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'Under Construction': SEARAC - Washington, D.C.

May 20, 2014

Under Construction is a multimedia online exhibit showcasing some of the best and brightest organizations working with males of color. The UC team of filmmakers, photographers, writers, and nonprofit experts worked directly with each of these organizations for several weeks. The collaborations yielded comprehensive portraits of the services men of color receive. Each profile features a short video, a photography exhibit, a visual program model, and a narrative essay detailing the efforts of these organizations.

Under Construction is a project of Frontline Solutions and was made possible through the support of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. For more profiles, click here.

He'd stayed calm as a cop dumped the contents of his backpack onto the sidewalk.

Scenes like this had already played out with most of his friends. Today he was riding his skateboard to school and running late, and now it was his turn to be the law's concern. He was told to take his shirt off so they could take photos of his tattoos. All the while he stood quietly, insisting that he wasn't in a gang, saying softly, "I don't belong to nobody," over and over. But when he saw the cop get angry and toss his skateboard into the street, he ran after it, picked it up, and came right back to the questions. At 14, that plank of wood and those wheels were the only place he felt good.

"What gang are you in?" the officer asked Anthony Hem, a son of Cambodian immigrants. How many times would he have to say it? "I don’t belong to nobody." Finally the officer went to his car, came out with a list of area gangs, and picked one near the top. "He just came up to me and said, 'Now you're on gang file. You're from this gang now, the Asian Boyz'," Hem says. The Asian Boyz are affiliated with the Crips. From now on, that's how the law would see him.

Under-construction-searac-2In a country where conversations about racial equality are focused heavily on African Americans and Latinos, the Southeast Asian Resource Action Center in Washington, D.C., serves a different population. SEARAC supports grassroots organizations that are looking out for kids like Hem, children of refugees who face many of the same issues other minority groups face, like poverty, violence, prejudice, racial profiling, and despair.

The national organization focuses intently on state and national policies and helps organizations like Khmer Girls and Boys in Action in Long Beach, California, and the One Love Movement in San Diego, relentlessly push lawmakers to reconsider policies like the one that put Hem in a gang file with no notification of his parents and no due process for having his name removed. The policy knowledge that SEARAC shares serves as a tool that smaller organizations integrate into their mentoring and cultural education activities. The collaboration helps foster young leaders who can speak for a refugee community still reeling from the effects of genocide and war.

"These young men, they grow up in the same communities as African-American and Latino men," said Jonathan Tran, SEARAC's California Policy and Programs Manager. "They face a lot of the same issues. And at the end of the day, the solutions will overlap."

There is a widely shared perception that Asian Americans do not need help, Tran says. But the stereotypes derived from images of affluent Chinese or Japanese immigrants and their often highly educated children ignore the reality of hundreds of thousands of children born in this country to refugees from Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia. Their parents in many cases were peasant farmers, and mostly uneducated. Those who suffered under Cambodia's Khmer Rouge in the years following the Vietnam War were forced into labor camps and faced mutilation and starvation. In some instances their lack of education kept them alive, as the Pol Pot regime (1975–79) targeted anyone with a degree, even anyone who wore eyeglasses, for death. In a country of roughly 8 million people, somewhere between 1.5 and 3 million people were killed or starved to death and buried in mass graves. Boats jammed with refugees drifted for days and weeks at a time in the South China Sea. Many of those lucky enough to be rescued eventually settled in California.

They found themselves in a land with a different language and in mostly urban communities, where their farming skills weren't needed or valued. Tran says that while this is often the case with immigrants, we as a country need to take into account that for many Southeast Asian refugees, the past remains more challenging than the present. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is the usual diagnosis, and its reality — repetitive emotional trauma triggered every time a car backfires or the news shows a violent crime, followed by sudden rages or a long and silent numbness — is all too common.

"That’s when I became my own role model."

"It followed her," says Malachy Keo, whose Cambodian mother still suffers nightmares about the atrocities she witnessed decades ago. When Keo was 10, she was hospitalized, her heart weakened by stress and fatigue. As in many refugee households, a parent's trauma often is internalized by their kids, and Keo, who is 17 now, says he has battled depression for almost half his life. "All I thought about was, Is my mom gonna be there when I get home from school?" he says. "We were always late on bills. We got help from the government, but it wasn't enough and it got to the point where I thought about slinging [drugs]."

Fortunately, Keo found out about Khmer Girls in Action, a nonprofit center in the Cambodia Town section of Long Beach that has been helping young women through conversation, mentoring, and advocacy since 1998. The organization had just started a program for boys, the Young Men's Empowerment Project, and there Keo began to find his voice. Participating in group discussions called Restorative Justice Circles, he now speaks with a clarity that belies his age.

"When I was depressed it made me think a lot, and as I started to think a lot, I figured out that there are some things in this world that are really bad, but the only way to do good in this world is to love," he says. "Anything bad you do is gonna have a big impact on your soul. But it's gonna have a good impact on you if you do good things. After that went through my mind, that's when I became my own role model."

Founded in 1979, SEARAC fosters civic engagement by teaching nonprofits how to advocate for themselves. It provides smaller organizations with up-to-date knowledge of ever-changing state and national laws so those groups, and the young men they serve, can ensure that their communities are better informed. That knowledge, in turn, helps Andy Pacificar, a 53-year-old who served twenty years in a Washington State penitentiary, to mentor guys in San Diego through the One Love Movement. One Love's resources are limited, but for Pacificar the knowledge he gets from SEARAC is gold, especially if it means the chance to inform a young man of his rights. Pacificar says it is a privilege to validate young men in their struggle to succeed, to encourage them to embrace aspects of their culture that their parents may have been too tired or numb to teach, and to see them go from being a risk to their communities to advocates for those communities, even appearing before state representatives.

"I can let them know where I'm from based on experience, that the decisions you make now in a split second can change your life," says Pacificar, who years ago was present when a drug deal went bad, saw his friend pull a trigger, and ended being convicted of felony murder. "It's not fun getting gray hair while you're locked up," he says now. "I don't claim I can reach all of them, but the ones who are hungry, they'll listen."

High on the list of challenges these young men face and share with state lawmakers at the capitol in Sacramento is the issue of deportation. Once you are placed in a gang file, life gets tougher. Even the smallest misdemeanor offense can carry a longer sentence. Routine traffic stops can last hours. And if you are in a gang file and were born in a refugee camp, say, in Thailand, or if you were over 18 when your refugee parents applied for U.S. citizenship, a small offense can mean you are sent back to a country you have never seen.

Under-construction-searac-1Living with this reality, young Asian Americans talk about the deportation list as if they were living in a police state. Almost everyone seems to have a friend who was picked up, maybe for skateboarding with a beer in hand, who now is in Cambodia or Laos. They try to keep up on Facebook. Dara, a 29-year-old involved with One Love, has a brother, Maly, who has a nine-year-old daughter, and Maly is sure he's on the list. That's why Dara spends time at One Love. "I'm just trying to soak up as much knowledge as I can," he says.

The education that Pacificar and his staff pass on from SEARAC gives youth a sense of social involvement that often fosters a real sense of empowerment. Recently two guys from One Love, Rick Sek, 28, and Kevin Chuum, 19, opened a T-shirt line called Family Over Everything in the City Heights neighborhood of San Diego. They've taken an entrepreneurial approach to staying out of gang life, reading books like Rich Dad, Poor Dad, learning things they might not have gotten out of high school had they finished. They sell their merchandise to any race, any gang affiliation, and encourage guys like Sareth Sao, 19, to use their recording equipment to release his story through rhymes and beats.

Sao, like so many others, had his family broken up by deportation. His Cambodian household was always rough. His dad was an addict, and his mom was deaf. He says he was 10 when he and his friends started jumping people and selling drugs. "Whatever we had to do to eat," he says. One day his dad was arrested for not being up-to-date on his current address. Then, soon after, Sao was picked up for being out after curfew. He was 16 and was sent to a juvenile detention center. Once there, he couldn't reach his mom because she couldn't hear the phone ringing. He was detained two weeks longer than he was supposed to be. When he got out he learned his father had been deported. Within a month, his father died of a stroke.

"I'm trying to stay humble," says Sao, who was hanging out in the Family Over Everything shop on an afternoon in June. "I'm gonna get through it."

When store hours end, Sek and Chuum take guys like Sao around. They get in Chuum's '83 Cadillac, listen to hip hop, and drive out to the beach. They are urban youth with the blood of rural villagers in their veins. They like the calm they feel out on the rocks, listening to the water their parents crossed. They bait squid on hooks and pull lobsters, taking what they catch home to boil on the stove.

"That’s how we’re gonna fix all this."

As SEARAC continues to teach small nonprofits how to make themselves heard in policy debates, they are betting on the future of the young men and women for whom those organizations are a haven. A haven from the streets, and from the faceless trauma that permeates their homes. Seng So, a youth organizer with Khmer Girls in Action/Young Men's Empowerment Project, recruits kids like Hem and Keo at the skate park near the 5,000-student Polytechnic High School. "These are the young men at the highest risk of dropping out or being pushed into the prison pipeline," he says. "I go in with a conscious effort to let my guard down."

Under-construction-searac-3By leading restorative justice circles, So helps to restructure a young man’s idea of his identity, making it broader, questioning what he has learned from the street, and teaching him to make himself relatable to the world. In a crowded part of California where gangs often are a retreat into a comforting homogeneity, a kid like Malachy Keo uses the circles to learn another way to deal with conflict. Recently a Latino guy was making fun of him at school, but he stayed calm. "I said, 'Why are you hating on me? I've been through a lot, and I think I know what you've been through'." Then Keo told him his story, how he worried about his mom, what it was like not having a dad and being hungry. When he had finished, the kid who had wanted to bully him thanked him instead. Now they see each other in the halls, and they're cool.

While SEARAC believes that the Southeast Asian population in the United States is seriously underrepresented at all levels of government, its hope is that by supporting local organizations like KGA/YMEP, guys like Keo one day will be a voice for their communities. Seng So says Keo hardly spoke when he first came to KGA, and now there is a growing boldness in and clarity about his speech.

Remembering back before he was an adolescent, the silence of his home and his own interior torment, Keo controls his emotions and asks questions that someday, someone will have to answer. "What if I did have those counselors helping me with my depression?" he says. "People say there are resources, but where are they? They say the school counselor will help me, but do they have any pamphlets that say, 'If you're having depression, call this number?' Do they have something that tells you where to go if you don't have food? They really don't have that.

"I can tell that I'm gonna make a change," he adds. He has plans to join the Marines, then become a police officer. He hopes to advance a different approach to law enforcement, one where his buddy Anthony Hem won't have worry about leaving the house to skate because his name's in a gang file. "KGA teaches how everything is structured through social status, race and gender, and you shouldn't really fight it with violence. You should fight it with education. That's how we're gonna fix all this."

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