By JOHN SAKATA/ AAJA-LA
Walking into his first student council meeting at Alhambra High School, Anthony Perez recalls feeling intimidated his freshman year. He entered the room, and “everybody else was Asian.”
Twenty four of the 25 students attending the council meeting were Asian. He was the only Hispanic student to participate.
In four years of student government, last year’s school board president crossed path with few other Hispanic students. It was a nagging observation. Perez, a recent graduate, wrote about his experience as the “only Latino student in the room” to the greater Alhambra community via the Alhambra Source, a recently launched news website run by USC.
“At my school, it’s not normal for a Hispanic student to take on leadership positions other than on the football or dance team,” Perez wrote.
The Alhambra Source aims to inspire civic engagement in the multi-ethnic community with a website that provides news and information in three languages – Spanish, English, and Chinese. The project puts to use research provided by Metamorphosis, a long-running research initiative at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.
“What we’ve found through research is that there is not much interaction across ethnic and linguistic lines,” Gerson said. “One thing we’re trying to do with the website is bridge those divides.”
The Alhambra community responded to Perez’s opinion article. Alhambra High has a similar Hispanic and Asian student body population at the school.
“This isn’t new news at AHS,” one reader wrote in the comment section. “As a member of the class of 1986, I can tell you that Asian students held a majority of leadership roles…”
Another reader wrote: “The fact that many school government leaders are Asian, they feel as if they will not receive support from them. These young (Hispanic) students see this as a hopeless opportunity because they feel the Asians control who gets to be in charge…”
At the Alhambra Source, following the comments from Alhambra residents is an important part of everyday newsroom affairs.
The research group assisting the Source are looking to news as a way to engage the 87,000 residents in Alhambra. The population is composed of 52 percent Asian, largely immigrated Chinese, 36 percent Latino, and 11 percent Caucasian.
A wide collection of doctorate students, sociologists, Gerson, a managing editor with an understanding of five languages and byline credit on the English-language version of the German newspaper Der Spiegel, and others are leading the news organization.
In November, the city council election was canceled because no local citizens decided to run against the incumbents. It was the first time on public record all five public office seats were uncontested, Gerson said.
“What we are trying to do that is different (from other news publications) is we are trying to write bridging stories, which is multi-ethnic, that helps (residents) understand each others’ cultures and lives,” said Nancy Nien-Tsu Chen, a doctoral students at the USC Annenberg School of Communications.
Early successes include the discussion surrounding the lack of participation by Hispanic students on the Alhambra High School student body. This year all 52 elected official positions are occupied by Asian students at Alhambra High. An unofficial survey put together by a Chinese community member on a city-funded arch also elicited a flurry of responses.
For Thanksgiving, the Alhambra Source provided a video (below) and article on the Thanksgiving experience from the Hispanic and Asian perspective.
A year ago Perez would have had a hard time sharing his story.
The city of Alhambra was a forgotten city on the media landscape, a Bermuda triangle point for reporters, ignored by local publications like LA Weekly and the LA Times. Prior to the arrival of the Alhambra Source, the only other “news” publication providing coverage specific to Alhambra was Around Alhambra, a monthly publication produced by the local Chamber of Commerce.
An under-staffed newsroom, fundraising, and the difficulty in motivating participation, especially in an immigrant Chinese community – that data shows tend to engage in less civic participation—are all enormous hurdles in their own right.
Another experimental aspect of the Alhambra Source is its newsroom: the reporters include recent college graduates, high school students and active community members who contribute their work pro bono.
During an Alhambra Source bi-weekly research meeting, the loose, free-flowing conversation would touch on search engine optimization, sociology theory, the Chinese version of Facebook – “I am not so sure how many (Alhambra residents) are using it,” says a Chinese doctoral student – on how to drum up civic engagement.
The staff hopes that Perez story is one of many that will contribute to greater cross-ethnic communication and civic participation over the next two years.