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Profile of Fernando Chang-Muy, '82 Alumnus Helps Immigrants

Monday, May 9, 2011   (0 Comments)
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This article was submitted by Rebecca Han, 2011 graduate of the University of Pennsylvania (College of Arts & Sciences). Fernando Chang-Muy received his J.D. in 1982 from the Antioch School of Law.

          Professor Fernando Chang-Muy is the Thomas O’Boyle Lecturer in Law at the University of Pennsylvania School Of Law. This title is awarded to lawyers who incorporate their experiences into their students’ legal education. Chang-Muy serves as a leader in countless groups, ranging from work in human rights to facilitating organizations. His contributions and active roles derive inspiration from his identity, or rather, his identities: Cuban, Chinese, gay, immigrant. Chang-Muy, a Cuban immigrant, dedicates much of his work to minority groups, mainly immigrants. And to better understand the mistreatment and iniquities of all minority groups, he empathizes with being a racial and sexual minority.

          Organizations he has participated in and led, including the Liberty Center for Survivors of Torture and the Southeast Asian Refugee Project, lend aid to those in need, particularly the impoverished and those who have experienced human rights violations. As former Director of the Center for Survivors of Torture, Chang-Muy gave survivors medical treatment, and offered a space for mental rejuvenation and hope. The latter organization specifically aims to help the Asian community, primarily Cambodian and Vietnamese immigrants, who struggle with learning English, and therefore, cannot report crimes committed by gang members. Chang-Muy played an integral role as Director, stressing the importance of proper communication among victims and ending the suffocating silence that consumed them. 

          However, I quickly learned that Chang-Muy’s efforts included other groups that are also marginalized. By practicing and teaching immigration law, he hoped to inspire others to help immigrants and the larger society. Chang-Muy talks about how blue-collar workers, specifically Mexican laborers, are often taken for granted. They work hard for low wages, which allows for goods, like chicken and lettuce, to sell at inexpensive prices. Here Chang-Muy says there is potential for both Mexican workers and the "wider”, or "whiter” (his playful pun), community to learn from one another. Just as the former must adapt and learn English, the latter should adopt an open mind and greater appreciation for their work. Education is necessary for both parties to arrive at a greater understanding of each others' experiences.

          Many of the organizations Chang-Muy participated in or led revolve around immigrants in need and other minorities who struggled against adversity. But Chang-Muy offers a different and enlightening way of viewing immigrants. Rather than feeling pity for their situations as they dealt with an unfamiliar lifestyle, Chang-Muy discussed a strengths-based approach in which immigrants provide a bridge to other cultures and put forth their own identity. He stressed the importance of gaining knowledge and an appreciation of various cultures, for this is what makes an individual "richer.” While he acknowledges the challenges that immigrants have faced, Chang-Muy looks for the good and places significance on immigrants’ unique contributions to society, offering a hopeful outlook on the assimilation process.

          Also, Chang-Muy has focused on helping victims who had been wronged by their native governments or had been rejected by mainstream society.  He used his legal services to help abused women and immigrants who had experienced injustice. Chang-Muy also helped the less fortunate by consulting and advising organizations at the managerial level to be efficient and strengthen group dynamics.  As a consultant he helps organizations in 3 different ways: (1) working with nonprofits and their management issues, (2) dealing with "industrial psychology” or organizational problems, and (3) assessing a nonprofit's affiliations. Developing and training organizations also includes ways to raise funds, how to run a meeting or learning to become a better leader.

          As the Human Rights Legal Officer of the UN World Health Organization (WHO), Chang-Muy concentrated on international human rights and public health laws. He trained government officials and the ministries of health not to discriminate against those with AIDS. In addition, he served as the Senior Legal Officer of the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), a role that helped displaced people apply for asylum.  In all of these organizations he had an impact.

          In talking with Professor Chang-Muy’s about his career and passion for helping immigrants I realized my initial thoughts about immigrants were inaccurate and pessimistic. Prior to his explanation of his strengths-based theory about immigrants, I believed that in order to be genuinely passionate about a cause one must personally experience some catastrophic event. I assumed that trauma holds more power than idealism. Now my views have changed.

          So, I asked, "What are some personal experiences that led you to [immigration and refugee law]?” I anticipated painful stories of refugees fleeing Cuba during the Cuban Revolution. Yet Chang-Muy challenged my views once again. Because he grew up in a predominantly Cuban community, Chang-Muy didn’t experience discrimination growing up; finding a table at school was no problem. And even then he was exposed to immigration law, with Chang-Muy translating to his parents during interactions with lawyers.

          Chang-Muy did mention that he had felt marginalized because of his homosexuality. Beginning in graduate school, when he initially set out to attain his Ph.D. in English, he wrote a dissertation on analyzing literature through Marxism, Formalism, and the Lesbian/Gay perspective. The committee rejected his proposal. This event led him to law school, where he believed he could confront the marginalization he had felt having his work rejected by an academic committee.

          Looking back, Chang-Muy said that not much has changed regarding U.S. refugee policies. If anything, they’ve worsened, especially after the 9/11 attacks. Also, he acknowledges that the struggle for equality regardless of sexual orientation has remained stagnant. Despite this, he still believes that the goodness within an individual can be a driving force toward helping others.   

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