A chat with Mabel Tso, Community Organizer

Today I met with Mabel Tso, of the Asian-American Legal Defense and Education Fund to learn about her work. Mabel works as a Community Organizer, handling new case intake from Chinese-speaking laborers. Whether that means hosting workshops on worker’s rights or handing out pamphlets, she’s on the ground each day to offer resources to recent immigrants. Over a cafe latte at La Colombe we chat all things race, depression and community.


A bit about Mabel

She grew up in New York and attended Chinese school right over on Mott Street. After graduating from Wellesley with a Political Science degree she went to work at AALDEF where she’s been ever since. She’s considering master’s programs now in Social Work and Psychology. When I asked her what other fields she’s considered, she thinks for a moment and says, “Working with old people. I visit my adoptive grandma who’s 96 in Flushing, and the care at the home she’s at is so poor. I’d create a new program for the elderly so they aren’t as isolated.” More proof of her passion? She cried all throughout Unfinished Song). Here are my take-aways.

“Working in a non-profit” means many different things

Who you work with

Do you want to work with women, with laborers, with domestic violence victims, with youth, with the elderly…? I want to work with middle school youth, high school students, or people in their early twenties. My focus would be on women or people in transition, e.g. from one career to another, from one phase of life to another. But everyone’s different. Getting specific is key.

How you work with them

Mabel works on a case by case basis, and once a lawsuit has finished her relationship with individual community members ends as well. As she said, what keeps people coming back? Once they’ve received compensation, they have no reason to come back.

I’d prefer to have an ongoing relationship with people, through cycles, who actively choose to participate. For example, 8th graders who graduate each year and a new batch comes in. Or a six week workshop series where I get to intimately know the participants, and then they finish and move on.

Why you work with them

This is another version of, Why do they come to you? What’s the end goal? My end goal is to facilitate conversations around mental health, confidence, and personal growth. In a group setting, for the women to help each other – I just help make it happen.

Volunteer to get started

“Interest, passion, and language skills” — the three things non-profits in the field look for, Mabel says. This is encouraging because I have all three; but to build legitimacy you need to demonstrate them by volunteering. She suggested finding a program that interests me and what I would ultimately want to do and reaching out.

Here are three resources for doing just that:

Mental health in the Asian community

It was supposed to be an informational interview, but c’mon, you can’t be professional and stoic forever! We eventually ended up talking about mental health, about how Asian-American women aged 15 to 24 are the most likely to suffer from depression, why that is and what the ways of addressing that might be. We talked about the idea of guilt and shame, 不好意思, and how there’s a dance with expectations from each culture that contributes — especially for women. She recommended Jonathan Safran Foer’s article in the New York Times, How Not To Be Alone.

Above all, talking to Mabel was a breath of fresh air. Her honesty, her presence and her joy were authentic and infectious. Here’s to many more such encounters.


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