Mak­ing com­mu­nity voices heard

China Daily (Canada) - - ACROSSAMERICA - By AMY HE in New York amyhe@chi­nadai­

When New York City changed its char­ter in the 1990s to in­crease the size of its City Coun­cil to 51 seats from 35, Mar­garet Chin thought it was time for an Asian Amer­i­can to hold one of those seats, so she ran. And then she ran again and again.

It took her three times — in 1991, 1993, and 2001 — to fi­nally rep­re­sent District 1 in Lower Man­hat­tan, which in­cludes neigh­bor­hoods like Chi­na­town, around City Hall and in the Fi­nan­cial District, where she now lives with her hus­band.

“It was not easy, mainly be­cause we just didn’t have the num­bers in our own com­mu­nity,” Chin told China Daily. “A lot of Asians or Chi­nese liv­ing in Chi­na­town were not cit­i­zens, and even if they were cit­i­zens, they didn’t reg­is­ter to vote.”

Voter reg­is­tra­tion was low and there were ob­sta­cles even for those reg­is­tered to vote. They en­coun­tered prob­lems at the polling sta­tions on Elec­tion Day: Chi­nese names were of­ten en­tered in­cor­rectly into the sys­tem and some Chi­nese vot­ers were told they could not vote. Many had weak com­mand of English and “didn’t know how to be as­sertive” if given a hard time about it, Chin said, which con­trib­uted to the low voter turnout.

Chin im­mi­grated to New York from Hong Kong in 1963, and she and her fam­ily lived on Mott Street, which at the time was still con­sid­ered Lit­tle


ple saw in con­crete ex­am­ples that you have to get in­volved and make your voices heard. It took years and years of or­ga­niz­ing.” MAR­GARET CHIN NEW YORK CITY COUN­CIL MEM­BER

Italy — now is one of Chi­na­town’s main streets — and most of her neigh­bors were Ital­ian. In the last five decades since, Chi­na­town has got­ten sub­stan­tially big­ger and has branched out to other Asian en­claves through­out the city, pri­mar­ily in Brook­lyn and Queens, and com­mu­nity par­tic­i­pa­tion has in­creased in the last two decades with more Asian Amer­i­cans in elected of­fices.

“People saw in con­crete ex­am­ples that you have to get in­volved and make your voices heard. It took years and years of or­ga­niz­ing. People are be­gin­ning to re­al­ize that to gain ac­cess to more govern­ment ser­vices, you have to make your voices heard,” she said.

Chin worked as an ed­u­ca­tor at the LaGuardia Com­mu­nity Col­lege for 14 years, help­ing Chi­na­town im­mi­grant adults get a col­lege ed­u­ca­tion. Now, she said, that out­reach needs to fo­cus on all ages within the Chi­nese com­mu­nity, be­gin­ning with young adults. Asians make up 10 per­cent of New York City’s pop­u­la­tion of over 8 mil­lion, but there are only two Asian mem­bers on the City Coun­cil.

“If you work out the num­bers pro­por­tion­ally, there should at least be five or six [Asian mem­bers]. But things don’t work like that. So that’s why it’s im­por­tant to ed­u­cate the younger gen­er­a­tion in terms of the im­por­tance of pub­lic ser­vice, com­mu­nity ser­vice so we get more people in­ter­ested in govern­ment, in­ter­ested in get­ting in­volved. That will help build the pool of people that will come into work in the govern­ment,” she said.

At a time when the im­por­tance of the Asian-Amer­i­can vote is grow­ing in na­tional pol­i­tics — the 2012 elec­tions saw 547,000 new AsianAmer­i­can vot­ers, ac­cord­ing to the non­par­ti­san or­ga­ni­za­tion Asian and Pa­cific Is­lan­der Amer­i­can Vote — New York City of­fi­cials are also pay­ing more at­ten­tion to the Asian com­mu­nity, in­clud­ing hir­ing more Asian staff mem­bers, Chin said, who can hope­fully be elected Asian of­fi­cials down the road.

Man­hat­tan’s Chi­na­town has changed in many ways in the five decades since Chin came to the US. There’s a lack of af­ford­able hous­ing and of­ten mul­ti­ple fam­i­lies can be found squeezed to­gether in one apart­ment. Res­i­dents have ben­e­fited from sub­si­dized hous­ing and rent-con­trolled apart­ments, but the city has got­ten more ex­pen­sive and that’s hurt­ing many im­mi­grant fam­i­lies in Chi­na­town, Chin said.

“Con­di­tions have got­ten worse in some ways, be­cause now you have fam­i­lies liv­ing with other fam­i­lies in the same apart­ment,” Chin said. “Fiftyone years ago, we were crowded in one apart­ment, but it was one fam­ily. But nowa­days, we see so many cases of dif­fer­ent fam­i­lies liv­ing to­gether.”

Chin sees the so­lu­tion to many of Chi­na­town’s prob­lems as more ed­u­ca­tion for adults and adults them­selves mak­ing more time for ed­u­ca­tion.

“How do you al­le­vi­ate poverty? That’s the is­sue I talked about, the im­por­tance of adult ed­u­ca­tion and learn­ing English so that they can take ad­van­tage of job train­ing and take a bet­ter job,” she said. “If you can raise your in­come, then more op­por­tu­ni­ties open up. You can find bet­ter hous­ing, and the next gen­er­a­tion will be bet­ter. When par­ents learn English, then they can help their kids do bet­ter in school too.”

Chin spon­sored leg­is­la­tion to ex­pand the num­ber of city em­ploy­ees who would be en­ti­tled to paid sick leave, re­quir­ing small businesses with five or more em­ploy­ees to pay sick time, down from the cur­rent re­quire­ment of 15 or more em­ploy­ees. The leg­is­la­tion was signed into law in March by New York Mayor Bill de Bla­sio, and went into ef­fect on Apr 1.

“If we raise the in­come level, even with a min­i­mum wage in­crease, that will help tremen­dously,” she said. “Hav­ing paid sick leave, that means a lot to small businesses in Chi­na­town where nor­mally, if you’re sick, you take a day off and you


New York City Coun­cil mem­ber Mar­garet Chin, rep­re­sent­ing District 1 in Lower Man­hat­tan, at her of­fice in City Hall, New York.

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