Ying Duan and I have known each other for seven years. We met as colleagues at University Settlement, an organization in Manhattan’s Lower East Side that serves over 40,000 New Yorkers each year – offering mental health services for people of all ages, educational and social services, and more support for immigrants and low-income families. As mental health clinicians at different locations in the Settlement’s Butterflies Program, Ying and I both supported families of young children to build safe, nurturing, and predictable relationships with their children.
Fast forward two years: I joined ParentCorps and became Ying’s coach to facilitate ParentCorps’ Parenting Program, a group-based program designed to support pre-K families to promote children’s early learning and development. Working with Ying, both then and now, is to witness a master class in family engagement and clinical support. Her knowledge base, honed through over 10 years of centering families raising young children, raises the bar for us all.
As a veteran facilitator of ParentCorps’ only Mandarin Parenting Program, Ying has led one of the most well-attended groups in ParentCorps' history. During the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, Ying continued to support families and caregivers attending her virtual Parenting Program as they moved through another crisis: the pandemic of anti-Asian hate. I sat down with Ying to hear more about how she found community and held space for families in the Asian community.
So, tell us a little bit about yourself. Who is Ying Duan?
I am an early childhood mental health clinician and have been working in this field for five to seven years. I currently work as the clinician and therapist for the Butterflies Program. The population I'm serving is children from zero to six and their families. The ethnicity group I'm serving is 70% Asian and 30% of various other ethnicity groups.
You lead the only group that serves a Mandarin-speaking Chinese population. The Parenting Program that you have run, both before and during the pandemic, has been one of the most well-attended and longest running Parenting Programs since ParenCorps came into existence more than 20 years ago. What do you think has led to such well-attended groups year after year?
I have a shared background and culture with the attendees. I was born and raised in China. I came to the U.S. as an international student and have lived here for more than 15 years. I am an immigrant. So I have that shared experience with my attendees who were not born a U.S. citizen.
Another thing is language. I want to emphasize the language aspect because it's not just a simple translation. It's kind of like a security blanket. It transfers empathy. When we can use our native tongue to communicate challenges or stress, remember our childhood experience, and reflect on how cultural expectations in the U.S. are different from where we come from and how we adjust to it, that is really important. All of that is folded into the language we use.
“When we can use our native tongue to communicate challenges or stress, remember our childhood experience, and reflect on how cultural expectations in the U.S. are different from where we come from and how we adjust to it, that is really important. All of that is folded into the language we use.”
I'm glad to see there is a growing number of resources that have been translated into Chinese. But still, the number of resources, groups, services or people who understand the culture and are willing to respect and work with families are limited. It gives me access in terms of these families needing someone to reach out to tell them, “Oh, there is this group available.” That has been giving those families assurance that these are resources they can respect and want to be part of.
You facilitated a Parenting Program twice during the pandemic, and we know that there was a rise in anti-Asian sentiment, particularly in the Chinese community. As a Chinese woman yourself facilitating to Chinese parents and caregivers, how did this anti-Asian environment impact the Parenting Program at your site?
I want to give credit to the Asian community. This is how we become strengthened and come together as a group when in crisis. I know a lot of parents were looking for ways to come together or to move in with other family members, so financially or relationally they could support each other. At the same time, they were trying to stay home, which they found was safer than going out.
There was increased anxiety, and mostly they were anxious for their own security and their children's security. Not just from the virus, but also from the anti-Asian violence and taking the blame for the virus. There's a lot of fear. Having a group is even more crucial and essential for those families because we can freely talk about why we are fearful or the different distressing experiences.
But there's no solution. I struggled with this. I feel like I'm not able to give an answer or resolution for these types of incidents and experiences. And I also experienced incidents during those times. In ParentCorps, we talk about how consistency, predictability, and nurturing can provide resilience, this protective shell for the family. I feel like the only thing I can do as a facilitator is just to bear witness with those families, to discuss those experiences, and then to share in the sadness – the grief and the loss within the pandemic.
“In ParentCorps, we talk about how consistency, predictability, and nurturing can provide resilience, this protective shell for the family. I feel like the only thing I can do as a facilitator is just to bear witness with those families, to discuss those experiences, and then to share in the sadness - the grief and the loss within the pandemic.”
But there was some hope. There are things we can do now as the outside world becomes more scary, and things we can do within the family to serve as a protective halo for the children. We hope the families will eventually have the courage, strength, and knowledge to go out.
There was a whole other pandemic, the pandemic of racism. As a clinician, as a therapist, as an Asian woman, how did it feel to hold space for families in affinity during that time?
For myself and for the families in the group, there was this new lens of racism and a new understanding that this is a thing impacting our lives. This brings a new perspective in terms of how our skin color and how our race play a role in our parenting.
There is a lot of heaviness to process it without any answer and to discuss it without any resolution. It's like a pause. But I feel the growth in that. How can we hold that pause? It’s kind of like parenting. Sometimes we don't know what the future holds and there's so many worries. How can we be in it, thinking about it, but not be overwhelmed by it?
And then focus on what hope we still have. We still have our family members together, and we can still do those things together. When we're able to accomplish little things step by step, that brings us some kind of empowerment. That comes from that pause.
I’m reminded of one of the Parenting Program sessions about helping children deal with big feelings. We focus on feelings and explore possible solutions, but sometimes there is no solution. Sometimes a child’s toy gets broken, it can’t be fixed, and it's just sad. But it's about connecting and acknowledging that that's real.
Sometimes while we are experiencing stress it's like a rubber band being stretched very thin. But with a community, with your family, with somebody else, we have multiple rubber bands together. When the rubber bands all come together, they become stronger. It doesn't mean they're not being stretched thin. But when we are together, it's not just one rubber band. Eventually, the elastic will go back to normal, and then we will become stronger and open and flexible as the rubber band continues to [stretch and relax]. This is not comfortable. But we're doing it together.
During the pandemic, you ran your Parenting Program at 8pm to accommodate families who were home with their children, so that the children could be put to bed first. You really centered the families and their needs. But what impact has this work had on you?
It’s very rewarding and has helped me grow as a person and as a social worker. I learned about families and their own strengths and their perspectives, surviving under the pandemic and under the anti-Asian violence. That empowered me to, at that most challenging time, think about how I could be more brave. I think that also helped me to see hope.
I feel very touched by how the families came to the group and felt secure enough to use the group to support each other. I’m very proud of myself, as a woman, as a Chinese person, and as an immigrant.
“I’m very proud of myself, as a woman, as a Chinese person, and as an immigrant.”
The families taught me how to advocate for their own needs. I feel it's valuable to advocate for my own rights, my own needs, and then be brave enough to seek out resources. It is so important for the families and the children to know how to ask for help. Asking for help is a brave thing and it is not shameful. As an Asian community or Chinese community in America, we do not need to be silent or the “model” citizen, but we need to know our rights and what we can do.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Sair Goldenberg is a ParentCorps Educator.