Two words come to mind upon stepping into the SEA Literacy Center on the second floor of the Neighborhood House of Milwaukee: organized chaos. The SEA in SEA Literacy Center stands for Southeast Asian and twice a week this space, complete with vibrant nature-scape themed walls, is transformed into a community of Burmese refugees primarily between the ages of 6 and 22 and Milwaukee area volunteers of all ages working together in powerful ways.
According to its website, SEA Literacy originated from Milwaukee landlord Bob Heffernan’s recognition that his refugee tenants were “largely isolated from the larger Milwaukee community” and the refugee children often struggled academically in their new schools and with English language learning in general. In 2011, SEA Literacy was born with a mission to bridge the gaps Heffernan recognized. Dedicated to more than simply tutoring students on the fundamentals of language learning, SEA seeks to foster connections between members of the Burmese refugee community and between the refugee community and the greater Milwaukee community. Its mission is as follows:
SEA Literacy uplifts the lives of Southeast Asian refugees in greater Milwaukee by empowering them to become engaged members of this diverse, dynamic community. Our goal is to foster social and educational development, thus creating community leaders and inspiring future generations. We are also committed to providing the people of Milwaukee and the surrounding suburbs the opportunity to reach out to their neighbors and strengthen the harmony in our city!
Much of the philosophy and mission of SEA Literacy relates to Django Paris and H. Samy Alim’s text Culturally Sustaining Pedagogies: Teaching and Learning for Justice in a Changing World. Paris and Alim argue that “culturally sustaining pedagogy seeks to perpetuate and foster--to sustain--linguistic, literate, and cultural pluralism as part of schooling for positive social transformation” (16). Clearly, pedagogies that promote cultural pluralism and foster positive social transformation go well beyond the transference of a particular set of concrete skills like reading and writing. They include strategies and ways of learning and being that can heal and strengthen often divided communities and that can encourage leaders who might otherwise never speak or be heard.
SEA also reflects Steven Alvarez’s work with MANOS or the Mexican American Network of Scholars. Alvarez advocates for a more individualized approach to literacy and reveals ways to “broker the immigrant bargain and build collaborative networks” for the benefit of those often penalized by the traditional, monolinguistic school systems (15, 19). SEA, not unlike MANOS, offers an environment and context that emphasizes collaboration and a cultural exchange that does not assert the dominance or superiority of one culture over another. In effect, programs such as these can enfranchise the often disenfranchised (144).
According to Lisa Delpit in Other People’s Children: Cultural Conflict in the Classroom, The collaborative environment of the literacy center also disrupts or contrasts the “culture of power” so often enacted in traditional learning spaces (24). Silvia, a high school senior who has volunteered at SEA for three years, commented, “the kids don’t really need another teacher. They often feel upset or frustrated by school. I’m there to guide them through activities and homework and have fun with them. If we work for an hour or an hour and a half, we then set aside some time to play.” She also remarked on the privilege of learning from them. “The girls are often eager to share stories about their culture,” Silvia remarked, adding, “I think SEA offers a safe environment to receive help and fit in. I have learned so much from working with them.” This mutual, honest exchange between mentor and mentee is one of many ways nontraditional education centers differ from the more hierarchical traditional school systems. Indeed, if “we do not really see through our eyes or hear through our ears, but through our beliefs” as author Lisa Delpit suggests, then this type of communication across cultures is particularly vital for a population that is especially vulnerable (46).
Personally, I am heartened when I talk with young people who are engaged in this work and when I learn about the efforts of fellow Milwaukeeans and our refugee guests. Much of this work and the spirit of this work is overshadowed by hurtful rhetoric about the character and motives of those who flee danger and seek safety away from their homes. With so little wisdom coming from the office of the president or even from my own generation, I find hope in our youth, from where ever they may hail.
Interested in bearing witness to and being a part of the transformative work that happens here every Tuesday evening from 6 pm to 8 pm and Saturday morning from 9 am to noon? Visit sealmke.org for more information!