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Entries by rls catalani (4)


Portland Lao leadership steps up, again

From: OregonLive.com (The Oregonian website):

Lao American community leaders who have long modeled county, state, even international leadership advocating for their families are now taking a big step into local governance. It's an important new focus for energetic ethnic enclave, a focus on integrating into Portland’s mainstream systems of municipal governance.

“Because of our City’s and our County’s commission-form of government, what we really care about, our elected commissioners have to care about too,” said Lao Hmong American civic activist Lee Po Cha before the final session of the 5-Saturday seminar series “Community Connection, Civic Engagement, & Lao Cultural Enhancement Workshops.”

Participating in the last workshop held at Northeast Portland’s venerable Buddhthammaram Temple were Arlene Kimura and Tom Lewis, presidents respectively of the very active Hazelwood and Centennial Neighborhood Associations; Lore Wintergreen, East Portland Action Plan Advocate; and Eliza Lindsay, East Portland Neighborhood Office staff.

Providing her own story as a kind of community compass, was City Commissioner Amanda Fritz, also an immigrant who worked her way up Portland’s neighborhood associations to the top of elected leadership at City Hall.


Since her tenure in public office, in response to ethnic minority and immigrant community engagement initiated by Mayor Tom Potter, Commissioner Fritz' Office of Neighborhood Involvement has provided newcomer communities ongoing participatory access to City governance through its Diversity & Civic Leadership academies.

The Commissioner's Office of Equity and Human Rights facilitates improving City services to refugee and immigrant families, as well as increasing access to municipal employment and contracting opportunities.

The Lao American civic education series, like earlier immigrant integration workshops for Portland's Iraqi, Bhutanese Nepali, and Russian-speaking communities, is funded by small grants from the East Portland Action Plan's Civic Engagement Committee.

The seminars ending last Saturday were further supported in kind and care by the Lao Senior Association; Hmong American Unity of Oregon; Lao Women Association; Iu Mien America; Lao United Association; and a number of City bureaus trying to reach deeper into underserved far-East Portland neighborhoods.

According to Hongsa Chanthavong, president of the Lao American Foundation, as well as board member of the temple and community center hosting the seminar series, an average of 31 Lao, Lao Hmong, and Lao Iu Mien Portlanders of three generations and both genders participated over the summer into the fall. "Ten of those community advocates," he noted, nodding toward Commissioner Fritz, "were graduates of the City's Office of Neighborhood Involvement's Diversity and Civic Leadership academies" --evidently taking their City Hall civics lessons back to their Eastside neighborhoods.

"Refugee integration workshops like these," observed veteran activist and Community Connection Program Coordinator Vanhlang Khamsouk, "are our pipeline to local leadership" -- aiming his remarks about next-generation responsibility across the room at younger Portland leaders like Lao Cultural Enhancement Coordinator Lou Sundara.


The necessity of youth empowerment for community development has been lost to to Civic Engagement Workshop Coordinator Phanida S. Sengsirivanh, a registered nurse and determined mother like Commissioner Fritz. Ms. Sengsirivanh and the Lao Women Association has always made sure their kids are actively involved alongside adults in community events.

The final session of the 2012 Community Connection, Civic Engagement and Lao Cultural Enhancement Workshop in many ways brought full-circle this particular local community's journey from troubled Southeast Asia to vigorous far-east Portland.

Among activists gathered in Buddhathammaram Temple's community space were Dr. Bolivong Tanovan, who's Columbia River watershed management skills he brought back across the Pacific to better steward the complex Mekong River system, and also the Hon. William Chu Blong Cha, subject of a 1997 PBS/WNET New York segment of "Imaging America," for his service to the United States as a Hmong SGU (Special Guerrilla Unit) fighter in highland Laos as well as a neighborhood peace-maker in marginalized Portland.

Said Commissioner Fritz in her closing congratulations: "I didn't understand the energy and the organization of East Portland's immigrant communities until our work in the Office of Human Relations brought me out here just a few years ago." Today, Lao Americans are adding to that energy and organization the essential ingredient elder civic activist Mr. Chanthavong calls "connection." Teamwork connecting across ethnic stream and mainstream communities.

For Portland's Lao community it's been a natural development -- though it may be mistaken for evolution in reverse -- a community moving from international to state to local leadership. Making "what we really care about," matter just as much to Portland's elected officials.


Doing Democracy American Spring for Bhutanese Oregonians

From: OregonLive.com (The Oregonian website):

Bhutanese Portlanders practiced democracy in a big way, all day Saturday, May 11. Nearly every community member eligible to vote, according to event organizers, came with their families to David Douglas High’s cavernous cafeteria. Many of those in attendance resettled less than three years ago in far eastside neighborhoods served by the school, the rest have been in the U.S. for less than six. But all dressed in their best — devout Hindu elders, proud working parents, and smartly suburbanizing kids — for their first experience in community self-determination and elected leadership.

The all-day event was a well-engineered blend of traditional and contemporary music, dance, and fragrant cuisine. It was at once, a brightly festive and earnestly focused setting for democracy in its purest form: electing local volunteer leaders — no big campaign funders, no high-stakes patronage, only great expectations from a wounded refugee enclave experimenting in American ideals.

"First of all, I would like to express my sincere appreciation for the trust and confidence that has been placed on me as the first elected president of Bhutanese community in Oregon," said Chhabi Koirala, Oregon’s Bhutanese community’s newly elected president.

"I would like to thank our communities, Bhutanese election commissioners, David Douglas High School, and all other agencies and volunteers for their commitment and contributions in the establishment of the Bhutanese Community Organization."

According to Som Nath Subedi, spokesman for the seven-member Bhutanese Elections Commission of Oregon, the Saturday gathering culminated six months of careful community education on representative governance.

"Our elections commissioners gave more than 500 volunteer hours and drove more than 500 miles, visiting our families’ apartments after work and on weekends, often hungry and in the rain, sometimes coming upon uncooperative persons who did not welcome materials about the election," Mr. Subedi said over the cafeteria’s din.

"They are the real heroes," he nodded toward the commissioners seated behind the school’s long tables, checking first-time voter identification documents at the bottle-necked end of a line along the cafeteria’s south and west walls. "They are the neutralists among Bhutanese Oregonians. Under the rules we adopted for this election, they can’t take votes as candidates or cast votes for candidates. They’re doing this because they felt this was needed to lift our community into the next level of local democracy."

Members of the elections commission are Kul Subba, Yadu Pokhrel, Ganga Magar, Krishna Tiwari, Ram Adhikari, Lokey Ghimire, and Mr. Subedi.

The May 11 ballots cast and carefully counted for community association president, vice president, and five advisory board members were the first western-style election votes ever, anywhere, for these Bhutanese families.

Elected officers, in addition to Mr. Koirala, are: Hem Ghimire as vice president; Deepak Koirala, Dhan Bir Gurung, Nanda Ghising, Shiva Nepal and Mani Gajmere as community association board of directors.

"We certainly have come together as a team, both in addressing issues as well as identifying areas of immediate significance. I am confident that our organization will continue to grow, both in scale and influence," said Mr. Koirala, proud of Oregon’s Bhutanese democratic processes and anticipating the complexities of community-building in their new homeland.

"The organization is formed to achieve self-sufficiency and full integration into mainstream society by providing informative and accessible community services to all Bhutanese families and individuals resettled, and in the process of resettling, in Oregon."

Post-heavenly kingdom

Much of American awareness of Bhutan is limited to enthusiastic documentary accounts of the Himalayan "Heavenly Kingdom," often noted for scoring sky-high in international rankings of the Gross National Happiness index, also know as GNH.

The concept of GNH, in contrast to the content of oft-cited GNP (Gross National Product) was coined in 1972 by Bhutan King H.H. Jigme Singye Wangchuck. The GNH index factors a nation’s mental, social, and environmental health along with more common metrics of economic productivity. It has taken on currency after several international conventions seeking an alternative to the more dollar-driven GNP, as a measure of how well a people are really doing. A nation’s material plenty, including citizens’ access to stable salaries and consumer goods may or may not result in individuals reporting a high level of personal security, psycho- logical, social, or spiritual satisfaction.

The reason the Kingdom of Bhutan rates the highest GNH among developing nations, critics of the ruling royal family, including Bhutanese Portlanders, will tell you, is because its Nepali ethnic minority population was deported. Those who would report low happiness were expelled over the last two decades and confined to windy United Nations refugee camps in neighboring Nepal.

The Royal Bhutan Army forcibly deported about 102,000 Bhutan Nepalis. About half that number have since been resettled in the west by faith-based organizations like Catholic Charities of Oregon and Lutheran Community Services Northwest. According to Mr. Koirala, metro Portland’s Bhutanese population of approximately 1,200 Bhutanese may rise to 1,500 by the end of this year.

Proud parents, strong students

A dozen reassuring state and municipal officials, refugee service agency leaders, celebrated the community’s rich Nepali heritage and promising American future. Among those dignitaries nodding along with the candidates’ concluding speeches and clapping along with touring Nepali singing sensation Nalina Chitrakar, were Neeru Kamal of the State of Oregon’s Refugee Programs Office; Iraqi Society of Oregon’s general secretary Dr. Baher Butti; Portland Office of Neighborhood Involvement, East Portland Action Plan advocate Lore Wintergreen; Portland Police Bureau, East Precinct Commander Michael Lee; Kayse Jama, executive director of the Center for Intercultural Organizing (CIO); Salah Ansari and Lee Po Cha, directors, respectively, at Lutheran Community Services North- west, and the Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization. David Douglas High School’s beloved English language teacher Anne Downing hosted the event.

From his front row folding chair, CIO’s Kayse Jama said, "Immigrants and refugees have an abundance of resources to give this country, and they continually revitalize our democracy and create a more inclusive society with their contributions." Mr. Jama was, not so long ago, a refugee from Somalia’s bitter civil war.

According to Mr. Jama, the Bhutanese election commission’s spokesman, Som Subedi, began training for local leadership only two years after he and his family arrived in Portland. Mr. Subedi was a 2010 graduate of CIO’s PILOT (Pan-Immigrant Leadership and Organizing Training), an intensive yearlong program which includes studying U.S. immigrant history, civil rights, community organizing, and advocacy. The program is funded by the Portland City Office of Neighborhood Involvement.

Several Oregon Bhutanese, including Mr. Subedi, participated in CIO’s 2012 CAN (Capacity for Associations of Newcomers), a community development program designed for immigrant- or refugee-led organizations.

Portland’s part in all this

For the past several decades, Portland has been nationally noted as a model for many things, among them: the city’s parks and recreation opportunities; environmentally sustainable urban transportation; and Portland’s vigorous neighborhood associations.

Portland’s commitment to immigrant and refugee communities participating in local governance continues this policy of inviting neighborhood groups to contribute to Portland’s investments in livability. Newly elected president Chhabi Koirala, as well as almost all of the Bhutanese election commissioners, are past participants in civic engagement programs in the portfolio of Portland city commissioner Amanda Fritz. Commissioner Fritz immigrated to the U.S. from the United Kingdom.

Amidst that big Saturday’s din of dignified community elders, optimistic parents, and very cool kids, Chad Stover, mayor Charlie Hales’ policy assistant for international affairs said, "I am proud to represent the mayor’s office on this very special day of democracy in action with our local Bhutanese community."

"Not only do Bhutanese Portlanders represent their native homeland," Stover said, "but they also represent a fundamental part of our local community, adding to the cultural diversity of our city. We are pleased to help facilitate their democratic rights and participation in civic engagement."


The Hon. Soualee Cha and his grand generation

From: The Asian Reporter  

Our Duties Since Theirs is Done

We are like generations and generations of woodland animals, I suppose. Shy Asian sun bear, bashful babirusa, easygoing orangutan. A generous canopy of lush treetops has always sheltered us from our suriya sun, from monsoon raindrops as rhythmic and irresistible as Muhammad Ali’s fists. Shadows deep as sleep have always kept us safe from hungry harimau, prowling for you and me, by name.

We are generations grown used to the cover of careful giants. Broad-shouldered, huge-hearted elders who’ve protected and schooled us with an understanding they earned in places and under pressures very different from the afternoon shade you and me have grown used to. Elders who whispered oaths about never exposing us to the despair they survived again and again.

Ugly colonialism and brutal local regimes, our caretakers outlived. They endured modern warring — those long-long moments of mass psychosis during which every imaginable technology is determinedly mass-manufactured then rushed across deep seas to splinter every last place an enemy’s kids study, their parents work, their grandmas and grandpas make households.

When they leave, what?

"Hard times make strong hearts," our aunties used to tell and tell and tell us — toughening us up, down in milk-toast suburban Salem. "You can’t really trust people who’ve never suffered," our uncles always said, looking sideways at TV news, at earnest American presidents, at smart congresswomen and confident congressmen.

And now these grand elders are leaving us. They are tired. This life has worn their bones thin. Their minds stray from you and me. God calls them, by name.

As each passes, then what? An inventory of our policy, business, and civil-society leaders, is not reassuring. Not at all. Not a rugged face in the room. No sincerity of the sort our elders might recognize. No muscularity of the kind that has always made our immigrant nation the real deal. Real to her ideals.

Great Grandpa Soualee Cha left us, the morning after Christmas Day. He departed during those most serene of moments between this mysterious world’s night shift and our day shift. No longer thick night, but not yet another blessed day. Grandpa’s big family was near.

Generation after generation of Grandpa’s family had prepared for his departure, for days and nights — rubbing his village farmer’s sturdy calves and sure feet; massaging his stubborn guerilla fighter’s knotted shoulders and arms; tenderly kissing gratitude and whispering regrets onto his furrowed brow; smoothing the etched sorrows and joys of this grand man’s beloved Lao highlands turned so suddenly into a furious kill zone; smoothing the strain of stewardship of his people’s safety in Thai frontier refugee camps; erasing the evidence of his resettlement and reconciliation efforts in Hmong communities from sodden St. Johns to Fresno neighborhoods left behind by the American economy.

How he did that

Grandpa Soualee Cha did so much. He did it so well. Let me tell you about three times I worked with him, with Portland Hmong elders and activists. Let me tell you what it meant and what it still means to us. To us Portlanders, Oregonians, and Americans.

Some years ago, there was a bad Hmong shaman who — like those bad Catholic priests who likewise believed they were also above punishment — was using his central California community’s trust for personal gratification. He hurt a girl belonging to Grandpa’s clan. She was too afraid to testify in criminal court, her family knew they would all suffer violent consequences in their lawless Fresno neighborhood. We left Portland, packed into a red Toyota 4Runner, right after local Hmong civic activists’ day jobs. We drove all night.

We went straight to the prosecuting district attorney and told her we would secure the necessary trial witnesses, but only if she and her city’s patrol officers personally guaranteed the victim’s and her extended family’s safety from that corrupt shaman’s angry relatives and all those Asian gangsters eager to have their business. Predators.

No one had tried dealing that directly with Fresno law enforcement. No one expected any good from them. There’s an awful history of local police getting their bust, of earnest prosecutors getting their conviction, then government abandoning those who made it all possible. Hit-and-run policing.

Moreover, the Honorable Soualee Cha promised the D.A. that he would refute the Hmong defendant’s expert witness, a university professor ready to testify that this so-called "sacred sex" with teenagers was a culturally-acceptable shamanic practice. Grandpa’s sure-footedness in all that uncertainty, put everyone, that frightened family and this inadequate system of justice, at ease. That abuser got 17 years in prison. He did not survive that sentence.

Grandpa was playing his central part in Portland police chief Tom Potter’s style of community policing. Civic activists and cops policing their community, together. We did it a hundred times in Portland. Grandpa restored peace without government, when possible. He did his part in partnership with mainstream muscle, when we could come to accord on sharing burdens and benefits. He expected our best.

Why we respond

Grandpa Soualee Cha modelled how to expect tip-top drawer behavior from everyone. When this wasn’t enough, as is often the case in the asymmetrical power relationships between our ethnic minority streams and our mainstream — we called in media. Like traditional Hmong elders gathering all those possibly impacted when making important moves, western democracy operates best under bright light. Sunlight or camera light, all the same.

TriMet opening its Westside MAX line made it much simpler for our eastside immigrant moms to get to their very cool Silicon Forest jobs. No more two-hour carpooling of kids to schools and dads to their workplaces. It all would’ve been another brilliant example of western urban engineering, had that light rail not been so confidently laid under Sunset Hills cemetery. Or had they drilled that deep tunnel in consultation with another kind of civil engineering. Every major religious tradition reveres sacred ground. Sure we do.

Four hundred feet under Washington Park, Grandpa made peace with the disturbed spirits of this grand continent and with those of the deceased buried above. We did it at dawn, in the company of the City of Portland’s ombudsman. Transportation officials stood near, transit police too. Producers for WNET New York, Religion & Ethics had cameras whirring, Oregon Public Radio was on. In the following weeks, clerics of other religious traditions followed. It all made the front page of The Oregonian; it was in The New York Times Magazine; we made national television. Participating in democracy, Grandpa taught us, requires a certain kind of toughness and tenderness.

Another example of Grandpa’s kind of work that Portlanders still talk about, was an urgent Black/Asian neighborhood reconciliation, after a Hmong kid’s very bad behavior. The Public Broadcasting Service’s WNET, producers of the Imagining America series, filmed a segment titled Hmong American Justice. It was about our Hmong community taking responsibility for a cognitively disabled and recently laid-off young man’s assault on his family’s elderly African-American neighbors.

What we do now

Imagining America documented Hmong civic activists making right what their boy did wrong. The program clearly shows Portland’s Police Bureau supporting community discipline, and all that in support of the kid’s defense against deportation to the Lao People’s Democratic Republic. The regime responsible for the ethnocide that sent our Hmong here. But the episode doesn’t mention the intense negotiations between Portland’s Hmong and our African-American church elders. The peace they made. The peace that makes neighborliness possible in those parts of town not served well by mainstream institutions.

What we do now, now that Grandpa’s grand generation of big-hearted and broad-shouldered elders are leaving us, is make mainstream their muscular work, their humble work. We need to share better the daily burdens, the enormous social and the cultural benefits of our ethnic stream work.

Passively assessing our staid institutions’ abilities to leave their racialized ruts is less, much less, than those careful and committed giants require from us. They protected, they schooled, you and me. Never mind for a moment our elder aunties admonishment about "hard times" and "strong hearts." It no longer matters whether or not Portland’s or Oregon’s or even America’s leaders have earned that level of trust — Grandpa Soualee Cha’s generation already paid, well in advance. Our elders paid up, so you and me must get down to business.

The business of building a better neighborhood, a bigger Us.


Modern warring: Grandpa’s story is told within the 1962-1975 U.S. foreign policy context. More explosive tonnage was dropped on the little Laos Kingdom inside those 13 years than the aggregate of all aerial bombardment in all preceding wars. Unprecedented destruction of both natural and built environments. U.S. military and CIA covert command made a sacred brothers-in-arms promise to ferociously loyal Hmong SGU (Special Guerilla Unit) fighters that together they would defeat Communist Viet and Laos armies. Hmong freedom fighters kept theirs, down to their last teenaged boys. When the U.S. did not, the Lao Hmong ethnocide was on.


Henry Liu and the Awful Familiarity of it All

University officials said that security officers said

that a student said that her Asian classmate said

that he wanted to shoot this Portland professor.



"Always, always first ask yourself," our pop used to say, poking my sternum. "What do I know? Really know. And what am I assuming." 

That last part of his lesson was not a question. It was an admonition. "Hati-hati, Joh (Beware my boy)" he’d say. Then he blinked firm twice, turned my skinny shoulders clear around and sent me off.

Our father schooled his sons during anxious political and economic times. We grew up in a complex place -- Indonesia spoke in 900 languages; neighbors were black and brown, yellow and white.

In those tense times and in that vigorous place, it was all parents' quiet duty to teach acceptance and conciliation to wild kids like our pop's boys. We were a densely peopled island so we either shared well or lived in hell. We either asked ourselves what we know, or we assumed divisive biases. Up to us.

Maybe it’s all a lot like now, like Portland. Probably I best poke my sternum daily, and we all ask ourselves: What do we know?


A familiar chill

A few weeks ago, a professor who's 30 years of good work I know well, caught my eye. And iced my porous bones. The chill started where our pop used to rap me. It followed my ribs out and around, then leached into my heart.

His web page named two federal agencies by their iconic acronyms – one with jurisdiction over alcohol, tobacco and firearms; one tasked with taking out terrorists, kidnappers, interstate and international criminals. Both, he blogged “played important roles . . . . in this serious campus security issue.” He thanked everyone for their care.

That's an avalanche of facts. Bad ones. On first impression. But here's what's known about what’s been said: University officials said that campus security said that a student said that her Asian classmate said that he wanted to shoot this Portland professor. And we know the student owns guns.

That's probably too many hearsay links to know what's true, but I can say with certainty that it brought me straight back to our last two campus killers. Mentally ill kids with guns. Both Asian.

Another thing I can surely report is my dread over this Asian student's face stapled to every campus lamp post, his face dropped into every kid's, every teacher's and staffer's e-inbox. It's a familiar chill. One ethnic minority Oregon knows well.

My problem is that I also know Henry, the young Portlander this professor said triggered all those muscular feds. And I know I am conflicted. I know how conscientiously this grad student leads interracial neighborhood conciliation and how consistently he contributes to local community-building. I know folks' affection and respect for him. For sure.

More problems: I know his physician father. I know his Asian ma like I know ours. And getting to the core of this column: these two ladies are exactly like another mom I know real well -- the one who 8 years ago looked straight into a KGW camera's red eye and told Oregon that her boy did not kidnap or rape or murder that lovely young Corvallis coed. We know the cops and their prosecutors did not believe Dawn Kim, or her son.

Three years later, Joel Courtney confessed to the unimaginable sea of sorrow he caused Brooke Wilberger's family. But no one's taken responsibility for the terrible harm done Mrs. Kim's family. For our assumptions. For our biases.


Our familiar ruts

About Henry’s situation, I haven’t done the science, but I'll bet half my paycheck that a flash-poll 1000 Portlanders would net a racialized divide over what respondents assume happened between the accused, the accuser, and all those downstream officials triggered by her accusations. Mainstreamers on one side, ethnic streamers on the other. Like with OJ and Kobe. Like with Sung Kim.

As a matter of American historical fact, we know that race matters. We know that power differences between races matters even more. Overwhelming institutions on one side, dread on the other. The awful familiarity of it -- every next time it all comes around.

What those of us favorably biased for this outspoken student and soft-spoken community problem solver know is that Oregon Health Science U’s examining psychiatrist cleared him after campus security cops locked him up. We know that the Portland Police Bureau’s examining detective, did not charge him. With any crime.

We know Henry’s humiliated Asian family drove him straight home. We know they took their phone off the hook. For their shame.  For the shame of it all.

We know those law schools that admitted him for fall semester, took their offers and their scholarships off the table. We know we’ve damaged Henry’s future, his family’s fine name, his community’s stubborn belief in American democracy.

"Always, always first ask yourself," our pop used to poke my sternum. "What do I know? Really know. And what am I assuming." His was an admonition for kids schooled during unstable times. Times when ordinarily generous societies lose their discernment. Times when dutiful adults should constantly ask ourselves what we really know, and what not.


Times like these. Places like ours. Our Portland.