Tommy Lo, 15, and Tina Hy, 16, members of the youth leadership program of… (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles…)
Brandon Cao is an especially observant 15-year-old.
He can see that his father, a Cambodian immigrant and independent trucker, is working himself sick — the stress is causing patches of his skin to break out in crimson-colored rashes.
In fact, the northeast L.A. neighborhood where Brandon was born and raised is making everyone who lives there a little sick, and a little crazy, with its freeway-polluted air, back-breaking jobs and skyrocketing rents.
"All that we're asking for in our community are jobs that you can feed your family with, a home that you can live in and a place with air to breathe that doesn't kill you," Brandon told me.
Brandon is a community leader in training. He's learning how the city works by studying some of its seemingly boring essentials: the stuff that's discussed in city planning meetings, for example.
His mentor on this journey is Sissy Trinh, a 37-year-old daughter of Vietnamese immigrants and the founder of the Southeast Asian Community Alliance (SEACA). Her group is trying to build civic awareness among teens like Brandon, who attend workshops and eventually learn to speak out at public meetings.
Trinh's students are, like Brandon, all recruits from high schools in the communities of Lincoln Heights, Solano Canyon and Chinatown. Her short-term goal is to add new voices to the debate over northeast L.A.'s economic development. But she's also trying to set in motion a much larger renaissance among the community's Southeast Asian immigrants. Many of them are impoverished people who don't fit the "model minority myth," Trinh said.
"This isn't just a school project," Trinh told me. "We're fighting for the future of our community."
SEACA's small force of 20 or so eager-for-enlightenment teens gathers Monday nights inside a faded Chinatown mini-mall where half the storefronts are shuttered.
When I visited SEACA's offices this week, I saw a Day of the Dead altar featuring Asian American heroes, and the words "Build Community" painted on a wall. Trinh and Serena Lin, a lawyer, were helping a group of 10 teens draft the personal statements they would read to a meeting of the L.A. city Planning Commission.
"I don't want this to be a toxic wasteland or a gentrified dump," one of Trinh's students read from a paper he'd been writing on. "People should have a say in the future of their homes."
Trinh founded the Southeast Asian Community Alliance in 2002 as an outlet for her long-held feeling that families like hers were powerless.
"We were on welfare for a time," she told me, speaking of her own extended family of Vietnamese refugees, which settled in central L.A. after the Vietnam War ended in 1975. "Both my parents worked really hard. We ended up moving to the San Gabriel Valley to live with my uncle in a three-bedroom house with 12 people. I grew up feeling frustrated that we didn't have what other families had."
Most of the agencies serving the Southeast Asian community worked on providing housing and jobs to immigrants, she said. Fighting City Hall wasn't a priority. "I had a sense that things weren't fair and I needed to do something about it," she told me.
Trinh went away to college and became, for a time, a community and labor organizer.
Now Trinh is trying to pass on the things she's learned to young people whose angst is familiar to her. To students like Tina Hy, the 16-year-old daughter of a garment worker.
"My mom goes all the way to Long Beach to work at a sweatshop," Tina said. At the end of each workday, her mother arrives back in Lincoln Heights with sore muscles and a defeated look. For Tina, the best way to liberate her mother is obvious: better-paying jobs in her own neighborhood.
Now the city planners are preparing to adopt the "Cornfield Arroyo Seco Specific Plan," which would redraft the zoning laws over a 600-acre stretch of northeast L.A., bringing new housing and new employment to the area.
Tina told me she's hoping to get the city to draw businesses that provide local, better-paying service and manufacturing jobs to families like hers. She's also worried that the looming gentrification of Lincoln Heights — a number of old buildings have been converted into expensive lofts — might drive out families like hers.
But in their forays into the public debate over the Specific Plan, Brandon and Tina and the other young SEACA activists have learned some hard lessons.
At one recent community meeting, attended by 30 teen SEACA activists, a Department of City Planning staff official stopped the public comment when an audience member tried to discuss the city's Environmental Impact Report on the proposed rezoning.
"She said 'The draft EIR isn't open for debate' and walked off with the microphone," Tina said of the city staffer. "I thought that was a little disrespectful."
Brandon noted something odd at the same meeting. "These officials have this confusing language when they talk to people like us. But it's confusing on purpose," he said. "Because I could hear that when they talk among themselves, it's completely casual."
Brandon and Tina are not yet 17 years old. But even at their tender age, they can spot imperious bureaucrats and official obfuscations.
From small observations like theirs, a community consciousness is born, and perhaps a neighborhood that in the near or distant future is a better place to live.