Bill Chong: Help­ing NYC’s youths BIO

China Daily (Canada) - - ACROSSAMERICA - By AMY HE in New York amyhe@chi­nadai­lyusa.com

Like mil­lions of other Americans, Bill Chong watched the US moon land­ing on TV in the sum­mer of 1969. Chong was 12 at the time and like many other young peo­ple, he was in­spired by the mis­sion.

A year later he had to pick an area of study at Brook­lyn Tech­ni­cal High School.

“I thought, ‘Wow, a land­ing on the moon. That’s what I want to do, build rock­ets!’ I was 12, so what did I know, right?” he said. “So I said, ‘Aero­nau­ti­cal en­gi­neer­ing!’ Be­cause that’s what I wanted to do.”

Once he be­gan tak­ing cour­ses, though, he re­al­ized that he’d have to do a lot of math to get through aero­nau­ti­cal en­gi­neer­ing, and he didn’t much en­joy math.

Help­fully, an English teacher told him to con­sider another track. Chong was good at writ­ing, he was ar­tic­u­late, so he should con­sider jour­nal­ism, he was told, and that’s ex­actly what he did when he en­rolled in col­lege.

Chong, who was born and raised in New York, stud­ied jour­nal­ism at the City Col­lege of New York in the late 1970s and pur­sued writ­ing for a few years after he grad­u­ated, free­lanc­ing for mi­nor­ity news­pa­per Trans-Ur­ban News Ser­vice, which was started in 1977 by African-Amer­i­can civil rights ac­tivist An­drew Cooper.

Free­lance jour­nal­ism didn’t pay well, so Chong looked into other fields, and be­gan vol­un­teer­ing at Asian Americans for Equal­ity (AAFE), a non-profit or­ga­ni­za­tion based in Man­hat­tan’s Chi­na­town.

“The turn­ing point in my ca­reer was when I vol­un­teered at AAFE. They needed some­one who could nav­i­gate re­la­tion­ships be­tween the Chi­nese com­mu­nity and the out­side com­mu­nity, who could work with elected of­fi­cials, who could work with gov­ern­ment agen­cies. So my job was to be the bridge be­tween the work of AAFE, which was very strong, and very grass­roots, and the com­mu­nity,” Chong said.

One of the first projects he worked on at AAFE was su­ing the city over a re­zon­ing project that would have al­lowed for high-rises to be built in Chi­na­town near the Man­hat­tan Bridge. The city’s plan “didn’t make sense” and the com­mu­nity thought that it was go­ing to be the first step to­wards gen­tri­fy­ing the neigh­bor­hood, so it sued the city in “AAFE vs. Koch”, Ed Koch be­ing the city’s mayor then.

AAFE won at dis­trict court, lost at the ap­pel­late di­vi­sion and later took the case to the New York State Court of Ap­peals. The or­ga­ni­za­tion ul­ti­mately lost, but by then, the law­suit had dragged out for more than a decade to the early 1990s.

By then, two things had hap­pened: the orig­i­nal re­zon­ing plan had a 10-year sun­set pro­vi­sion, and the real es­tate mar­ket in Man­hat­tan bot­tomed out. Since the de­vel­op­ers hadn’t started any work within the 10 years, the plan dis­in­te­grated.

“I like to look back at that mo­ment and say that we de­layed gen­tri­fi­ca­tion. It’s very dif­fi­cult to com­pletely stop it, be­cause Chi­na­town is in such a strate­gi­cally valu­able lo­ca­tion,” Chong said. “Man­hat­tan is a place where many peo­ple want to live, for ob­vi­ous rea­sons, and it pains me to see what’s hap­pen­ing to Chi­na­town, but I know we were able to de­lay it for a good 15 years.”

Chong’s time at AAFE was the start of his ca­reer in com­mu­nity work, and the 57-yearold has now worked in non­profit or­ga­ni­za­tions as well as var­i­ous gov­ern­ment agen­cies in the city.

“I’ve worked for a pres­i­dent, a gov­er­nor, four may­ors, and two Cuo­mos,” he said. “I’m prob­a­bly an an­swer to a trivia ques­tion out there.”

Chong’s lat­est role, which he as­sumed in Jan­uary 2014, is un­der Mayor Bill de Bla­sio’s new ad­min­is­tra­tion. He is the com­mis­sioner of the Depart­ment of Youth and Com­mu­nity De­vel­op­ment (DYCD), which was cre­ated in 1996 to pro­vide youth and fam­ily pro­gram­ming with funds made avail­able by the city, state and fed­eral gov­ern­ments.

The DYCD funds lo­cal com­mu­nity-based or­ga­ni­za­tions that pro­vide ser­vices to pro­mote youth de­vel­op­ment, and sup­ports a num­ber of ini­tia­tives, in­clud­ing com­mu­nity cen­ters, im­mi­gra­tion ser­vices, youth em­ploy­ment pro­grams and lit­er­acy pro­grams.

Chong said that one of the big­gest pro­grams of the gov­ern­ment that he’s try­ing to solve as com­mis­sioner is the silo ef­fect.

“Of­ten agen­cies are like ships in the night and they don’t con­nect,” he ex­plained. “Part of what I want to do is move to­wards a holis­tic ap­proach in look­ing at neigh­bor­hoods. Right now, his­tor­i­cally, we fund pro­grams, but I want to look at it from the stand­point of, how do we build com­mu­ni­ties? Of­ten­times, be­cause gov­ern­ment is very siloed, we have state money, we have city money, so we’re very good at fund­ing a spe­cific pro­gram, but we’re not so good at try­ing to in­te­grate dif­fer­ent pieces.”

The pri­mary fo­cus of the DYCD is cre­at­ing and fund­ing pro­grams that are meant for the city’s young peo­ple, which the agency de­fines as chil­dren aged 5 to 21, he said. More than 60 per­cent of the agency’s an­nual bud­get goes to fund­ing youth pro­grams, and the goal is to help kids be bet­ter pre­pared for life.

One of the agency’s lat­est pro­grams is SONYC — School’s Out New York City — which are after school pro­grams meant for mid­dle school stu­dents. They’re struc­tured like clubs and pro­vide in­struc­tion in sports, the arts and youth lead­er­ship through ser­vice.

The city also has a sum­mer youth em­ploy­ment pro­gram that se­lects chil­dren aged 14 to 24 and places them at en­trylevel jobs across the city for six weeks in July and Au­gust. The chil­dren are paid for their work.

“I think the at­trac­tion to work­ing with kids is see­ing the im­pact you have on the kids. By hav­ing a short-term in­vest­ment, you can help make sure young peo­ple make the right choices,” Chong said. “Par­tic­u­larly in mid­dle school, where we know there’s a lot of re­search that shows that if you hang out with the wrong crowd, it sets you down a path that could be very de­struc­tive.

“Just see­ing the young peo­ple that have gone through our em­ploy­ment pro­grams and find jobs and be­come pro­duc­tive mem­bers of so­ci­ety, I think that’s the re­ward­ing part. You’re plant­ing a seed and it takes some time to blos­som, but you’re plant­ing a seed with young peo­ple. They’re the fu­ture of our so­ci­ety and

AMY HE / CHINA DAILY

Bill Chong, com­mis­sioner of New York City’s Depart­ment of Youth and Com­mu­nity De­vel­op­ment, says that he finds it re­ward­ing to shape the city’s young peo­ple as they grow up and es­tab­lish their fu­ture.

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