Several years ago, Chinatown resident Anna Perng was grappling with her child’s autism diagnosis. For friends of hers in similar situations who had language barriers, access to information was even more challenging to find. When people started asking her for help, she became involved with a support group and decided to serve on the Philadelphia Autism Project committee.
“Raising my kids has made me aware of barriers, both physical and programmatic, which are rooted in the historic segregation of disabled people,” Perng says.
She was a member of the Philadelphia Autism Project, which, in 2015, established a continuum of care for families who needed services for their children with disabilities.
At their workshops, they provided families with translated documents and language interpretation. This effort evolved into the Temple University Cultural and Linguistic Diversity Project, which offers families access, opportunities and community support.
This March, Perng helped organize Philadelphia’s first Disability Inclusion Summit. Parks and Recreation Commissioner Kathryn Ott Lovell, Rebuild Executive Director Nicole Westerman, and other community leaders met with 150 disability rights advocates and residents.
“At the summit, a Chinatown resident who used a wheelchair spoke about how he can’t participate in activities with his 8-year-old son,” Perng says. “No matter our age, our race or our Zip code, we had one message: We need an inclusion revolution.”
Perng continued advocating for the Chinatown community and became aware of Rebuild, the city-led initiative to invest in parks and recreation centers. Her excitement was dimmed when a map of approved sites eligible for the money was published.
“There was a map with this huge spray of dots across the whole city, but Chinatown remained a blank space,” Perng says. Chinatown doesn’t have any parks or recreation centers to improve.
When she saw that local news organization PlanPhilly was asking readers to vote on a Rebuild question they wanted investigated, Perng organized people to “upvote” her question: What can the city do about neighborhoods like Chinatown that didn’t have rec centers at all?
Her question won. Reporter Malcolm Burnley ended up writing a story, interviewing representatives at Rebuild and City Hall, as well as giving voice to Perng and residents. Perng noted that Franklin Square, which is privately run, was the only green space available to residents and hundreds of children who attend Head Start and pre-K count programs.
Perng shared the PlanPhilly article with Councilman Mark Squilla, who represents Chinatown, and asked whether Franklin Square could be considered for Rebuild.
“I pointed out that the historical lack of investment in Chinatown is not anyone’s fault, but we are now in a position to correct this injustice,” Perng says. “We can make a difference for residents and for hundreds of Head Start children from around the city.”
Squilla invited Perng to meet with Rebuild and Franklin Square, and, over the past year, they have worked together to address these issues.
Perng says she credits Lovell and Westerman for not only listening, but taking action on these concerns and planning a follow-up meeting with the community.
“I’d like to see residents and advocates serve on a community advisory board with voting power over the coming years,” Perng says, “to ensure residents aren’t displaced and these benefits aren’t erased in 10 years."
Paige Wolf is the author of “Spit That Out!: The Overly Informed Parent’s Guide to Raising Healthy Kids in the Age of Environmental Guilt.” Follow @paigewolf on Twitter.