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A Powder Keg

Media attention on the Philippines has been largely on President Duterte’s human rights record and his leadership style. Sadly, what gets lost in all the noise is a serious discussion of the prevailing problems of poverty and social inequality that continue to plague the country, despite the promises of the People Power Revolution and the pledges of “reform” by succeeding administrations.

Consequently, we get lulled into thinking that because Duterte is tackling traffic congestion, ridding the country of graft and corruption and curing its citizens of drug addiction, the country is somehow “changing for the better.” We applaud these superficial changes, ignoring what truly ails the nation.

But I have been encouraged recently by the way many Filipino American millennials are participating in this conversation. At a recent George Washington University student forum, where Philippine Journalist Raissa Robles spoke about her book, “Marcos Martial Law: Never Again,” she was asked what students can do to learn more about what’s really going on.

“Reconnect with your origins.” That’s what Angela Jia-Yin Yulo Ng offered during the discussion. A half-Filipino and a half-Chinese Singaporean student who graduated from GWU last year, she invited them to participate in the KAYA Collaborative fellowship that “connects young leaders from the Filipino diaspora to leaders who are driving social change in the Philippines.” During the 8-week immersion program last summer, 21 college students and recent graduates worked directly with local leaders in the countryside and took on internships with social enterprises and innovative organizations.

A few days ago, Angela shared an online compilation of reflections by the KAYA CO fellows, aptly titled “Journeys Home and Forward.” I was struck by their sense of pride in their Filipino identity and their commitment not only to give back, but to go back.

In his essay, Miguel Codinera of Jacksonville, FL., says he asked himself and other fellows this question often: “Why did our parents want to emigrate?”

He came to learn, he says, that the Philippines “is neither paradise nor complete devastation” but the “subtleties of everyday life ultimately dictate a person’s decision to leave or stay. My biggest takeaways: Poverty is real, privilege is real, and history is both real and cyclical.”

Some of the fellows, like Julian De Ocampo, decided to stay after their fellowship ended. A Computer Science graduate from Arizona State University, he works towards “increasing Filipino income and representing diversity in artificial intelligence.” So many people, he says, are “tired of waiting for answers to problems that generations of Filipinos had come to view as unsolvable, from unemployment to traffic and beyond.” So, “I’m doing my small part in adding to the powder keg of creative energy we’re going to see explode out of the Philippines over the next few years.”

Angela has also decided to go back. “It’s related to my personal background,” she says. “I grew up knowing my family have a lot of class privilege, and it bothered me, especially when I saw how bad inequality was in the country.” After graduation, she realized she can no longer separate her personal life from the things she wants to do: “If I say I care about tackling poverty and inequality, that commitment has to be reflected throughout my whole life.”

The Kaya Co Fellowship, she notes, “reminded me of how unjust those issues of poverty and inequality are. It made me want to start facing and dismantling my own privilege, and leverage the opportunities I have in order change things for the better.”

To Alexandria Navarro Albers of Sta. Cruz, CA., something bigger can be achieved when “we broaden our lens, confront our misguided judgements and learn from each other.”

These fellows had more than a glimpse of the rising local social enterprises and innovations that endeavor to make an impact. They have been inspired, empowered and driven to work towards making a positive and lasting change in the Philippines.

They give us hope.

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