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Detroit Asian Youth Project (DAY)

3061 Field Street
Detroit, Michigan 48214

Soh Suzuki

By Tunde Wey
September 12, 2012

Soh Suzuki is a Detroiter. He may have spent his childhood abroad and speak with a noticeable Japanese accent but Soh Suzuki is a Detroiter by virtue of his experiences and his commitment to the city. He lives and works in the city, as do his close friends.  He plays soccer on the city’s patchy fields, cycles its pot-holed roads, enjoys its art, music and food and tolerates its affable panhandlers.

From the late 1800’s until the end of WWII, Detroit’s ethnic Chinese community experienced a sort of gilded age. The growing Chinatown neighborhood peaked at a population of almost 3,000, boasting a bustling commercial and residential district in the Downtown area. Today Peterboro, a forlorn street in Detroit’s Cass Corridor, is all that remains. Its most important stretch, pressed between Cass and Second Avenues, bears the worst of its weariness. It is less a road in the conventional sense as cars seldom cross it; it is moreso a block of shuttered, boarded-up memories. But Peterboro, as important a stretch of road as any of the city’s more trafficked arteries, is a Detroit street full of history.

At the end of the summer of 2002 a group of community organizers, including Suzuki, started work to revitalize Detroit’s Chinatown neighborhood. They formed the Detroit Chinatown Revitalization Workgroup and along with youth from the Boggs Center Detroit Summer program they painted and fixed up exterior walls in the neighborhood. They also painted the Detroit Chinatown Mural, a symbol of the neighborhood’s history and its connection to the greater history of Detroit.

A year later, the Detroit Chinatown Revitalization Workgroup matured its approach to neighborhood revitalization. They added to their continued work of maintaining Chinatown’s physical integrity the more critical mission of preserving its spirit and identity. Suzuki describes this transition as necessary “to bring back a sense of Asian-American presence in the city.” Suzuki and the rest of the Detroit Chinatown Revitalization Workgroup concluded that working with Asian-American youth was the best way to preserve the legacy of this important history. This realization was the impetus for the current iteration of Suzuki’s community organizing efforts.

In 2004, The Detroit Asian Youth (DAY) Project  was founded by Soh Suzuki, Scott Kurashige, Emily Lawsin, and Michelle Lin with a mission to develop leadership skills and awareness for social justice in Detroit area Asian-American Youth. The DAY Project educates the youth about national and local Asian-American history, using community projects and conversation to help them understand the connection between their heritage and the larger Detroit.  

Broaching nuanced topics such as identity, social justice and community engagement, the DAY Project runs a six-week-long summer intensive program. The program participants meet three times a week for between five and six hours each day. During these instructional hours, the organizers offer hands-on activities such as media/digital learning and creation through their partnership with the Detroit Future Youth. Here participants learn to shoot, edit and upload video content. They also instruct youth in creative writing workshops led by local writers of the community. As part of the project, participants get a chance to shape programming, sometimes leading the direction of sessions.

The DAY Project is also active during the school year, providing to high school students a curriculum similar to their summer program. In the Osborn High School, the Project offers hour-long workshops to the 20 Hmong students. It has served around 100 Asian-American youths since its inception, and does work in such diverse groups as the Hmong and Bengali communities.

That Suzuki has chosen to do this important work at the literal margins of the city – Asian-Americans comprise just 1.1% of Detroit’s population -- is a testament to the cultural activists before him and the conditions that necessitated that activism.

One such event was the “Vincent Chin Incident.” In June 1982, Vincent Chin, a 27-year-old Chinese-American engineer, was killed after an argument with two white American men outside a club in Highland Park, Michigan. The particular viciousness surrounding Vincent Chin’s death -- he suffered repeated blows to the head from baseball bats -- and the ensuing verdict -- the assailants served no jail time, were ordered to pay about $3,700 each and were given only two years of probation -- enraged the national and Detroit-area Asian-American community.

Suzuki describes this as a watershed moment for Asian-Americans, who until that time had seen themselves as separate. "[The] Asian community is disparate. It is not necessarily a group that shares the same history; in a way it is a given group, rather than self-claimed group,” Suzuki says. When Suzuki describes the “Asian-American” experience (which he reminds is a political designation, codified into law by a 1923 U.S Supreme Court Decision) with its sporadic factionalism, the beginnings of a Pan-Asian movement that stirred in the wake of the Vincent Chin incident becomes more apparent as a worthy victory wrung from tragedy.

Suzuki sees the ethnic Asian experience in Detroit as intimately connected to the city’s larger identity. The Detroit Chinatown Mural is a representation of this connection. The mural has images of Martin Luther King Jr., Helen Zia (who led the Vincent Chin protest movement), and Lily Chin, mother of the murdered Vincent Chin. Atop the mural are depicted two neighborhoods, the Old Chinatown and the Black Bottom and Paradise Valley. Black Bottom and Paradise Valley were thriving African-American neighborhoods and business districts torn down in the early 1960’s to make room for the I-75 Freeway. Old Chinatown was also demolished in favor of the Lodge Freeway; its relocation to where it currently sits on Peterboro was an attempt to revive the bustle of the previous location. It was unsuccessful.

Understanding and transferring this history while making it relevant for their youth charges might be the most important work of the DAY Project. Suzuki is himself a beneficiary of this intentional cultural education, learning through his associations with other Asian-American activists and organizers. This experiential education coupled with his formal education helped Suzuki articulate his current purpose.

Born in Torrance, CA in 1978 to Japanese parents, Suzuki lived with his family in the U.S until he was six years old when they moved back to Japan. The family returned to the United States eight years later, this time moving to Michigan where Suzuki has remained. A graduate of Michigan State University with dual degrees in studio and interdisciplinary humanities, Suzuki notes his time at MSU as instrumental in exploring his Asian-American heritage. Here Suzuki learned about the Vincent Chin and the work of influential Asian-American activist Grace Lee Boggs. Suzuki says this exposure to Asian-American history and activism was his motivation to move to Detroit and work with the Asian-American community.

Suzuki makes a pointed observation when outlining the arc of the DAY Project’s growth. In the eight years Suzuki has been with the project, there has been a demographic shift. At the start of the DAY Project, the majority of youth served were refugees fleeing from their home countries with their families. Today a lot of the youth are U.S.-born, and in fact Detroit-born, with most having never lived outside of the city. “For me to think about Asian-American youth, they are not just Asian-Americans but they are a part of Detroit’s fabric and they represent Detroit but from a different perspective,” Suzuki says.

Soh Suzuki and Detroit’s Chinatown are important for at least one reason: both are unassuming reminders of a more sincere understanding of identity. This understanding recognizes identity as a characteristic shaped by experience and history, both equally important and neither trumping the other. And in the DAY Project, Suzuki and his partner have provided the city an eloquent reminder that the fullest sense of who we are is only possible when everyone’s story is acknowledged.

Photograph by Marvin Shaouni Photography.

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