Stories of Impact: People Matter

(Photo by Mari Jane Wemken)

PM5 Cantonese 101

By Hannah Kucharzak

Read Time 6 minutes
March 13, 2024

Teaching Cantonese and English through a social justice lens

The latest installment in our ongoing series sharing out lessons and insights from our grantee partners.

Uplift, Unearth, and Untether—these concepts are the core principles behind People Matter, a nonprofit organization working to bridge the fractured boundaries of language, race, and class across Chicago’s South Side. True to its name, People Matter centers the needs of its community members, listening to the issues that they encounter in their daily lives, and providing solutions through direct service, political education, and advocacy work. Its many programs aim to cultivate and empower leaders to create sustainable change in their communities. 

Illinois Humanities is proud to support People Matter’s work through an Action Grant that helped fund the organization’s Community Language Program, a dual language immersion course in English and Cantonese—the only one of its kind in Illinois. The program, which began in 2020, is unique in its approach; the driving force of its curriculum is antiracism, decolonization, and social justice. 

Founders Consuela Hendricks and Angela Lin shared with us how they experienced the ways in which Chicago’s Chinatown is divided by racial tension, namely generational communication gaps in Chinese American families, as well as anti-Blackness in the community and surrounding neighborhoods.  

“When you see a lot of Asian American organizing, it's on the north side,” Angela explained. “But because we in Chinatown are the only Asian enclave on the south side which faces much deeper systematic disinvestment than the North Side, we're in closer proximity to the most marginalized Black and brown communities.”   

A core aim of the Community Language Program is cross-racial solidarity building.  

“We can all share resources,” said Consuela, who founded the language program. “This doesn't have to be you versus me. It doesn't have to be a scramble for resources at all. That’s why People Matter started. We wanted people to start directly talking about race because a lot of the work that was done beforehand by Chinatown’s organizations didn't want to speak about race.” 

They set out to unite households and communities by making connections between the barriers of language—not only between Cantonese and English, but also making sense of how we talk about race, culture, immigration, justice, and gender and sexuality. 

Over eight weeks, 35 adult learners complete the program, which includes two Class Outings where students can hone their language skills in real-life, real-time situations. They host a scavenger hunt in Ping Tom Park and a dim sum outing, where students practice ordering at a restaurant and conversing with one another. After graduation, students can continue to attend monthly Cantonese/English practice sessions up to six months after the summer program ends. 

“At first glance, the Community Language Program might seem to focus on building skills in Cantonese and English, but it also shows how language and culture can be alive to multiple generations across boundaries of race and ethnicity,” Illinois Humanities Grants Programs Manager Joanne Hsu said. “This project uses language as a way to discuss broader social issues and demonstrates how the humanities can transform individuals and entire communities.” 

  • PM2 Graduation

    A Cantonese Heritage student goes up to get his graduation diploma at the end of the program, applauded by his fellow students.

  • PM 3 Scavenger Hunt

    Students from the Beginner Cantonese and Heritage Cantonese class work together to solve a Cantonese scavenger hunt at Ping Tom Park that utilizes the vocabulary words they learned in class.

  • PM 1 Feature

    Consuela Hendricks (left), Co-president and Community Language Program English teacher, posing with her English students.

  • PM 4 Cantonese English Dictionary pick up day

    A Cantonese student and Language Leader pose during Cantonese-English Dictionary pick-up day.

  • PM5 Cantonese 101

    Cantonese 101, Heritage Cantonese, and English students at the 2022 Community Language Class graduation ceremony

The Impact of Focused Conversation

People Matter intentionally crafts their curriculum to be timely and relevant, in order to nurture a closer community that relies on one another for safety and support. All nine Language Teachers and Language Leaders in the program are community members themselves, fortifying the ecosystem that People Matter creates.

In 2022, Angela and Consuela saw how the Community Language Program was facilitating intergenerational healing for its Chinese American learners.

“About one-third of our Heritage Cantonese students were queer and/or trans, and our Program Coordinator was nonbinary, so we taught gender and sexuality terms in Cantonese,” they explained. “Our queer students later told us how amazing it was to learn gender/sexuality terms in their ancestral language, especially when they were not able to learn these terms from family due to family members being homophobic or transphobic.”

It wasn’t only the queer students who benefitted—the impact of that unit was clearly encapsulated in a moment one day when an elder and Language Leader herself suddenly turned to Angela to ask her what her pronouns are.

Community-based approaches to safety are also crucial topics of conversation.

“When we work in some public housing buildings, a lot of seniors, they may call the police on their fellow residents. And something that Consuela teaches is alternatives to calling the police when you feel unsafe,” explained Angela.

“We do mental health awareness too, in Chinese and English,” Consuela added. “We try to have it in a way that—even if they didn’t radically become fluent in English in six weeks, at least they know they have mental health support.”

As a result of People Matter’s growth, influence, and reputation in the community, the organization has collaborated with local officials who are looking to connect with residents.

“We’ve had people come in from the state senator’s office who live in Chinatown, or people who worked for the previous alderman’s office, to speak to the English students about knowing their rights, how to talk to the liaisons there, and to connect them to different things that may be going on in the city,” said Consuela. “We’re having these deeper conversations around how we make our community more sustainable infrastructure-wise and policy-wise as well.”

The Impact of Community Leadership

In the four years since its founding, People Matter has championed 351 community leaders of color through workshops and programs, formed relationships with 50 organizations, and co-hosted 41 events. They aim to create an environment that empowers students to get involved in civic engagement outside of the Community Language Program.

“There are people in our classes who have run for bilingual advisory council members at their local school or try for local school council,” Angela shared. “One of our students is a public school teacher, and she became a Chicago Teacher Union organizer. A lot of people who come out of the program, they either become volunteers or they just get involved in their school. And sometimes they send their kids to our other programs, and then their kids run for local school council. So it's kind of like an ecosystem.”

The Impact of Consistency and Application

People Matter cites consistency as a key driver of its success and offers up the advice to other nonprofits to stay consistent in the resources they offer to their communities.

“The year we were funded by Illinois Humanities was one of our most robust years in the program's history,” Angela shared. “Partly because we started in 2020 and were unable to do many enrichment events back then, but also because of the community we built over the years from consistently offering the program every summer.”

Consuela’s advice to nonprofits teaching a dual language program is to listen to what the community needs, and to be intentional in working that into the lesson plan. “You should know what people want to learn, and what kind of value you want to get out of it as well. And then make sure that that applies.”  

Want to learn more about enrolling in People Matter’s upcoming Community Language Program or volunteer opportunities? Check out their website for more info.