The ties that bind: Empowering Fil-Am college students

Rexy Josh Dorado
There are an estimated 3,000 Filipino cultural associations in the US alone. What if more of these groups became hubs of transnational action and engagement?

One month left in my college career and I find myself reflecting, as seniors do, on the experiences that have shaped my identity in 4 short years. Between the “why nots” and the happy accidents, one of the most unexpectedly dazzling forces of my college experience was this group of people I now know as Brown University’s Filipino Alliance (FA). It is a community held together by hip-hop, tinikling, lumpia wraps, and a cultural learning experience that broadened horizons for some and rekindled lost fires to many others like myself.

Cultural associations like my own Brown FAmily are far from rare. They are centers of social capital and familiarity for so many. They are producers of vibrant performance art. They are spaces for learning, reflection, and self-discovery. And they provide platforms for a stronger collective voice in a mainstream that fails to understand or even perceive the distinct struggles and experiences of their members.

OVERSEAS PINOYS. This map provided by KayaCo shows where the overseas Filipino population is.

These cultural associations play a great part in how cultures interact within a diverse nation, as in our melting pot of stateside stars and stripes.

Less obvious and far less intentional is the way in which these groups can influence how nations interact in the global political economy. Transnationalism and diaspora engagement are growing fields of thought and activity that focus on the new exchanges of social, political, and financial capital that are forged when migrants settle in to a new country. In doing so, they are able to bring back technology and human capital to their homelands; they bridge networks of collaboration across seas; their interactions with their new communities shape perceptions of both the problems and the potentials of their origins.

One of the most tangible threads of transnational connection takes the form of money. In the Philippines, Asia’s third largest diaspora, remittances and donations account for a staggering 10th of GDP. In 2011, that was 100 times the amount of Official Development Assistance the Philippines received in the same year. (READ: OFW remittances: Where the money comes from)

The developmental potential here is massive – and the reality falls short. Instead of fueling sustainable development, these transactions tend to go (in order) toward immediate consumption, immediate disaster relief, or individualized scholarships, and microloans. (READ: More households poor, hungry at the end of 2013)

Valuable as these exchanges are, they don’t begin to tackle the systems of injustice and inequality that force migration upon so many.

One of the great challenges that diaspora engagement is trying to crack is how to redirect these investments toward programs, policies, and institutions that grow economies and transform societies in the long term.

Culture shift is never a simple process, but there are few more fitting engines for it than those same cultural organizations and migrant networks we discussed,  organizations that already succeed in forging shared values and identities. The sense of community, the focus on learning and dialogue, the varying but palpable connections to the distant homeland – these basic elements that cut across cultural associations also provide the right infrastructure for critical conversations on development and social change to ripple out into collective action.

At the same time, these exchanges hold opportunities for members of these organizations to gain skills, develop critical thinking, and achieve the goals of empowerment and self-assurance that minority groups are already fighting for. Reconnecting with the motherland also promises a sense of identity and belonging that comes from knowing one’s roots, often rendered invisible in American society. The change goes both ways.

There are an estimated 3,000 Filipino cultural associations in the United States alone. What if more of these groups became hubs of transnational action and engagement? What if more PCNs (Pilipino Culture Nights) were intentional about opening spaces for critical dialogue and social advocacy, and began investing more of their proceeds into social change?

What if student organizations primed our young leaders to think of themselves as transnational actors, capable of spurring change across oceans, and in genuine partnership with local communities? What if we led dialogue to bring the global communities around us into the fold? We can start small, with seeds of inspired determination sown here and there – multiplied in due time by the powerful conduits of ideas and values we call community. –

Rexy Josh Dorado is co-founder of  KayaCo, a Harvard and Brown University organization of Filipino American undergraduate students. Rexy was born in Dumaguete City, Philippines, and moved to the Cleveland area in 2003.  He has been trying to thread his story back into his homeland’s since.  
















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