This case is based mainly on an interview with Chhaya Choum, Executive Director of Mekong NYC on July 31, 2020.
The Bronx is a very diverse community of different races, ethnicities, cultures, and faith traditions. Between 1975-1994, and especially “in the 1980s, more than one million Southeast Asian victims of war and genocide were granted asylum, and were resettled in the United States. It was the largest refugee resettlement program in our country’s history. Many Cambodians came to the Bronx at a time when most people were leaving.”(http://mekongnyc.org/home)
Today, "Little Cambodia" refers to a small community of fewer than 2,000 inhabitants in the Bronx, specifically in Fordham, Kingsbridge, and Washington Heights. Not centrally located and spread thin, the population has seen a decline from when the number was as high as 10,000. Besieged by crime, isolation, and poverty, the younger generation has continued to move from the Bronx to larger and more established Cambodian communities in Long Beach, California, and Lowell, Massachusetts” (http://mekongnyc.org/resources).
“Mekong NYC is where history and culture are valued and learned, where history and culture are living, where people’s needs are met, where people are united through struggle, and where the people feel liberated” (http://mekongnyc.org/aboutus).
Mekong NYC is a nonprofit organization formally established in 2011 that works with the Southeast Asian community based in the Fordham, Kingsbridge, and Washington Heights neighborhoods in Southeast Bronx. Its name comes from the Mekong River that connects Vietnam and Cambodia since the Southeast Asian community in the Bronx primarily consists of Cambodian and Vietnamese Americans. Mekong NYC strives to improve the quality of life of the Southeast Asian community in the Bronx and throughout New York City by achieving equity through community organizing and healing, promoting arts, culture, and language, and creating a safety net by improving access to essential social services that range from Khmer and Vietnamese interpretation, advocacy in housing court, help with public assistance documents, and other safety net programs. It addresses federal, state, city, and community policies affecting the Southeast Asian community through solidarity, alliances, and campaigns (http://mekongnyc.org/organizing).
Mekong NYC is a social justice organization that brings dignity and value to the lives of Southeast Asians in the Bronx and throughout New York City. We do this through community organizing and movement-building, centering healing through arts and culture, and creating a strong safety net rooted in community power.
Budget and Main Sources of Funding
Mekong NYC’s annual operating budget for 2021 is $819,780. The organization’s main sources of funding are foundations, government, and individuals.
Mekong NYC rents its space from the Fordham Bedford Housing Corporation, a long-time supporter of the Southeast Asian community in the Bronx. For larger gatherings, it often uses the Fordham Bedford Housing Corporation’s space, St. James Recreation Center, and Poe Park Visitor Center.
Mekong NYC has a board of directors that supports and oversees the executive director. It is made up of people who have served and worked with the Cambodian and Vietnamese communities in New York City. It also has a Steering Committee, which consists of youth fellows and volunteers who support the organization with day-to-day activities. The staff makes the day-to-day decisions, and the board, staff, and Steering Committee conduct strategic planning collectively.
Mekong NYC is a membership organization, with over 600 members now. Membership fee is $5 a person for a whole year but sometimes they don't pay, sometimes they pay more than $5. It's actually not the money, it is the act of investment - they know that. And we also know that some of our people like to donate gifts and food. You know, people who own restaurants would donate supplies and things like that. For us, it is like creating an ecosystem. Members have to come to community meetings; they have to come to community celebrations, campaign meetings. [It is] not easy, believe me, it takes organizing things, a lot of work of one on one calling people every day, harassing them to come to the meetings. What we're trying to do is to build a village that really supports us and holds each other accountable.
When and how did you join the MEKONG?
A lot of Mekong history has to do with my personal history and experience. My family and I lived in two refugee camps after the Khmer Rouge genocide during the war in Southeast Asia. First we went to Thailand and spent almost six years in Thailand refugee camps. We were living in the Philippine refugee camps at the time when, sponsored by my uncle, we were resettled here. We were resettled in the Bronx in 1985. I know you folks know about everything that was happening at that time in the Bronx: buildings being burned down, people were leaving. We got inserted into urban poverty and refugee poverty.
As a woman of color, I didn't graduate from college, didn't get the education, dropped out of high school, and had a child when I was 22. And so the world didn't look good for me in terms of the American dream. I've thrown away that thinking a long time ago, being raised in the Bronx.
Folks always ask me, like, it's different [to be a refugee]. Well, that was just my life. That's all I knew, you know. I didn't know anything else. That was my life, even if it was getting in line for soymilk or rations and things like that. It was interesting to just reflect on it with my daughter who is now 20 years old and asking me about my experiences in the refugee camps.
With my mom, dad and grandmother being unable to speak English, I became the translator and advocate for doctor's appointments or at welfare centers. I translated TV shows and news. All that stuff that was the bridge for our elders, particularly for Cambodians. Most of our folks couldn't read or write in English and couldn't read and write in their language. A lot of folks who weren't killed came here with unmarketable skills, unable to speak any of the languages, or read or write in any of the languages. They spoke a little bit of English. I remember attending English classes in the refugee camps. Actually, not attending, I was sneaking in, because they were teaching the elders. I was just listening to the ABCs and things [like that], maybe to watch TV.
So, I became an advocate because of necessity, in order to survive. That transitioned me into hosting youth organization meetings of CAAAV at the back of my dad's store to talk about the issues that were happening in our community. (My dad owned one of the supermarkets, the only one of the Cambodian supermarkets here in the Bronx).
Through that, I think, I began to develop my political understanding of why we got here, why we're in this community, and what it will take for us to survive. And so capturing those stories and my own experiences and being in that organization really helped me build that political social justice lens.
I speak a different language, so sometimes the translation is a little bit different and slow. When we talk about grassroots organization, it is an organization that works and serves the Cambodian, Vietnamese and Laotian community. For us, what it means is that the folks who are impacted are in leadership. And that means that our staffing comes from people from the community, who are impacted by the issues that we're working on, who live those day to day, and challenging things in our culture that are good and bad.
We always get into this discussion every time with our elders in the community. Because we challenge the culture, too, you know, because culture is made. And so, as we are challenging systemic racism outside of organizations and within the nonprofit world, we're also trying to do cultural transformation and shift and change around whether it's on gender or another issue. So, for us, “grassroots” is having that lens and thinking that encompasses our traditions and culture, but also addresses systemic change, and by [the] people most impacted and who live it every day. That’s our working definition of grassroots organization and leaders.
Foundation and Evolution of Mekong NYC
Mekong NYC was established in 2011, but we celebrate 2012 for our anniversary since that is when the organization really got going. We started Mekong because we wanted to do an assessment of where our community is after 15-20 years of resettlement at that time. We started to do focus groups and community discussion working with the Urban Justice Center while within CAAAV. We were also doing organizing work. We weren't organizing around welfare; we were organizing around education. We were organizing against landlords. Through our focus group and discussion, we did a report called "Building the Mekong," and a documentary called "Eating Welfare." That documentary actually sparked the Southeast Asian movement across the country. I was 21-22 then. We did a tour across the country, and that actually galvanized the Southeast Asian movement as it is today.
But also, through the focus group, we found out that the community didn't have any ethnic enclaves, like the Chinese, Koreans, or Indians. We were pretty much abandoned by the US government. English classes were immediately taken away in a matter of a couple years. Nowadays the refugee resettlement program is even shorter, like 8-12 months, and then you have to be on your own. And there's always– like last year - a threat to cut the refugee program entirely.
We recognized the abandonment, the isolation, and the fact that the trauma that came with our community’s experiences hadn't been addressed. Therefore, our community hadn’t grown, or thrived. A lot of people continue to do work in factories, in nail salons, or the hospitality industry -- low wage work, sex work, all those things. We were in the state of crisis in our community. Our young people weren't graduating high school – we had one of the highest dropout rates in this country. Multi-generational homes – in which I have lived till today – is the only way one can survive in New York City. The rent is so high.
That study and report launched "Building the Mekong." It was the recognition of the experiences, the abandonment, and all the things that didn't get to be built. Part of it was how do we build; how do we redo a resettlement program that the community really deserves? The first thing we looked at was health justice. Our work centered around particularly demanding mental health. How can a community with over 75 percent PTSD, over 30 percent have depression thrive? It was also beginning to develop a Southeast Asian feminist theory and a lens at the intersection of black liberation, indigenous liberation, and the history of this country.
It was the recognition of failed systems and structure. So, we said that we’d commit ourselves to building an organization that was grounded in social justice, in our communities’ experience with the anti-imperialist and a feminist lens. Those [ideas] were still being developed because the Southeast Asian community was still very young at that time. We didn't have leaders prior to me that were doing social justice organizing in this country. We also know that this is intergenerational; trauma is intergenerational. So, we really needed to figure out what it was that was going to help organize our community, build intergenerational power, as well as provide direct services and advocacy. So, with all the things it was like a three-pronged strategy. And we were also going to be social justice organizers.
Then I found two other people -- a Hmong woman and a queer Cambodian man. We decided to build this movement together through this lens. We started building our own organizations and this movement together across the country. We quickly learned that there were very few of us. There were a lot of mutual assistance associations, but they weren't organizations that were committed to building leaders and had a social, economic and racial justice lens. That is how he came to build Mekong.
The burning issue that we started out with? It was health justice, mental health issues, and intergenerational trauma. It actually started with our first campaign against Montefiore hospital, because they were trying to close down the only Indochinese mental health clinic in the Bronx. It was opened in 1985. Those things are actually why we work very hard on the census now. Because after the 2010 census, they decided to cut the programming, because they were like, “there's not so many of you, and there's been so many years, why do you still need mental health services?” We were really upset. We fought really hard to keep the program, and we were able to keep the mental health services program to one day a week. The middle-aged folks fought for mental health services for our elders and young people, and people like my age. That’s how we started the Mekong. That was the driving issue for us.
Membership and Women
What we're trying to do is to build a village that really supports us and holds each other accountable. We're really trying to build a membership that looks like the community we want to live in. We know that violence is going to happen; we know that. But how do we deal with that when that happens? As human beings we are capable of holding each other, not just accountable, but lovingly, in a way that doesn't take away our humanity and dignity.
We build a membership around people's dignity, making sure that people feel a sense of dignity, connectedness, and a sense of safety. And so those three things were rooted in building Mekong right from the beginning. Even in my personal relationships, I ask, is this a dignified relationship? Do I feel connected? Do I feel safe in this relationship? And so we've used that sort of highlight on membership and membership development. We treat our community members and each other with dignity. We find ways to connect and create safety measures so that people all feel safe within our organization.
Our membership is mostly women; we recognize that. We created a space, a healing space and organizing space for the women to really thrive. We didn't have men in that space at all. It was to honor our history and in recognition of how we were able to get to the Bronx because of the women. They did all the work, the paperwork, everything to get us here. Also, a lot of our women picked up children along the way in the jungles; they were single. So, we have a lot of people who we call, “not adopted.” We have a lot of community members who just said, "Okay, I'm going to choose you to be my husband, so that we can [legally] be a family, and we can be sponsored as a family." So, people made those life choices in such a way that they are still in the family today. Like my mom was forced to marry my dad. That's another story I'm struggling and working with.
We created the Women Circle, a healing and organizing space to honor the women that have brought us here and continue to work and raise kids, you know, and deal with abusive partners and deal with oppressive conditions and are still resilient and are still here. That's a huge part of our work, the Women Circle. It is like a support group organizing around detention and deportation of their sons and daughters -- support in a way that empowers them.
We always work in coalitions and collaboration at city, state, national, regional and international levels. Internationally, we partner with the Cambodian Living Arts, an organization that was formed to help rehabilitate, and find the masters of arts, whether it’s dance, music, and so on. After the genocide, they were on the streets, drunk, homeless, so that organization helped them. We're working together with them, as part of our intergenerational [work] building into the next generation of our work to take that as a responsibility to help build the arts and culture. We actually have the organizing lens, they have the arts lens, and so, we're working together to see what that can look like in our community. Before COVID happened, we [travelled with] a contingent of 15 young people to experience that, and it was an amazing trip. We know that our connection to the homeland is through arts and culture, and through a connection to history is that education for young people through elders.
We also have started the Northeast part of the project, which is a coalition of Southeast Asian organizations in the Northeast region, working around detention and deportation, developing a partner strategy as a way to stop deportations of Cambodians and Vietnamese folks. Folks who came at my age have been deported, and we've actually been fighting to get them to return home. So far, we've returned five people. We want to return more, because for us, as refugees, this is home: where your people are, where your families are. I can't go back to Cambodia; I have no material connection there. We've lost everyone, and I don't speak the language. That's a long history of being inserted into an impoverished, highly criminalized community. When coming from that, deportation becomes a life sentence, right?
Achievements and Challenges
Sometimes we don't really have time to reflect; we're moving all the time. I think the major achievement, as a grassroots community-based organization, is that not only did we create a space and an organization of the world we want to see – we have a policy of really honoring our practices as we build the organization. I think our achievement is also building an organization that can be replicated and has inspired other organizations, particularly Southeast Asian organizations across the country. That is a huge achievement. We talk about this at our staff leadership meeting all the time. Everything we do is a lesson and is to be shared.
From the beginning, we were very intentional in saying that we want to be the first people to build a social justice organization and the social justice movement with Southeast Asian leaders who were impacted by the war. We only have 30 years of history within the US that we can teach, unlike slavery with 400 something years. I think the major achievement is that we built an organization that really helped build a movement. Particularly in this moment for us, building leaders from our community is super important and a major achievement.
One of the main challenges was how to create an advisory committee, and we were trying to figure out how to do this. I wasn't planning on being the Executive Director of the organization; I wasn't planning on leading the organization. It was just bringing people who have served and worked with Cambodian and Vietnamese community in New York City together, who eventually turned into our board of directors.
For instance, my mom is a mental health worker here in the Bronx, and she's been serving our community. I've always had a lens of how our community functions, so I know her work in the community really helped build Mekong as she brought her work into building the organization as one of the Advisory Committee members. It’s funny, she's my mom, but we're like peers. Actually, when I became the boss, at first, I said, “you can't be on the board, because you are my mom!” But I think it speaks to how we built Mekong and the [kind of] movement we wanted to build. We are dealing with multi-generational issues and oppression, so we're going to need a multi-generational lens and [do] intergenerational work together.
Five years ago, I was talking with my mom on a panel together. This was the first time I realized that I'm also a survivor, [just] as she is a survivor. I never saw myself as a survivor of the Khmer Rouge regime before. I always saw her. Just because I grew up in the Bronx, I've always had this identity. But I think as I grew up politically, and personally, I realized that I'm also a survivor as she is a survivor. So, we began to build our thinking around that, too, we built the women's circle.
I didn't realize how, every day, as an Executive Director, I’d have to challenge patriarchy and white supremacy at all levels: in fundraising, in developing the organization, and even on panels. One of our first funders was the New York Women’s Foundation. I requested something like $40,000 and 69 cents. She said, “Chhaya, this is ridiculous. Why do you ask for a penny?” I didn’t know; I think that that was a huge lesson for me in terms of valuing myself, and our work – both invisible and visible labor - as women of color who are in leadership in the movement. I think the challenge is embedded in nonprofits: women and particularly women of color, even in leadership, aren't valued.
I always tell the men in the organization, “You can't be mediocre today, because I am cooking dinner and also at a press conference. So, if I'm doing one thing, you should be doing 10 because I'm actually doing 100 things.”
We came out very loud for the Movement for Black Lives to address anti-blackness in our community and got a lot of backlash from our community, calling us all kinds of names. I knew that as the woman leading this work, harm that is rooted in patriarchy would always come my way in my community.
The challenge is navigating all those systems of -isms, all at the same time, as an individual, as a community, and as an organization. Fundraising continues to be a huge challenge for us. We always say that people don't believe us, don't believe in our leadership, and me as a Cambodian woman, but I know, that's extra hard for black women. And so, I tried very hard to figure out how to build relationships with other women of color. That does impact our fundraising and resource development. I have to find 20 of $3,000 or $20,000 grants, you know. That’s just how those things are connected and one of the challenges in this work.
Citywide Planning Initiatives
We have not been an organization intentionally working on [city planning] issues, but we've supported [local groups] challenging the rezoning here on Jerome [Avenue]. We also helped negotiate the community benefits agreement of the largest armory here in the Bronx, supporting the work of Sandra Lobo at the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition. We’ve always worked on anti-gentrification issues, organizing tenants. It's not our core work, but it's really hard to not choose those issues, because issues just choose us.
The work, the analysis, and the thinking that we share are around our refugee experience and as displaced people. They say that once you're a refugee, you will always be a sort of refugee. We've always questioned that: how many times can a person be displaced in a lifetime? And so those kinds of thinking, and those kinds of answers to that question has really helped frame the rezoning and planning and gentrification work that folks are doing in the Bronx. We're not entirely in it, but we can share things when we are invited to the table to have those conversations.
People like myself, who came as children, never got full citizenship. We thought it was enough that it said permanent resident on the alien card. (This is like back in the 80s) We never knew that we had to get our citizenship. That was very difficult for parents busy working three, four jobs. In 1986, the expansion of that law on aggravated felony made everything deportable, like breaking a car window. If you got a year or more in prison, you were deportable. Those crimes are also retroactive. That means people who've been out of incarceration for many years are actually being up for deportation again. We saw an increase of that in the Trump administration, and in the Obama administration. That's a whole other story of how we are now deporting refugees from the United States.
That’s actually a major aspect of our current work. We're working on a New York State policy with other community organizations, like Families for Freedom. It's a black-led organization, mostly Caribbean folks. We are pushing Cuomo to sign onto a policy to use pardoning as a way to end deportation of folks with criminal convictions.
The other thing is that we don't talk about blackness and immigration. We center our work around their experience and how that is rooted in anti-blackness. The Northern Manhattan Immigrant Rights Coalition [now called the Coalition for Immigrant Rights] is part of it; the Immigrant Defense Project is part of it; the Southeast Asian Defense Project, which we created to deal with the deportation work, and then Mekong, is part of it. We are looking forward to pushing and creating a policy that addresses it. The federal government has failed us many times around deportation and ICE is getting more and more money, and raids are continuing to happen.
We know we can't move the federal government right now (2020), but [New York] state can do [something] about it. We've seen that the governor pardoned people. We just got a pardon a month ago of a Cambodian woman who's been deported, who's been living in Cambodia for 10 years, and she was waiting for her return; we’re very excited for that.
We are actually breaking [through], winning in some ways: we've taken the work of immigration deportation beyond the borders of the US. We went to Cambodia in 2016, to renegotiate with the Cambodian government on the repatriation agreement. We were there the same week Trump got into power, and upon his first executive order, repatriation was made even harder. That is a long story of how we've come to that strategy [of working with New York State]. But it has stopped some deportation and it has returned some people, and we will continue to do that.
We have Project CHARGE [Coalition for Health Access to Reach Greater Equity] on health justice for the AAPI [Asian American and Pacific Islander] community in New York City. It works around data collection, and there’s 15% and Growing. We also just joined a COVID Health Justice committee. We demand, tracking, tracing, taking care of our community, and we just did a press conference last month. We're going to do a community webinar. So those are some of the work and coalitions in New York City and State.
Citywide Climate Change Initiatives
Doing any work around immigration, we have to talk about climate change because climate change around the world is increasing immigration. Particularly what we've been seeing in our community is that now we're seeing more undocumented Southeast Asian folks who are trying to move around the country. We’ve seen in England a truck load of Vietnamese folks who were killed.
We know that climate change is going to create a whole undocumented class of immigrant folks throughout the world. We've already seen some of that here in the Bronx. We actually have a lot of undocumented folks in our membership. And because of the Amerasian Act we have found out that we have a lot of half-white half-Vietnamese, half-black half-Vietnamese Amerasians in our membership. They present [themselves as] white or black, but actually culturally, everything about them is Vietnamese; they’re more Vietnamese than some of our staff.
As long as we are working on immigration, we have to know that climate change is going to force immigration patterns, and force people to be undocumented. We never worked on Superstorm Sandy. But a lot of our core effort right now is rooted in our history of health justice work, and building multiracial, multi-ethnic ties. We've been saying from the beginning, the racism and health disparities that exist in the social determinants of health keep us unhealthy.
We realize that our people are dying at alarming rates because we were already unhealthy. We're living in substandard housing with the highest asthma rate in the Bronx, as well as the highest rates of diabetes, and heart disease. With a lack of good food, lack of mental health services, and lack of just care for people of color, this disease just exacerbated everything that has been happening.
Our response has been doing community packages, delivering food to elders and to folks that we know can't get out of the house. Not food that they don’t want, like canned tuna, but things they want such as lemon grass, basil and so on. That's an example of art and the culturally packaged things that we do. We have also given relief funds to community members who've lost a job, who are undocumented, who can't pay rent. It's a one-time $500 that we've been able to give to, like 300 families. We were able to access many COVID-19 Relief Funds to directly assist our communities from foundations and other organizations, like Robin Hood, National CAPACD (Coalition for Asian Pacific American Community Development), New York Immigration Coalition, and others.
This is just the immediate. The health justice campaign that we're creating right now around COVID-19, led by people of color organizations, is a direct way in which we're thinking about how to create systems and policies and hold those structures accountable, while we do the sort of Band Aid work, and collect the stories and the experiences of our people during COVID-19.
One of the saddest stories is that people are really big with rituals. For death, we have this whole ritual. We celebrate life, but we also celebrate death in a way that honors people in our community. The inability to do those rituals has been devastating for our community members, who've lost people to COVID-19, and we have seen people become really depressed, PTSD, and domestic violence is heightened.
We are very concerned around the already highly traumatized community living in these households, multi-generational households. We are very concerned about the violence and the sense of safety that people are not feeling at this moment. That's something that we've been seeing as we deliver packages and ask how they are doing. They're like, mm…
Sometimes we have to do police work. Trying to find safety for women during a pandemic has been one of our biggest challenges. Figuring out how to get her and her children safe, recognizing that her partner is actually mentally sick. Understanding that, naming that, and then holding him accountable is important. And not using the police is something that we've been struggling with. In some instances, we were shaming them: "Don't talk to that uncle, we know what he did." But it's hard now that we're not in social spaces. How do you do that then?
Something that we're figuring out, too, as we are deepening our discussion within the organization is: What does defunding ICE mean? What does abolition mean? What does defending the police mean? And how have we kept each other safe? How have we held each other accountable in the community? What do we need to feel safe? All those questions are coming up, and this pandemic is bubbling even more.
A community fund, emergency fund to support people… We are very nervous around how much people can pay their rent; how much people are rationing food. How much are those kinds of stressors creating violence in the household and in the community? That's why we are building a coalition to address those issues around “taking care” and what it looks like after COVID in policy. We know this is systemic. We know that it requires systemic change, as well as individual transformational changes that need to happen in our community.
It goes back to what I talked about earlier, that we're always challenging our culture. we're going to challenge the stuff that's bad in our community and keep the ones that are good. That’s been my challenge to all the men in our community who are leaders, and the culture of abusing women, or gender-based violence. We will not tolerate that, and we want to change that. If you're committed to that, you should be part of our membership. And if you're not, you're going to get called out for it. That's been hard work, really hard.
Visions for the future
Since we started Mekong, [it was important] understanding what resiliency means to my own resilient practices, the organization’s resiliency, and me practices. How long does it take me to bounce back? I get devastating news, how many weeks does it take… I've gotten to a place where I can bounce back in two days or so. When this pandemic hit, when we were asked to shut down, as much as I was scared and nervous at the same time I thought: where are the opportunities here? The vision is to continue to think about the opportunities to grow our leaders, deepen our analysis, imagine a different world, demand the sky, and be bold in our demands and our campaigns. The vision for the future is to see the opportunity, to really think about the opportunities. And, of course, we all want justice and to be liberated.
In Mekong, we know that healing is a lifetime process, but justice is needed now. What does that mean, now? It means that we go deep within our community to talk about anti-blackness and racism. One of the key thinking that came out of this is for us to ask the questions of what Southeast Asian liberation looks like, and what Black liberation looks like in relationship to our liberation? And then what does indigenous people’s liberation look like, and the liberation of other people of color looks like in terms of ours? If we're clear about what our liberation looks like, then we can tie in and connect. We all know that we say that our liberations are all tied together.
We've been in the Bronx for a very long time and we've been an invisible, super marginalized community. Every time there's a new City Council, we’ve got to reintroduce ourselves because they don't know that we exist. In the beginning of Mekong we wanted to build a little Southeast Asia here in the Bronx, something visible.
Through this pandemic, our thinking around what it means to be in solidarity with Black and indigenous and brown communities took a huge shift. Our analysis in claiming land changed. We decided we will not claim any land that oppressed and has been kept from black and brown people to thrive, because we were inserted into these communities that were already marginalized and disinvested in. We were taking resources from the community that already didn't have any resources already.
Our thinking has evolved to this: Whatever we do, we will not claim the way that oppression claims our bodies as women, as people of color, as colonized people. When we are somewhere, we're going to honor that space. Our thinking around how to create a visible, viable, thriving Southeast Asian community in the Bronx is one that honors that history, but not claim land and space in a way that erases what we know has been institutionalized for too long, particularly in the Bronx.
Centering on blackness [helped] the expansion of our thinking and work around deportation. How does anti-blackness racism help build the criminal justice system and build the deportation system as it stands today? That was one of the conversations we had two weeks ago within the organization. We had the opportunity to think broader and deeper and create new analysis. As we're doing this, we're actually undoing things that we know are oppressive, but that we actually perpetuate sometimes. It's a balance we're always going to have to do.
Building a strong infrastructure is helpful for sustainability: diversifying our funding sources, building community assets and wealth. Even if we're not claiming to be little Southeast Asia, can we build an institute or a building that can help build wealth and assets for the community? Not just for our community, but for everyone in our neighborhood and the Bronx . How do we own our history, but also the history of this place, this land? Those are the things I think about in terms of long-term sustainability.
Most of our funding is from private foundations. What does a building a movement, an organization, an institution that is not funded by foundations look like? is something that we think about a lot.
Lessons from Mekong NYC: Lost in Translation?
I think all of us are probably bilingual or trilingual in this discussion. The word liberation has a really negative connotation for us in countries deemed as communist— namely Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos, because of the anti-communism sentiment. English, for me, it's so immediate, like it's there. But for us, when I think about justice, the word “yut tha toor” (“justice” in Khmer) means there is going to be a long struggle. It's like fighting for social justice is not going to happen immediately, but we're going to fight for it. I think the word justice didn't cut me as deeply [in English] as it did when I actually understood what it means in my native tongue…
It moved me a lot more when I started hearing people chant in my language. And it's funny, when I brought my 19-year-old daughter to Cambodia who speaks very little Khmer, in a week, she just started speaking the language, and was negotiating at the market. It’s like it's always been there, you know? Ironically, the young folks are saying, “we want to move back to Cambodia,” like we don't [laughs]… We also talk with them about borders, and what it means to have documents and borders.
As mentioned above, as an executive director, every day, I have to deal with patriarchy and white supremacy at all levels: in fundraising, in developing the organization, and even in panel discussions.
One of the things I was telling the men who have been deported and that we work with was these lessons that I've learned from them. The first thing I said was: “I'll be damned if we bring you back home and you continue to beat on us.” The second was: “you harmed me, and I still love you, and I'm still fighting for you, and I need you to do the same.”
It’s been revolutionary talking about those things with the men in our community. It's hurtful. I was in tears because I told them: we're fighting for your liberation to bring you home, and you still saying stupid stuff. Then the next day they all call their mothers and sisters and apologize. But yes, our work is so invisible. And we still love them. That's the crazy thing, we still love our men; how much love we have for our community and our men, and we always say this is the last time. And that's the same for black women.
One of the women in our Women Circle was talking about how she keeps choosing the wrong guys, bad guys. Then, well, tell the men to be better men, why are you telling us that’s the wrong guy? Go tell your sons and your husbands and your brothers to be better men. And stop putting it on us, like we got to do everything right, you know? What are you talking about, how we will keep choosing, or that she's horrible because she keeps choosing different men, having many husbands and all this stuff. But I said it's the men that's the problem; tell them to be better.
But it just makes me think about how simple it is, how deeply the systems of oppression are within us. But there's simplicity to it, too. So that's something that I've been trying to do, to turn these big thinking, deep stuff into a slogan, like, “just stop it”. Just stop doing what you're doing [to yourself].
- Lauren Yee talks to Mekong Executive Director Chhaya Chhoum https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GwWZBXSKS_0
- CAAAV Organizing Asian Communities and The Community Development Project of the Urban Justice Center. Building the Mekong: Healing the Wounds of War and Forging the Future of the Southeast Asian Community in the Bronx https://static1.squarespace.com/static/57d6d8c5893fc072ad7c6007/t/57e5a5cb2e69cf798a506b7f/1474667983597/building+the+mekong.pdf
- Little Cambodia, Growing Still Littler https://www.nytimes.com/2008/01/20/nyregion/thecity/20camb.html
- CUNY TV Asian American Life. 23ptember 2017. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pRypC4ELhWg&feature=emb_logo