China-US / Chinese Community Leaders

Bill Chong: Helping NYC's youths

By Amy He in New York (China Daily USA) Updated: 2014-11-28 13:20

Bill Chong: Helping NYC's youths

Bill Chong: Helping NYC's youths

Bill Chong, commissioner of New York City's Department of Youth and Community Development, says that he finds it rewarding to shape the city's young people as they grow up and establish their future. Amy He / China Daily

Bill Chong: Helping NYC's youths
Like millions of other Americans, Bill Chong watched the US moon landing on TV in the summer of 1969. Chong was 12 at the time and like many other young people, he was inspired by the mission.

A year later he had to pick an area of study at Brooklyn Technical High School.

"I thought, 'Wow, a landing on the moon. That's what I want to do, build rockets!' I was 12, so what did I know, right?" he said. "So I said, 'Aeronautical engineering!' Because that's what I wanted to do."

Once he began taking courses, though, he realized that he'd have to do a lot of math to get through aeronautical engineering, and he didn't much enjoy math.

Helpfully, an English teacher told him to consider another track. Chong was good at writing, he was articulate, so he should consider journalism, he was told, and that's exactly what he did when he enrolled in college.

Chong, who was born and raised in New York, studied journalism at the City College of New York in the late 1970s and pursued writing for a few years after he graduated, freelancing for minority newspaper Trans-Urban News Service, which was started in 1977 by African-American civil rights activist Andrew Cooper.

Freelance journalism didn't pay well, so Chong looked into other fields, and began volunteering at Asian Americans for Equality (AAFE), a non-profit organization based in Manhattan's Chinatown.

"The turning point in my career was when I volunteered at AAFE. They needed someone who could navigate relationships between the Chinese community and the outside community, who could work with elected officials, who could work with government agencies. So my job was to be the bridge between the work of AAFE, which was very strong, and very grassroots, and the community," Chong said.

One of the first projects he worked on at AAFE was suing the city over a rezoning project that would have allowed for high-rises to be built in Chinatown near the Manhattan Bridge. The city's plan "didn't make sense" and the community thought that it was going to be the first step towards gentrifying the neighborhood, so it sued the city in "AAFE vs. Koch", Ed Koch being the city's mayor then.

AAFE won at district court, lost at the appellate division and later took the case to the New York State Court of Appeals. The organization ultimately lost, but by then, the lawsuit had dragged out for more than a decade to the early 1990s.

By then, two things had happened: the original rezoning plan had a 10-year sunset provision, and the real estate market in Manhattan bottomed out. Since the developers hadn't started any work within the 10 years, the plan disintegrated.

"I like to look back at that moment and say that we delayed gentrification. It's very difficult to completely stop it, because Chinatown is in such a strategically valuable location," Chong said. "Manhattan is a place where many people want to live, for obvious reasons, and it pains me to see what's happening to Chinatown, but I know we were able to delay it for a good 15 years."

Chong's time at AAFE was the start of his career in community work, and the 57-year-old has now worked in non-profit organizations as well as various government agencies in the city.

"I've worked for a president, a governor, four mayors, and two Cuomos," he said. "I'm probably an answer to a trivia question out there."

Chong's latest role, which he assumed in January 2014, is under Mayor Bill de Blasio's new administration. He is the commissioner of the Department of Youth and Community Development (DYCD), which was created in 1996 to provide youth and family programming with funds made available by the city, state and federal governments.

The DYCD funds local community-based organizations that provide services to promote youth development, and supports a number of initiatives, including community centers, immigration services, youth employment programs and literacy programs.

Chong said that one of the biggest programs of the government that he's trying to solve as commissioner is the silo effect.

"Often agencies are like ships in the night and they don't connect," he explained. "Part of what I want to do is move towards a holistic approach in looking at neighborhoods. Right now, historically, we fund programs, but I want to look at it from the standpoint of, how do we build communities? Oftentimes, because government is very siloed, we have state money, we have city money, so we're very good at funding a specific program, but we're not so good at trying to integrate different pieces."

The primary focus of the DYCD is creating and funding programs that are meant for the city's young people, which the agency defines as children aged 5 to 21, he said. More than 60 percent of the agency's annual budget goes to funding youth programs, and the goal is to help kids be better prepared for life.

One of the agency's latest programs is SONYC - School's Out New York City - which are after school programs meant for middle school students. They're structured like clubs and provide instruction in sports, the arts and youth leadership through service.

The city also has a summer youth employment program that selects children aged 14 to 24 and places them at entry-level jobs across the city for six weeks in July and August. The children are paid for their work.

"I think the attraction to working with kids is seeing the impact you have on the kids. By having a short-term investment, you can help make sure young people make the right choices," Chong said. "Particularly in middle school, where we know there's a lot of research that shows that if you hang out with the wrong crowd, it sets you down a path that could be very destructive.

"Just seeing the young people that have gone through our employment programs and find jobs and become productive members of society, I think that's the rewarding part. You're planting a seed and it takes some time to blossom, but you're planting a seed with young people. They're the future of our society and of our city."

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