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Oakland Playground’s Unlikely Guardian

“O.G. Grandma” Helps Kids Get Back on Track

New America Media, News Feature//Video, Words: Carolyn Goossen//Video: Carolyn Goossen, Min Lee Posted: Sep 12, 2008

Editor's Note: "There was one person who worked [at Lincoln Recreational Center] that talked to all the gangbangers and drug dealers. That one person's name is Ms. Lee. She helped me stay outta trouble by talking to me and everyone around me. Ms. Lee is an ordinary person who talked to us about life and everything we needed to know about the world... [She] is like a grandmother to us and that kept us going because we knew we had a person to talk to when we were down." (The above excerpt was written by a young writer with The Beat Within juvenile hall writing program, currently serving time in a Bay Area Juvenile Hall.)

Contrary to the stereotype of "high achieving" Asian youth, Asian teenage boys in the East Bay often fall between the cracks, dropping out of school and getting into trouble with the law. Mrs. Lee, a 68-year-old Chinese American Oakland native is a strong and steady presence in many of their lives, offering them counsel and friendship. Carolyn Goossen an education writer at New America Media. Min Lee is an editor at YO! Youth Outlook Multimedia.

OAKLAND, Calif. -- Young Asian men mill around the Lincoln Square Recreation Center, smoking cigarettes, leaning against cars, sending text messages, playing basketball, and chatting with girls. But whatever they are doing, when they see Mrs. Lee coming their detached and tough expressions transform into wide grins.

"Hi Mrs. Lee!"

"Hi Willie, how are you?"

Darlene Lee, known to everyone as "Mrs. Lee" remembers all the names of the hundreds of Vietnamese, Cambodian, Filipino, Chinese and other Asian American teenagers who have entered the doors of the Lincoln Community Center throughout the years. And although mostly Asian youth come here, Black and white youth also come to play basketball or just hang out with their friends, some from as far as Richmond, Hayward, and San Leandro.

VIDEO: Darlene Lee and the Lincoln Community Center

The playground here is wide and clean—four big basketball courts next to a playground for the younger kids. It's known as a safe space to play basketball in Oakland, open to anyone who wants to be there. It's peaceful, a fact that no one here takes for granted.

On one sunny afternoon, 18-year-old Willie Hong tells Mrs. Lee about how he was held up the night before, when he was helping out at his uncle's corner store.

"The next thing I know, I seen a gun to my head and I thought, oh man, this is not funny no more. It was out of nowhere. He grabbed me from the back, and I thought he was playing with me, I thought I knew him or he knew me. I couldn't do nothing, I couldn't think," he says, looking at Mrs. Lee, and then down at his shoes.

"I'm just glad you are okay…. It's better not to resist, the police always say just cooperate, it's just money,” says Mrs. Lee with a worried frown on her face. “Nowadays, we have to always be on the defensive. It shouldn't be like that but I guess it's a sign of the times, people are getting desperate, they aren't finding jobs, or they are high on drugs."

Mrs. Lee was a preschool and grade school teacher for many years. Born in the Chinese Hospital in San Francisco, she was raised in Oakland, and lives on the same street, Jackson Street, where she grew up. Her two daughters are now grown, and she resides with her husband.

She went to Lincoln public school, across the street from this center, and says she understands what it's like to grow up in Oakland as an Asian youth. She has watched the neighborhood change over the years. While the violence has gotten worse, she says, with kids using guns instead of bats, " The pattern is the same. They get into groups and break into cars, jack stuff from kids, and do home invasions. Stuff like that."

Willie dropped out of high school, and works at the store three times a week. Like many of the young men interviewed, he makes an effort to drop by regularly to see Mrs. Lee.

"She tries to teach me how to make my life better, straighter, even though we're living in Oakland and everybody gotta be who they is", he says. "She helps me become not so angry, and think before I do stuff. Because like Mrs. Lee said, I'm the kind of person that if people mean mug me, I wanna fight them. Mrs. Lee is helping me change that."

She has been patrolling the grounds for 25 years now, two times a week. She offers "dumb dumb" lollipops to the teens while cleaning up little pieces of trash around the playground. A large part of her day consists of listening to the worries and dreams of the kids who seek her out.

As she talks to this reporter, a young man approaches her, holding out a one hundred dollar bill. "It's for my brother's girlfriend. Can you give it to her when she gets here later?" He asked her politely. "Thanks Mrs. Lee!" he smiles happily, and saunters away. She sticks it in her pocket and says, "It scares me that the kids always have so much money. They don't tell me about how they got it though, they want to protect me."

This center has become a true haven for children of immigrants who spend long days working low wage jobs. "American-born Chinese live in more upper class homes now", says Mrs. Lee, "but new immigrant Chinese and many other Asians are still struggling."

"The biggest problem is that the parents aren't around to oversee what's happening to their kids, and they don't know English, so it's easy for the kids to trick them into thinking everything is okay when it's not."

Michael Voong, 23, has been coming by the center for the last five years. Michael spent time in and out of juvenile hall during his teenage years. He was kicked out of school at 16, and now works at UPS.

He explains why he can talk to Mrs. Lee, but not his own mother. "My mom doesn't know English, she's stuck in the old ways of Vietnam. My Chinese is really bad, so it makes it hard. My mom just wants me to do good. But Mrs. Lee actually talks to you and listens. She's basically a free counselor, and I don't have to be locked up to talk to her,” he says with a sheepish smile.

"She knew my older brother, and talked to me about things when he passed away a few years ago. I couldn't even talk to my mom—I could hug her, but I couldn't talk to her. But with Mrs. Lee, you can open up to her so much. It's nice to have someone like that."

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