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Meet the Fellows: Amy Huang

March 24, 2016
Zoe Schein

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Recently, we spoke with Amy Huang, Youth Development Counselor at the City of Seattle Human Services Department. Amy is a fellow in NJJN's Youth Justice Leadership Institute, a year-long program that aims to create a more effective foundation for the juvenile justice reform movement by developing a strong base of well-equipped advocates and organizers who reflect the communities most affected by juvenile justice system practices and policies.


 What motivates you to work in youth justice reform?

I learned a lot from my family’s experience as immigrants. Coming to the US with cultural and language barriers, learning how to navigate resources, and seeing how my parents endured discrimination encouraged me to become resourceful. I was a latch-key kid as my parents needed to work long hours to provide for the family and also attended English classes at night. Because of my parent’s resilience, they instilled in me strength and determination, and I sought ways to become resourceful to lessen the burden on my family. I relied on my school, afterschool programming, my church and my neighbors. That’s where I started realizing the power of community. So combining that resourcefulness and that sense of community, I developed a love for civic engagement and social justice.  

Through that experience, I started forming a passion for youth development work. I’ve been in the field of social service for over 10 years, and throughout this time I’ve always worked with young people. I’m invested in young people and their families. That’s what really drives me to do the youth work because it’s a critical stage where profound questions are being asked, their identities are formed and confidence is being built. I’m honored to be part of their growth and inspired to see young people overcoming challenges.

Fellows in the Institute are required to complete an advocacy project. Can you tell me about your project?

Right now in Seattle, there are two big issues getting a lot of attention. The first is youth detention. City council members voted to approve a resolution with the goal of “zero detention for youth” that aims to completely eliminate the use of confinement for young people in Seattle. At the same time, even though council members voted to approve zero youth detention, there are plans to build a new King County youth detention facility – costing millions of dollars. On one hand you want to end youth detention, but on the other hand, voters decided to spend money to build a new detention facility.

The second big issue is that  the mayor recently announced a state of emergency for homelessness in the city. Washington State is one of the worst states for homelessness. Currently, there is an estimated 4,000 homeless youth in Seattle (which probably underestimates their real numbers). This is related to the youth justice system because when youth become homeless, they enter survival mode: they become involved in drug dealing, addiction, or using prostitution or trafficking just to have a hot meal or a home to stay in. Because of their survival behavior, they’re criminalized. Instead of having their homelessness addressed, they’re funneled into detention, so we need to provide support and prevention efforts for these youth to get them off the streets. I do want to add that homelessness for youth particularly affects LGBTQ communities. Youth become homeless when they come out. About forty percent of our homeless youth are LGBTQ.

My project deals directly with both of these issues – I want to utilize this heightened attention on youth issues in Seattle to turn the new detention center into a residential home. I’m proposing that beds be reserved for homeless youth where they can get adequate services and residential living that is non-secured. The residential home would provide food, clothing, bedding, educational activities and the only “monitoring” would be from a social worker or intake specialist to do evaluations for the youth while they’re in the residential home, so that when a more stable housing in found for them, they have the tools and resources set in place.  

So with those agendas happening -- homelessness and zero youth detention -- I thought, “Why not utilize this space in a more equitable way?”

What has your experience in the Institute been like so far?

What I really appreciate is going to a space where I don’t have to explain everything. You don’t have to explain where you come from, why you’re passionate, talk about why racial justice matters, or why young people are important. We all came to a space where we already have that social justice baseline. We get it. So when you have people around you that get it, we have amazing connection and synergy. Often in this work, there are politics, bureaucratic systems, burnout and injustices that it becomes hard to push through. As a social worker, I see things on the ground level and I get heavily invested in the youth’s lives, family and community and it’s hard not to internalize those feelings and get burnt-out. But when you have nine other fellows who get it, it makes things so much easier.

For my cohort – we’ll be continuing our friendship after our institute. We still contact each other throughout the week. This is the first group I’ve been a part of that gives me that kind of lifetime connection and peer support. I’m so thankful.

Why do you think the Institute is important to the broader movement for youth justice reform?

Often in this work, I don’t see a lot of people who look like me who have a platform for systematic change. Working for youth justice reform, we have to be a lot more inclusive. We have to have people from the community represent the youth who are impacted by these systems.

On a more personal note, being an Asian-American woman, there’s this micro-aggressive stereotype that we are passive, docile, and submissive. It makes people believe we can’t do this type of work, because it requires leadership in public space. Having such passion for this work, it can be limiting because it’s hard not to feel knocked out sometimes and internalize feelings.  

Right now there’s a lot of conversation around issues that affect people of color disproportionately: such as police brutality. As people of color, we have to fight in solidarity. I’m not saying I can ever understand what it means to be a Black person or a Chicano. But as immigrants, as people of color, we need to ask, “How can we leverage our resources together? How can we fight in solidarity together, so people of color aren’t pitted against each other?”

Throughout history, there have been so many examples of people of color being scapegoats, and that’s how racial tensions increase: pitting minorities against minorities. It shouldn’t be that way. We can do a better job of uniting together for solidarity.

What do you do when you aren’t advocating for youth justice reform?

Social workers need to practice self-care, but we tend to not do that. However, I really pushed myself to stay active and find ways to release stress, so I started doing boxing fitness. I’ve also been working on art. I’m very interested in hand lettering and calligraphy – I’ve always sketched throughout my life. With the appearance of Instagram and other social media outlets, artists have a platform without having to put down any money. They can put up their work and if people like it, they will have followers. I want to do hand lettering, calligraphy or artwork related to social justice and use that as a platform to create change. You can see that with the whole phenomenon of hashtags – seeing pictures connected to that hashtag, which becomes a powerful tool to provoke change and start a movement. I want to utilize my passion for art to convey a social justice message. I’m trying to figure out how to best integrate those things. 

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