Breaking down barriers Tutors: Asian-Americans from Hopkins and East Baltimore youngsters are studying together and challenging stereotypes.

November 12, 1998|By Amy Oakes | Amy Oakes,SUN STAFF

Standing before about 50 rambunctious youths recently at the Fort Worthington Police Athletic League Center in East Baltimore, members of the Johns Hopkins University Korean Students Association patiently and politely fielded stereotypical questions.

"Do you know karate?"

"Are you brothers?"

The queries seemed innocent enough, but the misperceptions laced in them were part of what the students were there to correct. Beginning this week, the students are providing tutoring and other educational activities at the center, in the 2700 block of E. Hoffman St.

"The kids definitely have those stereotypes," said Jenny Hwang, 18, a freshman studying international relations. "Our reason for being there is to break those."

Hwang and about 15 other Hopkins students have teamed with Robert Jones, a political science professor at Sojourner-Douglass College, to launch a pilot tutoring program at the center. If it's successful, Jones said, he would like to start similar programs at other centers.

"There's a communication gap between Asians and African-Americans," Jones said. "We see this as kind of a solution to break down some of those barriers."

African-American students from Jones' classes are coordinating the program, and the volunteers from Hopkins will help the children with schoolwork and such activities as piano lessons and arts and crafts. And, yes, Peter Kim, 19, will offer tae kwon do lessons, not karate, the sophomore clarified.

Vonda Holman, a student of Jones' who is helping to organize the program, said it was important that Sojourner-Douglass students play only a behind-the-scenes role in the program.

"We want the Asian students to make the contact," Holman said. "We can walk right off the street and connect with them already."

The center averages about 75 children, mostly African-American, each day. The center is open to youths ages 7 to 17, but 90 percent of the participants are ages 7 to 13, center supervisors said.

Many of the youths don't have regular contact with people of Asian heritage, said Lisa Bowman, a parent and center volunteer.

Officer Fred Allen, who has supervised the center for two years, said the youths were very receptive to the students. Since the advance introductions a few weeks ago, Allen said, "the first thing [the children] do when they walk in the door is ask for them."

His only worry, Allen said, is that the youths will become too attached to the tutors because the program emphasizes one-on-one interaction. Already, he said, many of the children know their tutors by name and what activity they will lead.

"I like it," said Keirra Clowney, 6. "We study math and read books."

The connections didn't take long to establish but had some barriers.

"I was surprised they spoke English," said Keith Brown, 10.

Added his friend Carl Gill, 9, "And that they could help us with our work."

Peter H. Kim, 21, who organized the Hopkins volunteers, said the format is still being finalized, but they will return next semester. For the rest of this semester, volunteers will tutor at the center from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays.

For some of the volunteers, the tutoring program offers their first exposure to inner-city children.

"This will give me a glimpse of inner-city life and help me understand their culture," said Claire Kim, 19, a freshman studying international relations.

Virginia Lee, 18, a freshman in general education, said she hopes to develop close friendships with some of the students and overcome her uneasiness around African-Americans. At times, she said, she thinks she's being subconsciously patronizing in social situations.

"I'm never really comfortable with them because in the back of my head, I think they are not comfortable with me," Lee said. "I'm afraid they think of me as racist."

Allen, the police officer, said the center's controlled, safe environment allows the volunteers to focus on the children. In return for their work, Allen said, the center provides transportation.

"It's been worth it already," Allen said. "They've been a great addition to the learning services we have here."

Pub Date: 11/12/98

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