Spending his time organizing for Middletown Mutual Aid, Our Revolution, and WesDems, this varsity athlete strives to put the fair in fairway and the drive in drive. A personal tragedy in high school pushed him to fight for marginalized communities, which Bryan Chong ’21 does on both community and electoral levels. The Argus zoomed with the recent birthday boy to discuss organizing and much more.
The Argus: How’s your quarantine going? Are you on campus?
Bryan Chong: You know what, it’s been not too bad. I just turned 21 two days ago…
TA: Happy Birthday!
BC: Thank you so much!
TA: In terms of your extracurriculars, what drives you to be so passionate, or what inspires you to be so involved with organizing?
BC: I think it’s a lot of factors. One of the biggest things to me was a personal experience. I’m born and raised in Hong Kong, and there’s already a lot to unpack there with regards to politics and it’s worth looking at what Hong Kong students have done here at Wesleyan, looking at last year, which The Argus—and I’m very thankful that they reported on the kind of formalizing and publicity that we did. After ninth grade, I left to go to high school in Connecticut, actually, and so this is my seventh year in Connecticut and the United States. In my senior year of high school, I had a good friend who was transgender, who committed suicide, and that was a very powerful motivating factor for me, and for my friends during that time, to really understand the ways that marginalized populations are impacted in today’s society and in today’s public discourse. That was one of the big things for me, and when you look at specifically organizing in American politics, which is something I’ve come to embrace at Wesleyan, I think it very much started with just a very strong sense that people in general should be involved. People should be aware of what’s going on in their lives. In Hong Kong—I’m very fortunate to come from a background where civic engagement is deeply instilled in the populace. Voting is obviously very, very important and I got started last fall with being involved with Wesleyan Democrats and poll standing for Mayor Ben Florsheim.
Especially during COVID we have seen more starkly than ever before the socioeconomic divisions in society that have persisted and been reinforced by many institutions and those in power for so long in the history of modern society. There’s a lot of trauma and pain that people in our generation are being awakened to at this very pivotal moment. And I think a lot of us are really through seeing and through experiencing themselves at this moment, the pain that so many of their peers themselves feel. I’m thinking in particular of Black, Indigenous, and other people of color, and I think that it is through seeing this pain and really being able to feel it within ourselves and from then on the push towards identifying their battle as our battle. And perceiving that their pain, although it might not be someone that we know, is a pain that we feel, all of us in the system, feel collectively as part of a collective struggle against an unjust system. Bottom line, it’s about feeling the pain that others feel and being willing to identify ourselves as part of the greater battle and part of the greater struggle.
TA: That just makes me think of Bernie’s—I guess his official slogan—was Not Me, Us…
BC: *Turns around to show back of Wes for Bernie shirt, with “Not Me, Us” written across the back*
TA: You’re also a student athlete, can you talk about that a little?
BC: Sure! Yeah, so I played golf my entire life and I actually walked on to the team here. I think it was still technically a co-ed team when I joined my freshman year. It’s great, it’s a great time, I love the people. I think that Cardinal Golf isn’t very competitive, in the NESCAC and otherwise, but we try our best, we get out there and practice, and we really just try to get out there and have a good time, try our best, and play some good golf. It’s a great team with a very fraternal atmosphere, not in the sense of greek life but in the sense that we have a very sibling-like relationship with each other.
TA: Could you talk about your role in Middletown Mutual Aid, and the genesis of that, especially since you’re organizing during COVID?
BC: So Middletown Mutual Aid is currently a collective of people from different sectors of the Middletown community and the Wesleyan community. I’m sort of there not only as a volunteer, but I’m hoping to bring in the manpower and the resources that Wesleyan Democrats have in terms of their connections to Middletown elected officials, and also Wesleyan for Bernie, which is currently inactive, but we’ve developed relationships with other progressive organizers in Middletown and greater Connecticut. I know the chief organizer is North End Action Team and the direct cash assistance program is kind of housed by them. They’re a registered 501(c)(3) nonprofit so they can be the fiscal sponsor of the financial operations that we’ve been doing.
The genesis started way back when in March, when Wesleyan shut down and a lot of students were in immediate and specific need of housing and food and income for a lot of people who were suddenly displaced. I want to particularly highlight Anna Tjeltveit ’23, who found a template from Middlebury College, a spreadsheet where students were able to list the resources they had to offer and students could list their needs. We were able to facilitate students helping each other—not only students but faculty and staff, people who had something to offer at that time—and we were able to facilitate that. And then from there, organizers looked at what was going on in greater Connecticut and in Middletown, and we saw that there was a lack of resources and a lack of a mutual aid network here in Middletown, which was very starkly disproportionate to the amount of need that is coming out of the area of Middletown.
We knew that people were traveling from Middletown to New Haven and Waterbury because they had established mutual aid networks there, so me and—I want to highlight Emily McEvoy ’22 who leads WesNeat, which is the Wesleyan counterpart of the North End Action Team, and who sits on their advisory board. She is currently, I think, the principal organizer and she really did a lot of the on ground things here, putting up flyers, along with other Middletown residents, and really felt the brunt of the amount of need that there was here in terms of food and income. A lot of people are missing rent and are at risk of being evicted. And then we were able to sort of get in touch with the city and the mayor’s office and other non-profits here and other social justice orgs like the Middletown Racial Justice Coalition, United Way, and we looked at what are the gaps that aren’t being filled? And to us it seemed important that there was a program that at this very moment had close to zero barrier to entry. United Way and the Racial Justice Coalition they have specific targets that they want to hit in terms of who they want to help, which is great, but we know that in this crisis there are lots of people who don’t have official documentation that allows them to show one way or another that they have a certain financial situation or amount of need. Our goal was to target the people who are falling through the cracks, who have no way of operating inside the system. That’s the basis for our direct cash assistance program, which to date has raised over $30,000.
We have been fundraising from the more fortunate, privileged sources, both in Middletown and Wesleyan, and we’re able to facilitate some direct form of wealth redistribution from Wesleyan, which is a very wealthy institution both in terms of how much money the university itself owns and as I said before, the kind of people that go to Wesleyan. The New York Times did a very comprehensive review of the socioeconomic distribution of colleges and universities in the United States, and they found that as of five years ago, 70% of Wesleyan students come from the top 20% of the economic ladder. I am very much a part of that majority, and we understand that Wesleyan students and the Wesleyan University can obviously always do more. So that’s sort of the perspective we were looking at, as Wesleyan students in particular, with this project. With the transition to classes starting and the new regulations about the kind of civic engagement we can do and the ways in which we can help Middletown residents, it’s obviously difficult and presents new problems to us. We can probably no longer make in-person grocery deliveries to people who need them, people who are immunocompromised, or elderly, or for some reason or another can’t step out of their homes. We definitely need to be innovative and look at the ways in which digital organizing can help, and again especially from the fundraising aspect. You know very reasonably we have started to call for recurring donors to the direct cash assistance program to sign up to donate on a more regular basis. Anyone that signs up lets us know that we have an X number of people who can give us regular financial support. It allows us to better plan our outreach efforts and allows us to better communicate with our requesters about how long it would take for us to be able to facilitate financial aid to them.
One of the highlights of a petition for a just reopening of Wes is asking Wesleyan to establish a community fund committed to giving resources to organizations and institutions and other grassroots efforts in Middletown that are trying their best to help Middletown residents at a time that the Wesleyan administration and the Wesleyan student body is not. We want Wesleyan to recognize the historic and present responsibility they have towards the city of Middletown. I’m wanting to specifically highlight the amount of guidance Wesleyan students have received from community partners, the North End Action Team, from Youth Services Bureau, and from other grassroots organizers. We have gotten so much guidance from them. There is definitely a big learning process for a lot of us, including myself, and other people who on paper are affiliated with these exact organizations that historically have not done enough, and in fact, have actively perpetrated against marginalized communities like the Democratic Party.
As a campus arm of the Democratic Party, we have to own up to that legacy, and to us we see very clearly how the Democratic Party has not done enough in Middletown, not done enough statewide. Even though right now we are maybe one force of good against the wave of alt-right conservatism, even though that is the case, there are many people who have seen their entire lives how these institutions—that many Wesleyan students take for granted as being for good—are not doing enough.
Middletown Mutual Aid is a project that is very ambitious in what it is trying to do, in the amount and kind of people that it is trying to help, and the institutional obstacles that it is looking to overcome. I am very excited to continue supporting it. I’m excited to introduce it to more Wesleyan people, to bring them into the fold because this project was pretty much started during the summer away from when Wesleyan’s most active.
TA: Any concluding thoughts?
BC: I think more importantly than ever it is important to be involved now: registering other people to vote, phone banking, and canvassing, very electoral focused stuff; to volunteering, things like mutual aid; and to things like starting to be more aware of racial dynamics in the spaces that we inhabit, socio-economic dynamics in the spaces that we inhabit.
TA: Do you have a favorite Wesleyan memory?
BC: (via email) It’s really tough to choose, but I will always be surprised by and grateful for the time I spent in the Bayit (157 Church!) and with people in the Wesleyan Jewish Community [WJC]. Housing lottery did not work out sophomore year, and I ended up boarding in a program house that I had not even heard of, but left with a wonderful group of friends, some of whom are my best today. Looking back, the Bayit and the WJC played a big part in helping me rediscover spirituality, particularly in the concept of Tikkun Olam, and I am thankful for that.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.