As the AAPI hate vigorously escalated in the past couple of months in addition to the bigotry brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, the drive to understand our own local community fueled the initiation of Cherish Chinatown. Cherish Chinatown is an initiative by student leaders from both Tufts Dental and Medical schools to not only aid in understanding the community around us, but to also reevaluate our roles as both residents and healthcare providers in the Boston Chinatown community. The goals of Cherish Chinatown are “educating students and staff on the history of Chinatown and Tufts University’s impact within the community and providing student-led service projects that have been requested by Chinatown residents to encourage Tufts students and staff to help the Chinatown community in a culturally sensitive manner.”
The first community outreach project that brought this initiative to life was the “Love Your Block Neighborhood Clean-Up” on April 30, 2021, which was organized by the City of Boston and executed by Cherish Chinatown. Tufts Dental and Medical students collaborated in cleaning up and beautifying the Chinatown community, from alleyways to gardening at the Josiah Quincy School. This interdisciplinary approach in community outreach and service hopefully opens more avenues for dental and medical students to collaborate in the community and patient care
With the clean up and gardening projects that were assigned, we talked to the members of the community. Rather than being detached and passing the beautiful city by having these Chinatown residents’ livelihoods be an extension of Tufts’ campuses, the beginning of an integral asset to our dental and medical educations began to burgeon. Many of the students volunteered and one of the dental students (Therese Abely, D24) said, “I live in Chinatown and I haven’t gotten to support our community. It was such a rush being there with people and help.”
Catherine Murray, a member of the Chinatown community, stated excitedly, “I saw a group of the Tufts students across the street helping out and I wanted to help randomly!” As the day progressed, the students cleaning up were engaging in conversations and getting to know the Chinatown residents better. People were so thankful — the students because they understood the residents of Chinatown better and the residents because their homes were cleaner.
Following the outstanding participation and support from volunteers and the community during the Cherish Chinatown Clean-up Day, the educational component of the initiative aimed to share ways in which we can serve our resident community with intent. Michael Liu, an author, scholar, and lifelong activist of Boston’s Chinatown community was invited to speak to Tufts students to shed light on the history of Chinatown since the 19th century. His new publication, Forever Struggle: Activism, Identity, and Survival in Boston’s Chinatown, 1880–2018, delves into Boston Chinatown’s emergence from immigration, deep xenophobia, to the I-93 highway construction and urban renewal projects, as well as Tufts University’s presence in the Heart of Chinatown.
Mr. Liu briefly led us through a chronological series of events detailing the expansion of the highways and what locals call T-NEMC (now Tufts Medical Center) at the expense of Chinatown and other communities of color. The garment industry, which was once located in Chinatown and the Leather District, was the #1 employer of Chinese women in the early 1900s and was the only source of healthcare offered to them in the United States. Paradoxically, the expansion of T-NEMC and highways stripped these women of their only access to healthcare. However, since 1993, there have been no plans put forth to go south of Oak St. The history of the disproportionate power relationship between Tufts University and Chinatown has continuously left the residents with only hope that compromised solutions will serve both the community and the Medical Center. The relationship between the university and our local community is improving with time and it is important that we take initiative to raise awareness of our own history.
Anthony Bello, D24 student, who was present at both the service day and educational component reflected upon his involvement with the Cherish Chinatown initiative. He acknowledged that “The insight provided by Mr. Michael Liu has allowed us, as future professionals, and advocates, to have this discussion with greater societal context. Understanding the systems that created Chinatowns, as well as those that threaten their existence, afford us a unique insight into how to best serve the community we reside in. Namely, the greater role that Tufts Dental School can assume in ensuring its security and perpetuity. [Chinatowns] were created by the greater racial context of the United States, yet they are threatened by the oppressive boot of economic expansion, and overwhelming capital, perpetuated by those same systems. Recognizing the significance of this, and engaging in a dialogue, is an adequate and necessary first step. Meaningfully engaging with the community, newly equipped with knowledge and perspective, is a difficult second, but some may consider it a moral and ethical obligation.”
To continue this movement, we are hosting a Trashion Show on June 10, 2021, to raise money for the Hudson Street Stoop. The Stoop will bring together both long-time and newer residents in the Chinatown community by creating an inclusive environment with rotating public art from local artists. The art will change every 18 months and also hold events for the residents such as open mics and poetry slams. The Trashion Show itself will have dental students crafting items of clothing by upcycling everyday trash to reduce the carbon footprint. We will also have youths from Chinatown attend and speak about the history of the area. This event incorporates history and also has a fun program set up to fundraise for the Stoop to unite the community.
Chinatown residents have struggled throughout time and it continues as the AAPI hate has increased. Living here as students, we believe we have to do our part and learn about how Chinatown came to be and serve them as well. We cannot just see the residents for the signs and symptoms, but rather for their heart and the stories they tell.