by Kristine Breese
Cathy Dang’s parents weren’t entirely happy when they saw their daughter’s picture in the paper announcing that she’d been selected as a Bohnett Fellow and would be working in the Mayor’s Office. “Of course they were proud of me. But I think they’d rather see me in the paper because I was making a lot of money,” she says, only half joking.
As the daughter of Vietnamese immigrants who survived the war, fled their homeland, endured weeks on rickety boats and then months in refugee camps, Dang does not resent her parents’ preoccupation with money and outward trappings of wealth. “I think with all they have endured, they just want to see an end to the cycle of poverty in our family.”
In some ways, this graduate student in Social Work at the School of Public Affairs is just as worried about the “cycle of poverty” as her parents. Only in her case it’s not the state of her own bank account that keeps her up nights, it’s the huge need she sees all around her working in some of LA’s most challenged neighborhoods.
In her role reporting to Deputy Mayor Miriam Long, Dang is working with the Office of Children, Youth, and Families to improve opportunities and outcomes for students in three of the 11 schools that are part of the Mayor’s Partnership for LA Schools (PLAS). “While PLAS focuses on things like improving test scores, the Office tackles all the things that keeps kids from excelling in school, both on and off campus. This can mean everything from housing issues to immigration, to healthcare, gangs and domestic violence.”
Again, Dang’s family experience looms large. “My parents owned a nail salon in downtown Brooklyn,” she recalls. “When I was seven I saw my dad get jumped by five guys in the parking lot at the end of a long day at work. Of course an experience like that is horrifying and is not something you just brush off when you head off to school the next day.”
While this experience stands out, Dang recalls that violence was ever present in her neighborhood, and that at the time it was “the best my parents could do.” Now, with her own modest salary and stipend, Dang gives back, helping to support her parents and all those around her. “There’s always so much more going on in people’s lives than you might expect.” It’s that sense, and her belief that she can help knit together a web of supports for kids and families in LA’s inner city, that makes Dang the great student, leader and visionary that she is.
Interfacing with colleagues all over the country, Dang has discovered models in Harlem and Orlando, among others, that she believes are adaptable and scalable to succeed here in Los Angeles. Specifically she is hoping to tap into some of the stimulus package dollars earmarked for 20 so-called “Promise Neighborhoods” to create a “kids’ zone” where schools and service providers band together to create a continuum of care for the young people in a certain neighborhood. “Of course I want to do this all over the city, but even if we start with 10 or 15 blocks I’ll be happy. I want to see what works and how we can change outcomes for people.
One recent success was securing funding from the Department of Children, Youth, and Family to hire a social worker at Markham Middle School in Watts. “Don’t doubt what a difference one person can make,” Dang says referring to the social worker. She could, of course, be referring to herself.