In China’s cities, migrant workers and their families are undervalued, underpaid, and undereducated. They are marginalized and have little stability in their working and living environment. Compassion for Migrant Children (CMC) is one organization working to change that. This Beijing based NGO, offers tutoring and training for migrant children, their parents, and teachers through community centers strategically located in migrant neighborhoods. I spoke with Jonathan Hursh, the founder of CMC, to learn more about their work.
Q. How did you get to China and how did the idea for CMC develop?
A. I came to China through a scholarship program as an adult and studied for about a year and got involved in orphanage work. I’ve been doing a lot of volunteering since I was a teenager and wanted to devote myself to that fully. A friend took me out to a migrant school. I had been in Beijing about 2 years by then, and it blew me away that I had not heard about the migrant issue. I came back with heavy heart from the needs I saw there that weren’t being met but also with an excitement that there might be something that we could do to meet the needs of these migrant kids.
For the next month or so I could hardly sleep. I just kept envisioning what might happen with these kids. In 2005, there weren’t many organizations working with them then. I went back to my boss and asked if there was anything we could do about this issue. She encouraged me to pursue it in my free time. So over the next few months in the evenings I started putting things together. I had not considered that we would start an organization. I would go to different organizations and say. “You’ve got a program that works really well in China what about using that for migrant children?” I expected a cold shoulder but there was a good response. I thought that the Coalition for Migrant Children (which was CMC’s name at the time) would be a round table of other organizations, to encourage them to use the programs they had for migrant children. Then I realized we needed to finalize things a bit more. We launched after a few months. We changed the name to Compassion for Migrant Children We started to become more of an implementer. We wanted an anchor and a platform and a lighthouse in the migrant community to begin engaging the children in the schools.
Q. How many community centers do you currently have and what is your vision for them?
A. Two in Beijing right now. We started creating [the centers] as a model from the beginning that can be multiplied and scaled up and for others to use aspects of it. Through the Communities of Promise Network we’d like to empower others to start community centers. My vision is that we’ll throttle back halfway [our work in the community centers] eventually and use resources to help other groups to open community centers where they are.
Q. How did the migrant community receive CMC when you first arrived?
A. Initially from the parents we get a bit of a “we’d like to trust you but there’s no free lunch.” But that only lasted for a month or two. We don’t charge. We’re not competing with anyone so we don’t destroy economies. Parents are working all day, so they don’t get much time with their kids. There’s no one to tutor the kids. Kids were just running thru alleyways when I first started visiting migrant communities. No one was responsible for them, for their safety, for their sense of creativity or homework. Parents have very much welcomed us. Parents will come to our parent training and say please do marriage training. And teachers also want more training. We’ve been very grateful because it means we’re not fighting the parents to get their kids to come to stuff. We strive to be participatory as much as possible, but we find that difficult because parents are just working such long hours. It’s very difficult because of works schedules but not because of their intentions. We don’t want to take over parenting but fill in the gap where they can’t.
[When we first came] we took the oldest, nastiest building in the area. We joked, “Should we bulldoze it first or paint it first?” But one of the mothers told me, “We know you’re not just here to take some photos and help and then leave. You’re here to live life with us.” That was a huge lesson. If we can really engage and commit to these migrant communities I think we reap the reward as far as understanding their needs and [helping them gain] acceptance in the community.
Over time I’ve gained a great respect for the migrants. They have a lot to teach. They are extremely entrepreneurial. They work really hard for a brighter future. The bitterness of life yet they continue to move forward.
Q. On your website it says, “Uniqueness lies in strength that multiple mature humanitarian partners bring to the table”—why is this approach unique and how does it contribute to the implementation of your projects?
A. We place a very high premium on partnership whenever possible. We’ve been encouraged and disappointed over the last 3 ½ years. In the nonprofit world there can be a lot of healthy competition. For those that know us well, we do have the reputation that we share, that we’re trustworthy, and that we consider the goals of the other partners as well. As people understand that, our partnerships become successful. Partnership is often misunderstood as how can we use you to further our goals. Any partnership that is going to work has to be beneficial to both parties.
Both parties need to have the dignity of offering value to that partnership. When one is perceived as being in the position of need and the other in the position of giver, that often doesn’t work. So no matter how unequal the relationship, whether in size or maturity, there needs to be a sense of having dignity and something to give to relationship. Everyone has experience. Whether we do it right or wrong, we all have something to offer purely from our experience and perspective. As people get to know CMC and our DNA we’ve seen a lot of very positive movement. It just takes time.
Q. What do you see as the biggest needs for the migrant community?
A. One would be stability. Without stability it’s difficult to talk about education as far as long term solutions, housing, subpar education. They’re locked outside of the public education system. I would also rank up there the issue of discrimination. The Hukou card, even if it could be changed overnight, is only a symbol of a deeper barrier that is locking migrants out of society. Discrimination causes real issues of self-esteem in the migrant community with the adults and children there. They are pushed to the fringes of society.
Q. Do the kids you work with say anything about being different or not accepted?
A. What we’ve found surprised us a little bit. At the beginning of their lives the kids actually don’t show low self-esteem because most of their world is lived within the migrant community, so they assume that is how the world is essentially. When they become teenagers, they voice desires to make friends with other children in the city. They voice that with a lot of confidence, but after are few years they aren’t accepted and their self-esteem goes down. We often find that migrant parents and schools, in some ways, accept the discrimination as a fact. Often tradition tells them that it’s not going to change.
Q. How can migrants move from the fringe to valued members of Chinese society?
A. I believe China is moving in a positive direction. Our life vocational skills training program for teenagers is giving them a foothold, and in turn will help see that their children will have access to public education and public health care and that there will be a more stable and embracing society in the second generation.
To learn more about the information see the companion article in our most recent newsletter: Doing Good, Fall 2009. If you are interested in partnering with CMC, contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.