“I was going be a war journalist,” says Wei Huang, AM ’19. “I wanted to report on how war affected non-combatants, in particular, how they protect themselves in conflict zones and other extreme conditions.” After earning his bachelor’s degree in three years from Renmin University, Wei took an internship at Globus Caixin Media Company, helping produce video talk shows. “The internship was great in that it gave me exposure to war journalists and experts working on refugee and non-combatant issues. I encountered people working on refugee issues in another organization I volunteered at, the Common Future Fund, (it is the first non-profit in China advocating for Syrian refugee children), but it also made me realize that you can be kind of powerless being a journalist. I didn’t want to be a recorder of events. I wanted to do something about them. That’s what led me to social work.”
The University of Chicago Crown Family School of Social Work, Policy and Practice’s integration of clinical and administrative social work seemed the perfect fit for Wei’s newfound career path. “I knew I wanted to do some kind of policy advocacy or policy research, but I wanted whatever I did to be grounded in the field. It couldn’t be this abstract thing. I needed to be in contact with real people and advocating for policies and programs that I knew from first- or at least second-hand experience were truly effective. I was also interested in coming to Chicago generally because it has such a strong connection to the field and continues to have a vibrant field of community work. I wanted to see what that looked like up close.”
During Wei’s first year, alumnus Norman Kerr, AM ’11 did a presentation at Crown Family School about UCAN’s work around violence prevention. One of Chicago’s oldest social service agencies, UCAN serves almost 12,000 at-risk children, youth and families across Illinois. UCAN’s more than 30 programs focus on creating a continuum of care for youth that have experienced trauma. “I learned that they’re doing their work in a very comprehensive way, combining employment, family services, and mental health. That model attracted me, and I wanted to see what the reality of that work looked like,” says Wei.
This presentation convinced Wei to apply to UCAN for his second year field placement and Norman hired him. “I really wanted to do something that was grounded in the community rather than a more research-focused project,” explained Wei.
Wei worked on UCAN’s Light in the Night program, which applied a community partnership for peace model at Franklin Park in Chicago’s North Lawndale Community. “If community members don’t think a place is safe,” says Wei, “they don’t go there, and then violence actually increases because of the lack of community ownership. The partnership for peace model attempts to reduce violence by recreating spaces that feel safe and accessible.”
The UCAN team Wei worked with attempted to reclaim Franklin Park after three young people were killed in a shooting there. “Every Thursday, Friday, and Saturday from 4-9, we’d organize activities and hand out food. I worked on the whole process—planning, finding neighborhood vendors, handing out food, and connecting with kids in the park. I also attended community meetings, got to see different assessment tools applied, and did a deep dive into the literature—so there was an administrative and research component, too.”
Kerr, who is Vice President of UCAN’s Violence Prevention program, was immediately impressed by Wei. “He jumped right in!” says Norman. “He was a consistent figure at a park that was faced with many challenges. He adjusted quickly, and residents and staff appreciated his sincerity and his passion for helping. In all our years of having interns, this was the first time we had one who was this fearless and wanted to be on the streets, even late into the wee hours of the morning. Wei is not a big talker, but he’s a doer, and that is a great example for other interns and for our staff.”
“I’m proud of being accepted by the community and my colleagues,” says Wei, “but I’m most proud of being accepted by the kids. There were several kids in the park that I built relationships with. And it took a lot of persistence and just showing up every day and being there to get beyond their initial ‘you don’t live here, get out of my business’ reaction. But over time we built a level of trust, and they started talking about what was going on at school and in their families. I’m deeply humbled by and grateful for the trust they gave. I still volunteer with UCAN, even though my field placement is over, just so I can maintain those relationships with the kids.”
After graduating from Crown Family School, Wei wants to work on child protection in conflict zones. “I especially want to work in West Asia or North Africa—Syria, Lebanon, Yemen. That seems to be where the need is greatest right now. So I’m looking for agencies in China that do that kind of work.”