The Sariling Gawa Youth State Council is hosting its 38th Annual Youth State Conference. This year’s theme is “R.I.S.E. – Recognize, Involve, Strengthen, Empower”. It is a three-day, two-night event that ran from Friday, March 23rd through to Sunday, March 25th. It is annually held at the YMCA Camp Harold Erdman in Waialua, Oahu, Hawaii.
To be honest, I had no expectations of this event itself. There wasn’t much information on it online besides the theme and the organization’s philosophy for me to formulate some sort of opinion on the conference. However, I already had my fears and assumptions of this conference before stepping foot at its doors. Prior to attending the conference, the Toronto youth delegation had a briefing about our Filipino experiences as a whole (since we hadn’t bonded as of that moment – we literally all met at the airport) and had the opportunity to speak about why we wanted to attend in the first place.
About two years ago, I made a goal for myself to learn more about my cultural roots (hence my choice of placement). I had written a poetry book last year as my final project for my Midwifery elective. My original concept for it was to learn about the cultural practices of pregnancy and childbirth. My plan for this was to interview my mother and aunts about their experiences of pregnancy, childbirth, and thoughts on motherhood (which I still ended up doing). The research aspect of my project is what flipped my concept from learning about these cultural practices to an act of representation. In doing research for the essay portion of this project, I basically found no peer-reviewed articles pertaining to my subject matter – this is why I made my poetry book into an act of representation. I wanted my book to start/carry this conversation. In realizing this, I grew a stronger need to dig deeper into my cultural background as our knowledge has been erased and also taken from us.
It took me about 21 years for me to hit this point of self-discovery because I grew up dissociating myself from my Filipino identity. Of course, I knew the importance of food and family and understood Tagalog (my mom made sure that my sister and I can understand at least one language from the Philippines), but never wanted to delve into the actual substance of Filipino culture. After having gone through the writing process for my project, I soon realized the importance for me to be connected to my roots (“Rooted” is the title of my book). With all of this in mind, I also had to face the fact that I would be surrounded by those who are so confident and proud of their Filipino-ness (or, so I had assumed). I was nervous and definitely scared to be among other youth with such knowledge because I was afraid of having nothing to contribute in regard to my Filipino experience. This is because I only knew my culture within the boundaries of both my direct and extended family. However, prior to having this fear, I was slowly coming into terms with the validity of my own Filipino experience. I sometimes forget that I have my own narrative in the grander story of Filipino experiences. I am a part of the generation that lost touch with their culture, I am a part of the generation that is relearning their culture and learning to love it, I am a part of the generation that is reclaiming their culture.
I specifically stated: I’m here for the Filipinos that never identified as “Filipino” while growing up. I’m here for the Filipinos that don’t know what it means to be Filipino. I’m here for the Filipinos that are making an identity for themselves. I’m here for the Filipinos that were the token Asian friend. I’m here for the Filipinos that got lost along the way but are trying to find their way back home.
This trip is another substantial part in my journey of self-discovery and self-actualization. I hit a point where I had to ask myself, How much more can I grow without knowing about my roots?
I had many fears coming into this conference – meeting with the other Toronto youth being one of them. I didn’t personally know or meet any of the other Toronto youth prior to the trip. I had met one of them for a fundraising event we did beforehand, but it was only small talk. As I had previously mentioned, we literally met for the first time at the airport in Hawaii. I didn’t know what to expect from them other than what I had read from their bios for our gofundme page. I didn’t know what I expected from them, either. I just hoped that we would all get along for the sake of the larger project at hand – which is the Toronto camp for Filipino youth. We had bonded over the days before the conference, but I think what really hit us is when we had the short briefing prior to leaving for the conference. I had to take it up with myself and the other Toronto youth delegates to address my fears and assumptions. I admitted that I was initially scared to even attend the trip as a whole because I was so unfamiliar with being surrounded by a group of Filipino youth outside of my group of cousins. My context changes once I step out of familiarity – in this case, outside of my family. I also had to address the fact that I was already having thoughts about how the youth are like there in comparison to the Filipino youth in Toronto. After having had the conversation with our group, which included me addressing my thoughts and assumptions and unravelling the complexity of my Filipina identity and essentially telling a group of Toronto Filipino youth my story, we were able to deconstruct not only mine but our assumptions. We were able to deconstruct our stories to discover why we feel the way we do, think the way we do, and are the way we are. In knowing this, we were able to shift the way we think about ourselves and how we see ourselves within and among others of our culture. This alleviated my worries because I initially thought I wouldn’t be able to contribute to any conversation – forgetting that my experiences of my own culture are just as valid.
Now, fast forward to the conference after having these conversations, I was able to go into the conference with an open mind, ready for what the youth have to teach me (us). But this is easier said than done because I started to worry about what the youth would think of me. My worries led me to think of any possible assumptions they had of me, of us, as we’re coming from a completely different city and context.
Though we got a different experience from the rest of the youth delegates (who are all high school students), we were still able to interact with and be among the youth. Joining us were two university students from The Big Island and together, we were Barangay 8 aka Maganda Forever. We were in a separate group as we are all in post-secondary education. The purpose of this was to teach us a more advanced set of leadership and facilitation tools and frameworks to take back to our communities. The leaders felt it didn’t make sense for us to join the high school youth as we would just be shadowing the leaders there and not fully grasp the learning aspect behind the lessons. This was great for us because we had many fruitful discussions on practice on and off the field. This is where I intersected my Social Work learning to the lessons of this conference. Although AOP is heavily instilled into our learning, I had to remember that AOP is not prescribed medicine – it may not always work in every setting – so I took off my AOP hat and allowed for my environment to teach me.
It was during this activity in day 2 where we hit the pinnacle of the conference – all of us ended up in tears while articulating our individual stories. It was at this moment where we got our struggles off our shoulders and onto the table. This is where we realized, maybe we’re not as different as we thought. In doing this, we were also able to see how many obstacles we have to get through in order to reach our goals, or in order to make that step. In hearing out everyone’s experiences throughout this activity, I realized that our work starts with us. There is a lot of work to be done and many battles to fight, but now that we have uncovered our pain together, we now have each other for that support. But the work starts with us, in understanding our struggles and deconstructing them to see how we can fight against them, or work alongside them to move towards a better [collective] future.
There was another activity that same night where we had to make a skit of a value that is important to us. We had another discussion which led us to have less than 10 minutes to prepare for this bigger group activity and we ended up presenting on the topic of consent. To me, our skit wasn’t that impactful, it was our participation. But our skit wasn’t even my highlight because being there and sitting through everyone else’s skits was what really hit me. They touched upon topics of family, loss of culture, discrimination, trust. I was shook (for a lack of a better time). By the end of the skits, they leaders asked if anybody had any thoughts. I shot my hand up because I was truly amazed at what the youth put together. I remember saying something along the lines of noting the similarities between our struggles despite the difference of where we come from (me being from Canada, and them in Hawaii) and acknowledging them and thanking them because I didn’t feel alone.
I think that was one of the biggest pieces for me that I learned on this trip – the fact that I’m not alone, or, we’re not alone. Despite our geographic differences, we were able to see that what we experience is mirrored. With that being said, it made me think about how I view myself within the community in Toronto considering I didn’t even see myself as part of the community until this year. I’m still being introduced to many members of the community at this point in my life. I’m no longer embarrassed by it as I take it as part of my journey.
I get it now. There was a lot of talk within our group about why folks come back every year as VOLUNTEERS for this conference, and I think I get it now. There is something that was always brewing in the SG air and I even felt it when I got on that bus to get to the camp. It was like there was an overarching force field of warmth and welcome that protected us from negativity. There are very few spaces that I can walk into without feeling any type of judgement and this is one of them. I mean, yeah, perhaps we got a different experience because we were older but even in our interactions with the youth, we were included. It was like we have already been there and with them prior to the conference. Not only that, but the leaders ensured that the youth were engaged in a positive and comfortable light. So, I get it. It’s like one big family that’s been having a reunion for 38 and counting years. Even in hearing the youth delegates’ conversations, I noticed that a lot of them want to come back next year which makes me want to come back (The Universe needs to give me a [monetary] sign, if we’re being frank about this). There is something more that’s brewing there alongside instilling Filipino pride within the youth and educating them on a bit of cultural history. I left the conference feeling stronger about myself, feeling confident in another goal I want to achieve, and I left the conference with three new friends.
This conference has shown me that what I feel is bigger than me. What I feel is supposed to feed our purpose for tomorrow. There is so much work that needs to be done and it overwhelms me to think about it, but we now have a stronger network of likeminded folks that want to work at this together. It all starts with us.