09/02/2014 02:37 pm ET Updated Nov 02, 2014

Helping Should Strengthen Relationships, Not Hurt Them: 3 Perspectives

NOTE TO READER: This is the first of a three part series appearing over the next three weeks, about an incident from the 1980s when I was Executive Director of Asian Neighborhood Design, a social services agency in San Francisco, California.

It was 1983 I was running a counseling program for refugees from the Vietnam War. My social worker and I had just left what I thought was a great counseling session with Myong, a single mom from Vietnam who raising three kids on her own. My agency also worked with gang kids and we knew that her 15-year-old son was getting recruited by a San Francisco Chinatown gang. Soon after our session with Myong, her son did join the gang, and Myong placed a significant part of the blame on our program.

Something happened right after that "great" counseling session, because from then onwards Myong refused to talk to us. This three-part series will present this story, first from the viewpoint of what our program set out to do. The second posting will present Myong's viewpoint and her reasons for breaking away from my agency. In the third posting, we will present what we gathered as the viewpoint of her teenage son, Tae.

The story is true and similar scenarios continue to this day.

What I hope to share is how many of us, in our efforts to be helpful, too often unintentionally harm those we are trying to help, and how we consequently add to the stereotype that low-income adults are not capable of helping themselves, their children, or others. The stereotype goes as far as to blame the parents or caring guardians if their children get into trouble without understanding that a paternalistic system of help is more likely to be the culprit.


Following the Vietnam War in the early 1980s, there was an influx of refugees to the United States. Many of them ended up in San Francisco. At the time, I was the Executive Director of Asian Neighborhood Design, a social service agency, and we had just received a federal grant to help refugee families assimilate into the country. From our point of view, most families needed our help because they spoke very little English and didn't know our schools, social services, or other institutional systems and how to navigate them. Our job was to identify refugees and help them with their housing problems and related issues.

In the case of Myong and her son, my employment and youth social workers had already spent time ascertaining the issues they faced. But this visit by my new social worker to Myong's apartment was to better understand her housing situation. I went along since it was my social worker's first home visit.

Myong lived with her three kids in a small one-bedroom apartment in the Tenderloin, a pretty tough part of town. Tae, at 15, was her oldest son. Myong let us in and my worker sat with her at the only table in the room. I sat on the couch listening and available to provide help if needed. My worker asked Myong about her housing situation, how much rent she paid, how the building was maintained, and whether it suited her needs. Myong was clear that the building manager was a problem and was looking for an excuse to kick them out. She hoped we could help. My social worker was well trained and was able to give her a list of low-cost housing options and tell her about her rights as a tenant. She also asked Myong to set up some goals and said our agency would help her meet them.

As Myong complied with my counselor's direction, her son Tae stepped out of the shadows and leaned against the door of the only bedroom in the place. As the session went on, a look of disgust came over his face. I assumed his disgust was aimed at my young social worker. Finally the session ended, goals and timelines were set, and Myong thanked us as we left her apartment.

But within a few minutes, just as we were leaving the building, Myong sprinted up after us and angrily said that she didn't want us to come back. "My children are losing respect for me," she yelled in broken English. Then, still agitated, she ran back up the stairs. My counselor and I were startled because Myong had always been so grateful for our help. Even though my counselor was new, she was properly trained and had been very sensitive during the session. We didn't know what we had done wrong.

Later, we tried calling Myong several times but she wouldn't talk to us. What we did learn is that a couple weeks later Tae had ran away to join the Chinatown gang that was recruiting him. In next week's posting, I will share Myong's criticism of our help and what we learned about the incident.