Down deep with Alpha Cheng

May 6, 2018 by Hila Tsor
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In 2015, a 15-year-old boy shot and killed Alpha Cheng’s father, changing his life forever.

Alpha Cheng
Pic: Supplied

A school teacher and advocate, Cheng spoke to J-Wire about the Courage to Care program, his upcoming keynote address at the Courage to Care fundraising dinner on the 10th of May, and what messages he hopes to convey to the world.

His father Curtis Cheng was killed when leaving him work at a Sydney police station in Parramatta.

JW: Can you tell me a bit about courage to care in your own word?

AC: ‘Courage to Care’ is an education program which seeks to give people the courage and the confidence to care for people who may be discriminated against, or just to stand up for what is right in their community. Courage to Care uses stories from the Holocaust, focusing on those who were able to save lives during the Holocaust. When people think of Courage to Care, and a lot of other education programs, they think ‘oh, it’s about Holocaust education’. The difference with Courage to Care, is that using those stories to help people of today [understand] if everyone had the courage to care, then this would be a much better world.

JW: What initially made you want to get involved with Courage to Care?

AC: I’ve been a high school teacher for a number of years and I’ve always been a real advocate for Holocaust education. When I first begun teaching World War II at my school, there was no focus or study on the Holocaust – and I think that’s a really important part of the history, which is important to promote. I applied for the Gandel Holocaust Studies Program for Australian Educators, which took me to Israel to learn about how to teach the stories and the message of the Holocaust. [The program] really changed my perspective on how to teach the Holocaust. I think that going to Israel, sometimes you just want to focus on the tragedy and the statistics – but what is really important is the human story behind it. When I came back from Israel, I got approached by Courage to Care to do some promotion work with them, and to link our stories together. Courage to Care is really powerful as they are not focusing on the tragedy. They are focusing on people who took incredible risks to save people and make a difference for the people around them.

JW: You just touched on the course you did in Israel. You applied for the program before your family tragedy. Where did your initial interest to do the program come from?

AC: You are correct, I got into the Gandel Holocaust Program before dad’s tragic death. I wanted to promote the teaching of the Holocaust, and I realised that I probably wasn’t doing it to the justice or in the best possible way. Applying to the program was a way to up-skill myself to teach a very sad part of history, but also to do it right and also to make it relevant to a younger audience. I applied for the chance to go Israel only a couple of month before dad’s shooting. Initially, some people did not want me to continue with the program because, one, Lots of people see a perceived risk with going to Israel, and feel like it may not be safe. Some people thought ‘oh Alpha, you went through something very emotional and traumatic. Learning about the Holocaust isn’t probably the most uplifting thing you can be doing’. I made a choice that I did not want a tragedy change how I lived my life, so I decided to continue to go to Israel and I went to Yad Vashem. And I have to say that it was a life changing experiencing. I think learning about the Holocaust and learning that teaching about the Holocaust is not only about the tragedy but about understanding the values that we want to see in society, and meeting a lot of Holocaust survivors and seeing what they have gone through and [their ability] to turn their stories of tragedy into a story of hope with a message that we are better as a society when we care for one another, and to reject hate and violence. When I came back from Israel is when I begun doing some advocacy and speaking work. Prior to going to Israel I don’t think I had the understanding or courage to be able to ‘speak out’, so to say. I think that the experience itself was inspiring and I guess you can almost say life changing in terms of how I saw myself and what I had gone through.

JW:Could you tell me what you will be speaking about in your keynote address next week?

AC: Sure. What I want to focus on is, of course, my personal story, of how I became a teacher and how I got involved with Courage to Care. A story I would like to share in quite a business forum for the dinner, is that I actually come from a business and finance background, and I decided to change the course of my career and go into teaching. I guess speaking from a more personal perspective, without giving away too much of what I’m going to say, that if more people had the power to care, to step up and to reduce hate, violence and discrimination, potentially what happened to myself and my family could have been prevented. What I wanted to talk about is how important programs like Courage to Care are, and why the continuing support and funding is incredibly paramount to continue to spread the lessons of tolerance and rejecting hate, and more importantly, having the courage to speak out and to help people who are marginalised or can’t defend themselves.

JW:What would you say helped you rise above hate and anger and to do all this advocacy work and to speak out in such a positive way?

AC: I guess it’s the realisation that anger and hate can only lead to more anger and hate. Finding the courage, and also the support of people around you to be able to move beyond that is by no means an easy journey. It is something that I continually have to push myself, to be as positive as I can, given that what we are currently going through is the trial for the accused of dad’s shootings. I guess it is always a challenge. I also believe that powerful, positive stories have the capacity to move and to inspire people, and I try to remember that these will make more of a difference to people’s perspective then to be bogged down by resent, hate and anger.

JW: What kind of advocacy work has you done or are doing with other organisations?

AC: I speak and advocate for other organisations. I’m involved with Together for Humanity, which is an organisation that goes to school in order to breach interfaith understanding and dialogue between people. I think that’s also an incredible program that do great things at schools. I do a lot of personal writing and advocacy, speaking against individual politicians which promote an anti-immigration or an anti-Muslim stance. I’ve been previously involved in the gun control debate, which is something I started a couple of years ago. The discussions that were started from there culminated to the Gun Amnesty that were issued last year, which meant that tens of thousands of guns were handed in to police stations. I think that it is really important to ensure that we have a safer society where we don’t fear going out and living our day-to-day lives. This year I have taken time off full-time teaching and trying to explore more ways in terms of my advocacy, and take some personal time as well to do some self-reflection and writing. I have lots of writing ideas, having a bit of time off is helpful for that.

JW: You touched on the gun conversation. Can you tell me what thoughts you try to push in your writing and advocacy regarding gun violence

AC: Firstly I do acknowledge that the majority of legal gun owners are law-abiding citizens. I’ve got colleagues and friends who live on farming properties and have gun licenses. I understand why people have firearms. What I want to promote is how we as a community ensure that guns do not go into the wrong hands, and to question the need for semiautomatic or semiautomatic weapon, like firearms, in our community. You don’t really need those for farming use and also there is no real use for any weapon that have such a high rate of shots in a quick amount of time. That’s what I push for. We continue to see the terrible consequences of a trigger-happy, or a society that promotes the use of guns, in the U.S, and we need to continue to have a sensible conversation and reduce the amount of guns in our society so we don’t have this fear of walking down the streets.

JW: In your personal teaching career do you often find that your students are curious about your history and experiences, and by extension, do they tend to be respectful to you in that regard?

AC: I found that students are naturally curious. Sometimes I get the best questions and discussions from students. They are always generally asking to know more, rather than to confirm their beliefs about certain issues. I generally try to be as open as I can with students. I find sometimes that their thoughts and opinions to be incredibly inspiring as well. I remember a student writing me a quote, and it said that ‘Mr Cheng, I’ve been through some hard times myself and I found that this quote really helps me get through tough times, and that I hope it helps you as well.’ And the quote said: ‘you don’t know how strong you are until you have no choice but to be strong’. And I thought that coming from a 13-year-old student, it was so incredibly touching and powerful. It gives me hope that young people have the capacity to be truly compassionate and it helps counter any doubts that I have about young people, because I can never forgot the facts, that the person who shot my father was a 15-year-old boy. I work around teenagers in that age group on a daily basis. it’s incredibly important to continue to educate students about the need to be compassionate or to have the courage to stand up for other people. That’s why I think organisations like Courage to Care, which inspire people to stand up and promote thoughts in young people, have an important role to play.

JW: Do you have any moral lessons that you hope to teach your students, and by extension the world and society?

AC: I think the moral story is that we should always see and care for each other as human beings. I think the more we understand other people, other cultures and not seek to divide and to pick on people who are different, that is where we can truly live in a society that is harmonious and celebrates everyone’s differences. I think another moral that I want to bring out is that if more of us can embody some of the stories of the Courage to Care program, [which is] people who help people in their time of need, we would be a much stronger and much more caring society.


One Response to “Down deep with Alpha Cheng”
  1. Anne Sarzin says:

    What a remarkable goodwill amabassador this young man has proved himself to be. He has so much compassion and insight and is able to convey the transformative nature of his journey towards greater understanding, and his present creed of
    harmony and tolerance and caring for others, and all that despite the traumas he has experienced. Bravo Alpha.

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