A program that helps the 22,100 Chinese immigrants in Philadelphia with mental health and wellness has expanded past its original one-year lifespan with a renewed grant from the Scattergood Foundation.

Called the Chinese Immigrant Family Wellness Initiative (CIFWI), it was founded in 2020 by Esther Hio-Tong Castillo, a former USciences sociology professor turned community organizer. It’s part of the Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corporation, a nonprofit that works to provide housing, youth, and healthcare services to Chinatown residents.

“I experienced firsthand the power of having better mental health and how it can transform [families],” Castillo said. “I think this personal passion continued to drive me to do community organizing.”

The 37-year-old is program director for CIFWI, where she implements and organizes programming and workshops for immigrant parents and their children. The organization works to give Chinese youth the tools to talk about mental health while also serving Chinese elders, who are harder to reach.

From the recent Chinatown fire that disrupted many Chinese-run businesses to anti-Asian attacks fueled by COVID-19 misinformation, the past two years have seen several tragedies impact Philly’s Chinese community.

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Yet among both Chinese Americans and Chinese immigrants, conversations surrounding mental health are stigmatized. In addition to the already existing stigma within Chinese culture, the United States’ tendency to equate mental health with mental illness contributes to the Chinese community’s discomfort in talking about it.

“There’s that stigma that if people talk about mental health, they’re talking about mental illness, even though they’re two different things,” she said.

Credit: Hanbit Kwon

Through CIFWI, Castillo bridges the massive generational gap between Chinese elders and Chinese youth in Philly.

Children often assimilate to a new culture much faster than their parents, and can develop different expectations regarding parenting and family. This can lead to breakdowns in communication and the distancing associated with the higher risks for clinical depression among East and Southeast Asian adolescents and young adults.

“We realized that a lot of young people are crucial members [of] their family structure. Why don’t we start with them, and encourage them to have conversations with their elders?” she said.

Each fall, the initiative’s Wellness Leadership Program works with 25 Asian American young adults, helping them learn how to lead conversations to foster mental wellness within their communities. They work with community elders and help them find ways to share their wisdom. Often, participants start by having tough conversations with their own parents. The goal: affirm their life experiences while also encouraging them to consider new coping mechanisms.

“We now talk about intergenerational trauma because we realized that immigration itself could it],” Castillo said. “A lot of Asians come from war and colonization, and those kinds of [traumas] get passed down to the next generation in parenting skills and the way we communicate with each other.”

Credit: Mars Macmurchy

Working to heal the racial divide and meet people where they are

CIFWI also co-organized what’s been called Philly’s largest Black and Asian solidarity event in April of this year.

It was both a specific response to the November 2021 SEPTA attack against four Asian American teenagers, and in recognition that racial tensions between Black and Asian communities were exacerbated by the pandemic overall.

“When these things happen, it’s re-traumatizing and very triggering … so we started organizing around Black and Asian solidarity.” Castillo said.

Castillo said Black activism inspires and informa a lot of her work at CIFWI. “The Black community just has such a rich history of organizing around liberation and advocating for civil rights. Asian Americans really have so much to learn from the Black community.”

CIFWI offers racial healing circles as part of the Asian American Racial Healing & Mindful Transformation (AARHMT), an initiative created after the 2021 Atlanta spa shootings to create space for Asian American millennials to heal from racial trauma. In this program, participants meet biweekly to release their thoughts about racism while also exploring harm mitigation strategies through discussions with community-based experts. The program is in talks for renewal for this summer.

Credit: Mars Macmurchy

CIFWI also works to meet elders where they are.

“Mental wellness lies in the community — not in specific individuals,” Castillo said, explaining that the organization connects people to tai chi, yoga, and identity-affirming food distribution. “So we’re trying to change the community to improve mental health.”

Next up for CIFWI: Distributing “Feeling Asian American,” a documentary that explores the journeys of five individuals navigating their identity and their experiences with race during the pandemic, to the general public. The grant-funded film — first premiered in May — will set the backdrop for a new cohort of Wellness Leadership Program participants and more programming around Black and Asian solidarity.

“The Asian American community often is not ready to talk about our trauma in a way that’s not finger-pointing,” Castillo said. “We’re more focused on creating a positive, alternative narrative … Because when we have more joy, we have better mental health.”

Credit: Ellen Min and Sten Hartman