For the past decade, 17-year-old Kimani Jackson felt like he’s been holding his family together. It wasn’t until Jackson discovered the WAPI community that he saw a different family dynamic.
WAPI Community Services, formerly known as Washington Asian Pacific Islander Families Against Substance Abuse, provides culturally relevant services for adolescents to prevent gang violence and substance abuse. The program’s most recent project is working to reopen a youth center in the International District (ID).
After being founded in 1990, then restructured and renamed in 1992, WAPI moved to Columbia City after being offered a larger site for free rent. The organization kept the original center in the ID near the corner of Maynard Avenue South and South Weller Street.
“It was a move that we thought was necessary, but, at the same time, we wanted to keep our roots in the ID somehow,” said Greg Garcia, executive director of the WAPI Seattle youth organization.
In the years since the 2010 move, however, the space in the ID has fallen inactive. In a recent collaboration with the Asian Pacific Islander Community Leadership Foundation (ACLF), WAPI launched a renewal project. The goal, Garcia said, is to reach out to youth in the ID who may not feel comfortable traveling to Columbia City.
“The youth that we serve that are from the ID don’t come down to the south office in Columbia City because of a lot of the gang stuff,” Garcia said. “Here [in the ID] is more of a neutral area.”
For Jackson, the program has provided an opportunity to pursue his goals despite a turbulent childhood. Jackson’s parents separated while he was in sixth grade. He said he had to mature fast to protect his younger siblings, and because of this, lost most of his own childhood.
“I wanted to make an impact around music, and lately it’s been a little bit off track,” the Highline High School senior said. “I just wanted to change, so that’s why I got into WAPI.”
The collaboration began six months ago, when WAPI filed a request for ACLF’s services. Since then, a team of 12 from ACLF’s Community Leaders Program (CLP) class of 2012 has redesigned the space in the ID, raised money, and created a report documenting the project. There was no budget and ACLF is working with only $500 they raised at a local fundraiser.
The Seattle Police Department and City of Seattle are working on youth protection programs. In the 2013–14 budget proposal announced in September, Mayor Mike McGinn announced that $1.68 million would go toward enlarging the Seattle Youth Violence Prevention Initiative and that another $276,000 would expand hours at local community centers.
“Protecting public safety means giving young people a safe place to socialize and services to help them succeed,” said McGinn in a press release. “With this budget we can make some targeted investments to help build safer communities.”
Despite the investment, youth in the ID have not seen the benefits. ACLF surveyed adolescences earlier this year and found that most youth just wanted a safe, free place in the ID to gather with friends. Currently, the local community center has short hours, leaving them with few places to go after school.
Jennifer Duong, an ACLF CLP class participant working on the WAPI project, said there are few locations where local youth can gather.
“We’ve all been young before; we always want a place to hang out that’s cool and safe, and positive, not negative,” Duong said. “I think WAPI being able to offer that is really nice.”
In addition to a safe space, the WAPI center would also provide activities that engage youth.
“There’s not a place where they can really hang out and also have an impact in their life,” Duong said. “Maybe they need a certain service, and WAPI is able to provide that.”
Among such services is a recording studio. Garcia realized that WAPI could use music and art to bond with adolescents while he worked on his own music with them. In doing so, he built stronger relationships with the youth, who began to open up to him. Before, he said, it was more difficult to get them to talk.
“It’s like pulling teeth, so being able to do it through music is a lot easier,” Garcia said. For adolescences such as Jackson, music is a way to express their emotions. “There’s hardships, there’s excitement, there’s just so many things you can rap about: just life lessons or life experiences you’ve had,” Jackson said.
Garcia said that using art to reach the youth is what sets WAPI apart from other youth programs.
“It’s our way in,” he said.