Exploring the company we keep at UCI and beyond

Roller derby girls. God Without Religion. Harry Potter enthusiasts (fanatics?). These are a small sampling of the groups and organizations that have formed at the University of California, Irvine (UCI) and around Orange County. Members share a devotion to their cause and a desire to pursue it in collaboration with others, which are the subjects we examine in this blog.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Khmer Girls In Action (KGA) Advocates the Census 2010 for Cambodians in Long Beach

By Mory Men

The girls are in what they call the “coconut room,” a room, about the size of a two-car garage, with white walls filled with many posters drawn and written with colorful markers. On the top back wall, one poster reads “KGA believes that...” in purple, and there are two star bullet points below it that say, “Nobody knows Nothing” in green and “everyone is a Leader” in blue. This was the usual meeting room. Most of these young ladies are Khmer and Southeast Asian, ages 14-15 from Long Beach Poly High School, an urban school of approximately 5,000 students. They are part of KGA’s Young Women Empowerment Program (YWEP) and are considered as the general members, which is the first level of membership. Every Tuesday after school at 2:40 PM, the YWEP members are picked up from their campuses by the KGA staff members to the organization’s headquarters for training. There are about fifteen of them in the room: most are rich in caramel skin tones and the others have golden fair skin. Against the three adjacent walls, they are all sitting on what looks like sofa cushions placed on the blue carpet. Everyone in the room had no shoes on; it was a sign of respect for the Cambodian culture. In Cambodia, whether you are at your home or visiting someone else’s, you must take your shoes off. In this case, the KGA is considered as a second home to its members.

Lian Cheun, the organization’s Program Director, is facilitating this workshop on the Census. She is sitting on her knees, facing the members. As an icebreaker, she wanted the members to think of three things they liked about Long Beach and share their thoughts.

“Family, friends, and boys” says the girl with a royal blue off the shoulder dress, sitting with her legs brushed to the side. Another girl, dressed in a white V-neck, skinny jeans and dangling beaded bracelets on her left wrist, jumps in. “Forever 21, the beach, and...” she pauses and smiles, “boys!” Kannika Sam walked in as the girls laughed and sat beside me. “Hi Mory!” she says. I had met her a few weeks ago when I met up with Sophya Chum, KGA's Program Coordinator. She was the only girl with a burgundy polo and khaki uniform pants, indicating that she is from Wilson High School. Uniforms are not required for Poly Students, a school that is "Home of the Jackrabbits."

During the 2006-2007 academic school year, Poly High School demographics were 24.9% Latino, 11.6% White, 27.7% Black, 10.3% Asian, and 0.2% Native American. The school is located in Eastside Long Beach, which is a low-income area plagued with gang violence and is associated with numerous Long Beach rap artists such as Snoop Dogg, Warren G, and Nate Dogg. In fact, Snoop Dog was a former Jackrabbit. There are also students from Bixby Knolls, an area of Long Beach with the median income of over $54,000--30% higher than the rest of the city. Most of them are part of the school's PACE and CIC magnet programs, which contributed to the school's overall Advanced Placement pass rate of 70% out of the 1,593 hopeful Jackrabbits in 2008.

Lian talks about their next activity as she passes down blank paper. They had to choose a day where they had been to a public institution and draw or write about what they saw. “Hm, I think I might write about the time I volunteered at the hospital” Kannika ponders.

After they were done, Lian asks if anyone wanted to share what they drew and wrote about. “Remember girls, one mic please,” she says. This meant that the girls should respect what the others say by paying attention. It was part “Community Agreements” poster behind me, which is a list of rules the members established together during their first meeting. The list included “open minds,” “talk with everyone (no cliques),” “use the ‘WHOA,’” (which meant that the girls should speak up if they are confused about the subject being talked about) and “have fun.”

A girl with a purple shirt and skinny jeans decided to talk about her school. She says, “Once, I saw girls with big bellies at Poly High. It’s not like it’s their fault, I feel bad.” As Lian takes a sip out of her yellow polka-dot glass of water, she asks, “Are there high pregnancy rates at Poly?” “Yeah” she and the girl in the white V-neck reply in unison.


In 1997, KGA was formally known as Health Opportunity Problem Solving Empowerment (HOPE) for Girls, a Cambodian non-profit organization located in Long Beach, California focusing on reproductive health. They were a branch of Asian Pacific islanders for Reproductive Health (APIRH), which originated in the bay area. While they were part of APIRH, they developed a sexual harassment campaign because of an incident that occurred with a HOPE member from Poly High School. As the student was looking through photos of her and her group of friends, a teacher stood beside her desk, glanced over the photos and said, “Why are you looking at those pictures? Those are some bitches and hoes!” Insulted and dismayed, the student informed the HOPE about the incident. Since a sexual harassment policy did not exist at Poly High school at the time, the organization surveyed students and asked if they have been harassed by staff or other students in the school. From the collected data, they found that there was a significant amount of student-student and faculty-student harassment. HOPE then developed a campaign that forced the school to work with them and the sexual assault crisis agency. As a result, Poly High School plays a sexual harassment video for its students and faculty members every year. Five years after the incident, KGA branched off of HOPE to tackle issues second-generation Khmer women face in Long Beach. Sophya Chum mentions that they decided to be an organization that not only focuses on reproductive health, but also reproductive justice, reproductive rights, and immigrant and refugee rights. “There was definitely a need in the Cambodian community, being that the Cambodian community in Long Beach is the largest population outside of Cambodia. Cambodians were rarely new to the community in the late 1980s," she said.

The reason for the abundance of Khmer immigrants to the U.S. is the Khmer Rouge--also called "Red Khmer" in French--which began in 1975. The Khmer Rouge leadership consisted of a Paris student group, with Pol Pot as the leading man. After they took power and renamed the country as Democratic Kampuchea, their mission was to create an agrarian-based Communist Society. Khmer refugee Sokha Nim, 57, said, "They first killed our doctors and teachers. They killed anyone with education." Pol Pot also wanted to turn Cambodians into "old people," which meant that they suffered from work exhaustion, starvation, illness, and execution. 1.7 million Cambodians were killed during the genocide, which was 21% of the country's population at the time.

The majority of Khmer families that fled from the genocide went to the Cambodian Association Association of America (CAA) for help. CAA was incorporated as a non-profit organization in 1975 to help assist Khmer refugees and establish a Cambodian Community in Long Beach.

By the looks of the Census 2000, U.S. Cambodians do not fit the notion of the "model minority." 22.4% are with Public Assistance Income, 26.6% are below the poverty level, and 46.6% are in owner-occupied housing. 46.7% are high school graduates or higher, and 9.2% have bachelor's degrees.

“There was definitely different needs and issues that young Khmer women were facing, being second generation,” said Sophya.

These issues included gender bias in the Khmer culture, and the pressure to marry men from Cambodia that dream of living in America in exchange for thousands of dollars. "I hate it because my parents let my brother go out a lot since he's a boy. They expect girls to stay home, cook, and clean," says Suzana Sok, 15. "My parents let me come to KGA because I'm doing something that's part of my culture. I'm embracing it." Being young women that live in lower class neighborhoods, they also face gang violence and limited resources, such as the lack of city services provided in the Khmer language. In addition, they face the stereotypes of being "ghetto," "dirty," and "fobs," which is originally an acronym for "Fresh Off Boat," a slang indicating that they do not speak English correctly.

The census can help them with their current economic conditions and better their education. With better resources, gang violence can subside, which means that Cambodian parents can be sure that their daughters are safe in the neighborhoods. More of them will be able to go to college, and the pressure to marry with men from Cambodia can decrease.

KGA is a non-profit organization funded by grants. The organization mostly consists of young Khmer women. Young Southeast Asian women such as Lao, Thai, Vietnamese, Indonesian, Malaysian, and Filipino are welcomed as well.

Monica Sar, dressed in a grey tri-blend shirt says “I drew Poly High School too. Fights can break out.” Lian asks “Are our schools made to be a safe environment?” “No, but it’s supposed to be,” Monica replies. “Sometimes schools don’t function well or aren’t efficient. There is an imbalance of resources and people need them. The census doesn’t solve problems, but it helps so that our schools can be better, and hospitals can be better too” says Lian. She informs the members that the Census helps fund these public institutions so they can provide better services.

According to the 2000 Census, 17,000 Cambodians have been recorded in Long Beach, but it is believed that there are currently 60,000 of them residing there--about three times more than what is being counted. This is because of the language barrier and the fact that many Cambodians are undocumented. In March 2001, the United States and Cambodian governments signed a secret treaty regulating deportation between the two countries. The Khmer community is unaware that by law, the Census cannot disclose their personal information. KGA’s goal is to door-knock on 9,000 homes and have 2,500 people fill out Census forms with its members and volunteers by April 25, 2010. They will inform the Khmer people about the Census and how it is important to be counted. That way, there will be more funding for the community and the right resources will be provided. KGA will help the community translate and fill out the forms.

Lian asks the members if she can have five volunteers read a colored piece of paper outloud. Kannika unfolds an orange piece of paper and reads, “Young people are one of the most misrepresented populations in society.” The girl with the royal blue, off the shoulder dress unfolds a yellow paper and reads, “If we don’t speak up or participate, someone else will speak for us.” A girl with a white t-shirt and grey skinny jeans unfolds a blue paper that reads “As young people, we interact daily with public institutions.” Another girl with a white shirt unfolds a green paper and reads, “We live our experience, we understand our communities.” Lastly, a girl with a white collared shirt and a gold necklace reads a pink paper that says “We have the power & capability to influence the 2010 Census.” Lian encouraged the members to think about what is being said and gave the girls a ten minute break. Some went to the computer room to check their MySpaces and blogs, the others head to the living room to grab a snack and socialize, and a few dashed to the bathroom.

Suzana said that she did not know about the Census before joining KGA. She was unaware that they provided funding and resources for the people if they were being counted. The girls were excited to get the word out there.

When the workshop resumed, a few of the girls volunteered to perform a skit that was set in a hospital. A member pretended to be a receptionist, building a desk out of the sofa cushions. One member played as a mother on a wheelchair as she sat on a burgundy rolling computer chair. Another member was beside her, playing as her daughter. The rest of the members were supposed to act as patients in a crowded waiting room. Ashley Uyeda, a Program Coordinator, was standing at the doorway, asking if any of the members wanted cloth. “I DO!” they all yelled, using the cloth as bandages.

Susana Sok and a fellow YWEP member used cloth as bandages
wrapped around their legs,
ready to act as patients for their hospital skit.

As the skit started, the mother, who only spoke Khmer, and her daughter came up to the desk to ask for help, speaking in broken English. The receptionist told her that they do not have Khmer translators. They left, shaking their heads in disbelief. “So what do you guys see here?” Lian asked. “There was no translator for the mom” said the girl in the off the shoulder dress. “The hospital was crowded. There was not enough workers,” another girl said. “Have you guys experienced this before?” Lian asked. Kannika raises her hand to talk about a time when she went to the hospital with her grandmother as her translator. It was difficult for her to translate some of her grandmother’s symptoms in English and the doctor's medical language in Khmer. As a result, she received the wrong medicine. “We don’t have enough resources,” said the girl with the beaded bracelets.

Lian asked if they would be interested in brainstorming what social networking websites they would use to get the word about the Census out there. The girls wrote down all of the websites they could think of in a poster.

KGA will use social networking sites such as MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr to educate at least 500 people about the Census. The Cultural Historical Arts (CHA) program, which as also part of KGA, is also launching an educational PSA called “Don’t Get Fooled... Taking the Census Makes Complete Cents.” CHA meets every Thursday in the coconut and computer rooms.

When they were done, the girls stood up and came together in a circle. They clapped slowly and slightly lifted their left feet to the front and shook them. "Left leg because it's where our hearts are, right?" asked a girl. Their claps gradually increased in speed and volume. At the climax, they all cheered together.

Sophya placed six yellow post-it notes at the door, each with the name of a staff member at the top and the names of the general members below them. Those were the ride arrangements. It was 5:30 PM, and it was time to go home.

Reporting Notes
  • Lengthy interview with Sophya Chum and interviews with 3 other members.
  • Asked elderly Khmer people from a Cambodian market questions.
  • 2-hour observations of general meetings on 2 different occasions in February and March
  • 2-hour observation of a Cultural Historical Arts (CHA) meeting in March
  • KGA brochure, KGA Spring newsletter (which obtained info on the grants and fellowships they received), KGA online newsletter about the Census 2010, referred to their website
  • Obtained colored papers members read in the meeting
  • Long Beach City Gov article on the 1st Annual Cambodian Mixer, and another article on it from the Long Beach Press-Telegram.
  • Long Beach Press-Telegram article on Long Beach deportees
  • MuniNetGuide.com for Poly High School demographics
  • Cde.ca.gov for Poly High School AP exam results
  • Cambodian Association of America website

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