Common Harvest brings together Suffield farmers and Hartford’s Karen community

karen1In a nation as ethnically diverse as the United States, its inhabitants originating from all over the globe, all Americans ought to be proud to see people of different worlds and experiences come together for common purposes. In Connecticut, a state infamous for significant disparities along racial and economic lines, this unique social phenomenon manifests between Suffield residents, and a vibrant community of Karen refugees and their families who made their home in Hartford’s West End.

The adults of Hartford’s Karen community came to the United States as political refugees, fleeing violence and persecution taking place across Southeast Asia. Elders in the community have experienced the horrors of relocation camps and mass incarceration. As they build their lives in Connecticut, where many Karen children now grow up attending Hartford public schools, they preserve one of their cherished cultural traditions. Over the past few years, Suffield families and the Karen have cultivated not only a genuine friendship, but also a decent tract of land that the community works together.

This year marks the third growing season of the community garden that Suffield farmers and the Hartford Karen share. This friendship began with the meeting of Michael Lefebvre, who owns the land, and Mr. Saw Than, community leader and president of the Connecticut Karen Community Association (CKCA). Prior to meeting Saw, Michael had no awareness of the Karen people, their struggles in their native land, and their journey to the United States.

In learning about Saw’s people, Michael also began a friendship that would bring together people with vastly different experiences and who share a passion to work the land. In his conversations with Saw, Michael became aware of the community’s desire for a garden to grow their own food. Demonstrating his nature as a good friend and neighbor, Michael offered to donate space on land he owns in Suffield, which about 10 families now share as a community garden.  Michael calls this project “Common Harvest”.

Michael names numerous other individuals involved in the community garden partnership. Brian Loiseau, a local horse farmer, often supplies growing materials for the farm, and is always acting as a helpful neighbor and good friend to the Karen and other farmers. Steve Sheldon, another active member of this community, and his family have helped prepare the farmland with heavy equipment, and donated many garden plants.  Iran Jackson, owner of a local paving company called JRJ Construction Company, donated the use of a bulldozer to prepare the land for expansion of the garden area this year. Others in the community have also worked the land with tractors and bucket loaders to make it more conducive to gardening. The Karen also purchase chicken and other farm animals to raise on the land.

The genuine friendship built around the South Grand Street garden in Suffield reflects the true spirit of ‘community’. The Karen families and local farmers share space, their harvest, and even meals prepared right on the land. Additionally, they all take responsibility for the well-being of their families by providing fresh, natural, and healthy foods. Working the land also teaches the youth about friendship, commitment, self-reliance, and a strong work ethic. These values resonate across Western and Eastern traditions.

karen2The South Grand Street community garden also illustrates the potential of active communities and shared opportunity. Although many of the local Karen come from challenged communities in Hartford, a simple “hand up” enables them to preserve their cultural traditions, contribute to the larger community, and provide for their own families.

Though the Karen continue to face cultural barriers and socioeconomic challenges, such as limited access to housing, education, employment, and health, their progress building a new life in a new land has been incredible. The Karen American youth serve as cultural navigators and ambassadors for their parents and elders, while preparing to become the next generation of champions in their community. The connection with Michael Lefebvre and the gracious residents of Suffield not only represents a true cultural exchange, but also a lesson in compassion, responsibility, diligence, and other traits of effective leaders. It also helps create delicious food!

APAAC greatly appreciates the friendship of Michael Lefebvre, Suffield residents, and others towards the Karen community. We greatly admire the positivity created through their genuine partnership, as well as the example it sets for all diverse communities in fostering understanding and discovering common passions.

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APA Forum Potluc Picnic at the end of this month! Please join is for food, fun, family, and community!

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2nd Annual Lunar Festival in Little Asia, Bridgeport…coming this fall!!

lunarfest

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Senators Murphy and Blumehtal hold press conference on immigrant children detained along southern border

mrphyOn Thursday, July 3, Connecticut's US Senators Christopher Murphy and Richard Blumenthal hosted a press conference in Room 1B of the Legislative Office Building to address the recent influx of Central American children through the southwest border. The Senators agree that the United States ought to respond to these crossings as a humanitarian crisis, and believe resolving the issue requires not only specific programs for the migrating children, but also comprehensive immigration reform at the federal level.

Senator Christopher Murphy began by outlining the circumstances prompting this relatively small press conference. Since October this year, approximately 52,000 children from Central America have been seeking refuge from abject poverty and escalating violence in their home countries. Many of these children travel either unaccompanied or with strange fellows, moving on rumors and shadowy promises of asylum upon reaching United States Borders. Some of these children have been kidnapped, abused, disappeared, and others have lost their lives in the treacherous trek through desert and river valleys.

In responding to this crisis, President Obama recently announced a $2 billion plan to reinforce the southwest border, establish shelters for migrant children, and increase the number of immigration judges to expedite immigration proceedings. Immigration authorities have detained a majority of the children caught crossing the border, leaving the immigration system with few resources to process their cases, and shortages in basic needs to house the children. These problems raise further humanitarian concerns around the fate of children on exodus for family reunification and peace in a new land.

While Senator Murphy agreed with the President's proposal to address the crisis at the border, he took a less amenable position on deporting children who can lose their lives in their home country. Senator Murphy expressed his belief in immigration reform on the federal level, though unlikely to pass the 113th US Congress, as a permanent solution to the present and future surges of immigrants. Senator Murphy stated that comprehensive immigration reform must entail an earned path to citizenship, a more efficient naturalization process, as well as increased border security.

Senator Blumenthal offered a multifaceted approach to the crisis at the border. He believes in developing a 'marshal plan' to increase aid in Central America, aimed at resolving deep economic and other troubles in those nations that motivate mass migration. Senator Blumenthal also recommends better care for the immigrant children who cross our borders, and considers any proposal to deport them en masse "incomprehensible and unconscionable". He also stated that these children require due process, in compliance with the US Constitution as well as Article 37 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which the US signed but has yet to ratify.

blmnthlFurthermore, Senator Blumenthal recommends that the US House of Representatives pass the bipartisan comprehensive immigration reform bill that the US Senate passed last summer. While he would not call this legislation a 'perfect' bill, he believes it the most appropriate and effective vehicle to address the nearly 11 million undocumented individuals in the United States, the southwest border crisis, as well as immigration enforcement.

Ultimately, Senator Murphy and Senator Blumenthal shared a position against the mass deportation of children seeking asylum. Both Senators emphasize the United States as a land of law, yet believe we must create mechanisms to correct our broken immigration system. Senators Murphy and Blumenthal both believe comprehensive immigration reform will render the necessary shifts.

APAAC appreciates Connecticut's US Senators for raising awareness around this critical matter of national concern. APAAC supports a fair and humane approach to the current migration crisis, as well as federal immigration policy. We thank the community members, advocates, and others who spoke out regarding the treatment of immigrant children in the United States.

 

 

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Press Conference on Connecticut’s First Comprehensive APA Needs Assessment

muipcOn Monday, June 30, in the Old Judiciary Room of the Connecticut State Capitol, APAAC, Khmer Health Advocates (KHA), Lao Association of Connecticut (LAC), and Connecticut Coalition for Mutual Assistance Association (CCMAA) hosted a press conference on the first comprehensive Needs Assessment of Connecticut's Asian Pacific American (APA) community.

The Needs Assessment project engaged 300 individuals from the local Khmer, Laotian, and Vietnamese communities regarding health, mental health, education, employment, housing, and social integration.

The press conference itself gathered diverse members of the public, state agencies, community organizations, advocates, and other interested parties. With all these players present, the Commission and our partners conveyed some of the stark findings of the Needs Assessment, while raising the hope that we now have a much clearer idea of the problems we must converge to address.

The press conference began with APAAC Executive Director Mui Mui Hin-McCormick introducing the concept of the Needs Assessment. In an era of unprecedented sociological research capabilities and initiatives, data regarding the APA community in Connecticut remains lacking. Although the 2010 US Census began individually categorizing Asian and Pacific Islander groups, these statistics have limited use for planning competent programs and services. The Needs Assessment, Hin-McCormick explained, represents a significant first step in building reliable data sets and providing insights into the well-being of Connecticut's APA community.

APAAC Chair Dr. William Howe next addressed the audience regarding the importance of recognizing APA groups as communities in need. Disparity studies often neglect APA groups, typically comparing only black and Latino groups with the white population, resulting in an incomplete picture of inequity in Connecticut. A quick perusal of data in the Needs Assessment report reveals that members of the Vietnamese, Laotian, and Khmer communities in Connecticut endure homelessness, food insecurity, untreated mental health issues, and lack of access to essential services such as education and the health system. With these unfortunate realities now in the consciousness of many agents for change, the Commission and our partners hope to expand the discourse around disparities to include APAs and any other group that may suffer in silence.

thenavyTheanvy Kuoch, Executive Director of KHA, spoke on the dearth of culturally competent services in Connecticut. While Kuoch observes that this creates many barriers, she also sees an opportunity in the Needs Assessment partnership to craft community-centric programs which facilitate greater access to care.

Howard Phengsomphone, Executive Director of LAC, expressed the importance of continuing and building upon the Needs Assessment partnership. He also recognized the open window to work collectively against multiple disparities impacting Connecticut's highly diverse APA community.

Dr. Megan Berthold, Assistant Professor at the University of Connecticut School of Social Work, who has previous experience working with disadvantaged APA families, emphasized the importance of sound data in moving forward with specific services and targeted advocacy.

Ultimately, all speakers expressed great gratitude to the Needs Assessment partnership and demonstrated a strong will to follow up with the recommendations delineated in the Needs Assessment final report.

The Commission conveys our great appreciation to the community members who participated in the Needs Assessment, our gracious and effective partners, and all who attended the press conference. We are confident that, with this crucial information and invigorated coalition, we can reduce disparities in the APA community, and increasie the overall equity in the state of Connecticut. Continue to follow APAAC for the latest initiatives stemming from the Needs Assessment.

 

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Deconstructing the definition of a ‘post-racial’ society

Photo: Are We In a Post-Racial Era? A Key Issues ForumConference of Churches in Hartford, Connecticut. L-R: Dr. Lois Brown of Wesleyan University, APAAC Chair Dr. Bill Howe; Adrienne Cochrane, Urban League; and Orlando Rodrigues, LPRAC.On Tuesday, June 24, The Hartford Courant, in association with FOX 61 and the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center, hosted a forum on the past, present, and future implications of racial politics in the United States. Panelists included APAAC Chair Dr. William Howe, Lois Brown of Wesleyan University, Latino & Puerto Rican Affairs Commission Legislative Analyst Orlando Rodriguez, and Adrienne Cochrane of the Greater Hartford Urban League. During this Key Issues Forum, titled "Are We in a Post-Racial Era?", panelists offered their perspective on modern race relations and the collective actions necessary for peace and understanding in a diverse yet segregated society.

The discussion began with all panelists challenging the conception of a 'post-racial' or 'colorblind' society. Lois Brown questioned the merits of such a society, arguing that 'colorblindness' would erase a history of institutional injustices such as slavery, legalized segregation, and other discriminatory policies, and obfuscate their influence modern on attitudes and conditions. She also posited that ignoring race, rather than understanding it as an important aspect of  humanity, can have negative consequences for how our children socialize and interact.

Dr. Howe continued to challenge the idea of a 'post-racial' society, expressing that though we claim 'colorblindness' with the best intentions, we tend to reduce such behavior to 'I'll pretend you're white, you'll pretend you're white, and then we'll all be fine'. However, Dr. Howe observes, people of color often experience life differently than a 'mainstream' American, which removes 'colorblindness' as an option for one's world outlook.

Speaking from the APA perspective, Dr. Howe also addressed the perception of Asian or Pacific Islander Americans as 'perpetual foreigners', with no permanent roots in the United States, regardless of how many generations a family has been here. This idea about APAs illustrates the fallacy of a 'post-racial' world; in the year 2014, an American's physical appearance may suggest something non-American to another American.

Orlando Rodriguez believes acceptance of a 'post-racial' society depends partially on one's geography. He observed a bifurcation in life at work and in the home or community, such that a diverse work environment may inform our belief in an integrated society, even as we go home to mostly monochromatic neighborhoods. In addressing this issue, Orlando believe Connecticut towns and cities require enforcement mechanisms to comply with Fair Housing laws. He also notes structural inequalities in the zoning laws of Connecticut's urban centers. While cities such as Hartford, Bridgeport, New Britain, and Stamford are home for many low-income communities of color, zoning policies in these locations favor other projects over affordable homes. Locking communities of color into low-income neighborhoods, Orlando argues, perpetuates a pattern of limited visible opportunity and socioeconomic stagnation.

Adrienne Cochrane spoke of a 'post-racial' era as a pure myth, expressing that '-isms' will always exist. She believes that people of color must continually learn to deal with discrimination on various levels, while crossing color-lines to engage in the exposure and education necessary to diminish it. Cochrane also remembers that the conversations around socioeconomic equality and racial acceptance that take place today reflect the discourse initiated over a hundred years ago.

Ultimately, all panelists seemed to agree that the problems of racism in the 19th century, and before then, resonate still in the 21st century. Education, exposure, and opportunity remain primary tools of fighting discrimination and fostering understanding. The ideal ought not be to become a 'colorblind' society, but rather a colorful society in which all peoples respect one another as equals. While we may never actually experience this harmonious utopia, aspirations of understanding and equality will advance our society much further than ignoring realities that are much deeper than skin. What remains is the collective work that will culminate in a diverse, respectful, and equal era.

 

 

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