“it’s one thing to teach hip hop, but it’s another to live it.”Aileen De Leon, Executive Director, WAPI
When asked what was unique about Washington Asian Pacific Islander Community Services (WAPI), Executive Director Aileen De Leon immediately named the organization’s focus on serving marginalized communities. They hire from within the community to promote authentic relationship building with youth, and to provide leadership opportunities for people who historically haven’t had access to positions of power. This allows WAPI to be recognized as a leader in their field. Their staff reflect the community they serve—and not just racially or ethnically, but also street life experience. As Aileen says, “it’s one thing to teach hip hop, but it’s another to live it.”
WAPI uses hip hop music production as a vehicle to prevent substance use amongst Asian Pacific Islander youth, and all under-served youth. The staff’s ability to connect with youth and be relatable role models supports learning, and supports trust. These are both crucial elements to WAPI’s programming; young people come in because they’re excited to create in the recording studio, and it’s the mentorship from staff that help them stay. These supportive relationships allow conversations about identity, values, and dreams to happen—all of which are part of WAPI’s strategy to engage youth in a life without substance use.
Often times, hip hop is characterized by the glorification of drugs and alcohol and the exploitation of women. WAPI knows that this is not the only kind of hip hop, and engages youth in the question “you see this on TV, but is this really you?” Programming encourages youth to stay true to their individual identity and find their purpose by writing with intent instead of writing what’s expected. Not only does this allow staff to discuss alternatives to substance use, but also misogyny and the sexualization of youth. They ask, “Is the machismo portrayed in hip hop who you really are? What does it mean to be a man?”
Staff are trained extensively on a whole host of topics in order to meaningfully support the youth in their programs (in addition to the substance use treatment and mental health services WAPI provides), and are actively engaged with the King County Commercially Sexually Exploited Children task force. But beyond addressing substance use, mental health, sexual exploitation, graduation, and homelessness, the organization also provides resume building education and homework help. This creates a one-stop shop where young people are enriched and supported in all aspects of their life. WAPI’s programs promote not only leadership, but also entrepreneurship—there are seemingly endless opportunities for youth to learn and grow. Ultimately, it’s about whatever young people want to do, and about what the community needs.
Through the Best Starts for Kids initiative, WAPI has started providing middle school programming in Federal Way. This means that youth now have a safe place to go after school where they can learn, create, and engage with caring adults who listen about substance use concerns as well as everything else. The City of Federal Way recognizes the importance of this work and awarded WAPI $9,000 a year for the administration of their programming. They want to sustain the investment of high-quality programs within their community.
Aileen was eager to share one of the biggest success stories of the organization: a young man started coming to the program in about 2015, when he was 16 years old. He was shy and introverted, and would often act older than he was to deflect attention. He stayed with the program for 2 years until he graduated, and was recruited by Macklemore to participate in The Residency, an intensive hip hop program at MoPOP. He is now a known local artist, and is able to teach other young artists. He’s confident and grounded now, and his sobriety through this process was supported by WAPI.
Expanded Learning Opportunities like WAPI’s youth programs are a crucial and vibrant part of our community, and help young people achieve their dreams–whatever they may be. We’re lucky to be served by WAPI!