Andrew Hong's Culturally Affirming Streetwear Deepens Connections Between Communities of Color
Andrew Hong talks about his restorative justice streetwear brand and his work on educational equity—plus, how not being taught about contributions made by Asian Americans affected his point of view.
May 25, 2021
Andrew aka 홍 진 ("hong jeen") is an American-born Corean raised by immigrant parents. He is the founder of WE EACH BELONG, a restorative justice streetwear brand that uses streetwear and communication to deepen the connectedness between Asians and other communities of color. As the founder, he not only designs and produces the culturally affirming streetwear, but also holds cross-racial healing spaces and trains other folks of color who can help grow the abundance and access to more spaces.
During the day, he works as a Restorative Practices Coach for Chicago Public Schools, providing direct skills coaching and systems consultation to transform school environments from discriminatory to restorative. Prior to these roles, Andrew, a TFA alum, taught at an alternative school on the South Side of Chicago where he pioneered the implementation of restorative justice and incorporated cross-racial/Asian-Black history and healing into his lessons with his students of color.
What motivates you to work towards making an impact towards educational equity?
Educational equity is a challenge to the assumption that our kids are “bad kids” and a return to the essential and indisputable truth that they are good, wise, powerful, and worthy of love. It is the belief that each person is valuable and worthy of love and that we are all interconnected and responsible for each other.
Our educational system (and the racist ecosystem we all live within) demonizes and discards our young people, relinquishing any responsibility for them, rather than taking the time and resources to invest in them. The vicious, unjust conditions that our young people are thrust into are largely ignored and our students are seen as problems due to their behaviors. The behaviors aren’t often seen as expressions of their deeper needs.
Educational equity is about seeing these needs and providing the holistic nourishment and support (not just academic support) necessary to help our young people flourish.
“Educational equity is a challenge to the assumption that our kids are 'bad kids' and a return to the essential and indisputable truth that they are good, wise, powerful, and worthy of love.”
What do you think makes Chicago's Educational Landscape unique?
I am not a Chicago native but one thing that has always stood out to me is that Chicago is a beautifully diverse city but also one of the most racially segregated cities in the country. This means that many school populations don’t have a racial diversity that allows young people to engage with or build relationships with a variety of peers from different cultures or backgrounds.
Tell us about WE EACH BELONG. How did your experience in education lead you to launching this venture?
It’s important I start with this: our separateness is a lie. The divisions and separateness between communities of color is an American lie that has been perpetuated by white supremacy and racist policies to uphold the dominant group and keep communities of color fighting. We have not yet grown an abundance of spaces where we as communities of color can—with love, listening, and compassion—face our interconnected narratives more honestly.
The mission of WE EACH BELONG is to help create this abundance of spaces for us to more deeply examine and realize our connectedness.We use both wearable communication (aka streetwear) and deeper communication (aka circles) to uplift our diverse identities and deepen the connectedness between Asians and other communities of color. Proceeds from our streetwear are reinvested in providing free circles, which are more intentional spaces of pause with each other—rooted in indigenous practices and shared restorative values—that help us to share the gift of deep listening, to unpack difficult but necessary topics more honestly, and to deepen understanding and connectedness.
My experience in education brought this idea to life because, as an Asian educator working with Black students and families on Chicago’s South Side, I was constantly presented with the question: What did it really mean to be in solidarity with Black lives as a Corean? Solidarity was more than knowing the history or reading books on anti-racism. It needed human-to-human relationships, unlearning assumptions about each other, and honestly addressing the harms our communities have caused each other. It became clear that the opportunities to connect this way were rare.
The spaces that did exist were primarily intellectual, not relational. That’s why I decided to help grow more spaces for these connections.
AANHPI history is, unequivocally, American history but as Congresswoman Meng recently said, “For decades, our children’s social studies textbooks have misrepresented, or excluded, the history of Asian Pacific Americans." Can you share a little bit about any exposure you had in school to the contributions made by Asian Pacific Americans? How did this exposure or lack of exposure affect your point of view?
My exposure was close to zero. This lack of exposure made it easy to dismiss my own Coreanness and strive for whiteness.
When I entered professional spaces I didn’t see myself as an active contributor. I saw myself as a non-white or as non-Latinx but never as Corean. I remember a moment as a child when my loving mother offered us pizza and I made fun of how she pronounced “pizza.” I look back at this moment with deep guilt. My mother crossed oceans, survived immigration, survived America, and [I] saw her as a joke. I never had any real desire to learn the Corean language because I wanted to fit in with the white kids.
As an adult, I feel oceans apart from my family because I am unable to connect with my elders through language.
In your opinion, what are some of the most pressing or important issues affecting the AANHPI community today?
Similar to the fact that police brutality and the state-sanctioned denial of Black lives did not start with George Floyd, I think all of the most pressing issues for the AANHPI community today are issues that have been happening, but were simply less visible before. The shootings in Atlanta are not an isolated incident but rather another product of the long-running fetishization and dehumanization of Asian women.
Meeting the immediate needs for safety and wellbeing is incredibly urgent, but I want to highlight a less overt but equally pressing issue. There is not an abundance of spaces for the vast diversity of Asian groups to connect. The term “Asian American” helped increase political power but it has resulted in the erasure of our community’s rich diversity. We need opportunities to name, acknowledge, and care for all the different experiences—not to play Oppression Olympics--but to understand that our liberation is interconnected.
“Similar to the fact that police brutality and the state-sanctioned denial of Black lives did not start with George Floyd, I think all of the most pressing issues for the AANHPI community today are issues that have been happening, but were simply less visible before.”
What have you seen evolve and change in the Chicago educational landscape? What has stayed the same? What about these things excites you?
There has been growth in the way in our district has started to honestly name the racism and discrimination in our educational system, especially in the way students are disciplined, policed, marginalized, and disinvested in. Now that the root issues have been named, there is an opportunity to more explicitly confront the racist and discriminatory policies and practices in education and more intentionally grow school environments that are actively loving, affirming, and empowering for all identities.
I’ve also been energized to see more and more parents and staff wanting to learn about restorative practices as a part of am effort to transform school environments.
What advice would you give to community members who are seeking to grow their leadership and impact in education and the Chicago Community?
As the illustrious Grace Lee Boggs said: It’s not about critical mass, but about critical connections. I encourage folks to prioritize relationships with the people they want to serve. Avoid defining a goal based on a political or professional win. Focus on your full, authentic self and the full, authentic selves of others. If you listen deeply, a collective strength and power will come that no training or information session or leadership speech or social media post could accomplish.
What do you think we can do to diversify the teacher leadership pipelines in our region so that more students have teachers who are representative of the diversity in this region?
We need to decolonize what it means to be a leader and remove hierarchical models of deciding who gets to be a leader or who is most likely to develop leadership qualities. Leaders don’t need to come from an Ivy League school, wear a suit and tie, or know all the scholarly pedagogical terms and research-based best practices. We need to acknowledge the wisdom and power of neighborhood leaders who might contradict our traditional definitions of leadership. We need to connect with and empower youth who may have a record. We need to identify parents who may have an accent. We need to open ourselves up to the reality that there are many ways to be a leader.
And let’s be honest: many people perceive teaching as stressful and not lucrative. We need to fight against the conditions that make being a teacher exhausting (disempowerment, intense workload without proper preparation or support, low pay, lack of surrounding holistic supports due to lack of funding for social workers, nurses, counselors, etc.) and replace them with conditions that help sustain the joy and energy and power of being a teacher.
We are now a year into this pandemic. How has the last year changed the way you view your work, your mission, and the impact you want to make?
It has helped me understand that each person has their own unique gifts they bring to the community. No single individual is meant to take on every issue. We trust that different people will cover different needs. Throughout the pandemic, I have felt overwhelmed by a sense of powerlessness and an inability to give honest attention to and action to each urgent need. I realized I could give care and support all issues in solidarity AND I could give myself grace for not being able to dedicate the same amount of time and resources to every issue.
What about your work with WE EACH BELONG brings you joy?
It activates my whole self. It is the culmination of every past experience channeled into a single effort. When I am doing this work, I am bringing all of me in its fullest form: my identity as an educator; my identity as a creative and an artist; my identity as a born-again Corean; my identity as a circle keeper and restorative justice practitioner; my identity as Christian; my identity as a comrade. All of me is in this work.