates the grassroots of our Filipino society in a land far away from home. It's symbolic of our journey and sends a message that we, Filipinos continue to thrive and we have not forgotten those who have gone before us that enabled us to be where we are today.”
I also asked my Mom on what she thought of Community Centers, and here's what she wrote:
        "In 1927 The Jewish Community Center (JCC) opened their doors in Bensonhurst Brooklyn.  For all the years since, and to this day, they are a vital and integral part of our ever changing community.  As a working mom of young children (unheard of in the early 1970s), I was lucky to have a place close to home that my children could go to after school. They socialized, swam, went to summer camp, and met other children their age - all under the watchful eye of caring adults. Not only was it a safe haven for children, it was a place for adults to go to for assistance with everyday problems - Immigration, welfare needs, medical concerns, and much more.
      The Fil-Am community doesn't have to reinvent the wheel. Take the existing wheel and roll with it. Reach out to the JCC for help in going forward with your plans for a Fil-Am Community Center (FACC).  The doors of the JCC are open to everyone, as the doors of the FACC will be too.  Open one door at a time, and before you know it, many more doors will open, and the community will gladly come. "   

I was surprised by the responses. I thought that community centers specifically designed for certain ethnicities would alienate those from other nationalities. Filipinos are known to adapt quickly to new environments, so I didn’t think there would be a strong need for such a place.
Can the community unite behind such project?
Hungry for unity, information and organization, Filipino Americans of all ages, weathered the freezing temperatures and schlepped to Downtown New York to listen to our discussion and to share their thoughts.
Consul General Mario de Leon, Jr.

Consul General Mario de Leon, Jr. , in his message, reiterated that “with visibility comes responsibility.”   He commended NaFFAA for their “Get Out To Vote” campaign and pointed out the need for role models.   He also challenged the community to work together to find solutions to the following challenges faced by Filipino-American organizations:

  • What can we do to enable our organizations to last longer?
  • How can we make the bond among communities stronger?
  • How can the first generation attract and engage the younger members of the community?

Dr. Aida Rivera

Dr Aida Rivera of NaFFAA addressed the audience, especially the young generation. She said, “ It’s refreshing to see young faces. Let’s organize activities that will go to the grassroots. Let’s bring the message to our individual organizations and remember - it’s not about passing the torch, but passing the baton.”

Gil Quinones

The forum’s keynote speaker was Gil Quinones, the President & CEO of NY Power Authority and Gov. Cuomo’s representative for the Asian American Community.

Mr. Quinones raised 4 questions that the community needs to address:
  • How do we make sure Filipinos who are struggling have access to sports services or non-government activities?
  • How can we accelerate political power?
  • How do we develop more leaders in the community?
  • In disasters like Typhoon Haiyan, how can we help effectively?
Mr. Quinones reiterated what most of us believe. "We, Filipinos, believe in family and community. When one of us falls down and struggles, all of us find a way. When one of us rises, all of us celebrate." He also added that "The sweetest type of success is a shared success."

(with Myrna D. Santos and  Kristina Joyas)
Myrna Santos, Founder and Chief Nurse at “The Nursing Office” and Kristina Joyas , Executive Director of  LEGACY NY, were the featured guests for the panel discussion on  “The State Filipino American Community Space/Centers in New York” .    

Ms. Santos pointed out that,
    “It is ironic that we, Filipino Americans, with the largest number of health professionals and healthcare givers in America, have a considerable number of Senior citizens and members, whose life issues are largely unseen and/or unheard of. While other senior ethnic groups have already established their own groups and spaces supported by the government at City, State, or Federal levels, Filipino-American Seniors have yet to establish constant visibility, in order to break the life-denying barriers of isolation, fear and loneliness, unattended health problems, and a reduced sense of purpose or meaning. Moreover, the silent epidemic of depression and mental illness, fueled by denial & neglect, bias & aging stereotypes, has been creeping into the fiber of communities everywhere, including Filipino-Americans.

With the vision-mission of extending health care delivery to needy groups regardless of race, gender, or color, The Nursing Office (TNO) seeks to address and stress this unheard & unseen crisis of INVISIBLE SENIORS in our midst. By collaborating, cooperating, and sharing resources with PAGASA (Philippine American Group of Active Seniors), TNO has defined, formed, and physically established a Community Center designed to deliver, among other service programs, such critical health care support to our needy Seniors. “

(with NaFFAA's Steven Raga and Makilala TV's Cristina DC Pastor and Rachelle Ocampo)
Ms.  Joyas, pointed out that in order for non-profit organizations to be sustainable, they should consider their organizations as businesses.  She also challenged the community leaders to focus on one organization and stop being “title holders” in multiple organizations. She also emphasized the need to  design a community center that’s more generic, and non-generational – a center that’s open to all generations.

 So is there more that unites us than divides us?

Is there a profound disconnect between the ideologies of the first and second generation?

Can we get pass our “kanya-kanya” attitude (crab mentality) and work together, as one of the younger audience suggested, “create a cool Community Center for every Filipino American?”

The symposium also discussed the "Intergenerational Issues on Organizational Recruitment/Retention" with MakilalaTV's Rachelle Ocampo (moderator), Kate Pangilinan of LEGACY and Lumen Castaneda of UNIFFIED Teachers Association.

MakilalaTV's Cristina DC Pastor moderated the discussion on Engagement, Lobbying and Relationship Building with Local Government with Cheska Tolentino (Government Affairs Manager at Transport Workers Union AFL-CIO Local 100), Chris Widelo (Associate State Director at AARP) and Atty. Brooke Richie-Babbage (Founder/Executive Director, Resilience Advocacy Project) .

Photos courtesy of Lumen Castaneda, Rachelle Ocampo, Myrna D. Santos.



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