Change L.A. Wally Marks Changemaker Award Honoree Lian Cheun is Building a Movement

by Crystal Shaw on August 24, 2016

Liberty Hill Foundation’s Change L.A. event, deemed a “party with a purpose” is right around the corner, Saturday, September 10.

It’s an evening of cool music, flowing cocktails and plenty of tasty treats.  Along with the party essentials, we’ll also be pouring a glassful of social justice.  Again this year Liberty Hill honors an L.A. social justice movement leader, Lian Cheun, with the Wally Marks Changemaker Award.  It’s given to an individual whose work in the community illustrates Dr. Martin Luther King’s insight that while “the arc of history is long, it bends toward justice.”

Lian is executive director of Khmer Girls in Action, a community-based organization, led by South East Asian young women whose mission is to build a progressive and sustainable Long Beach community that works for gender, racial and economic justice.  KGA is also an important organizing partner in our Brothers, Sons, Selves coalition. Lian’s dedicated work at the grassroots youth-led organization exemplifies everything we believe a “changemaker” should be.

We asked Lian to fill us in on her background as a youth organizer, how criminal justice plays a huge role in immigration justice for Cambodian refugees like herself, and about KGA incorporating Pokémon Go in the organization’s youth civic engagement!

Liberty Hill:  How does KGA’s work illustrate Dr. King’s insight?

Lian: At KGA we do our work understanding that in movement work a lot of our fights are long-term battles. Change oftentimes is slow. That’s why it’s so important to us that we do the type of youth organizing work that we do.  We believe in training socially conscious, politically active young people in our community. When some of us are done with the work, we have another generation who are taking up the work. That’s what Dr. King’s insight suggests. The arc of history is long, and we can help bend it toward justice.

Liberty Hill: How does your foundation as a youth organizer inform your current work at KGA?

Lian:   When I first started out as a youth organizer, I felt powerful as a young woman of color. That was a new feeling, and pretty much made me realize what I want to do for the rest of my life. I came to this country as a child refugee, having experienced the trauma of war, genocide, and forced migration along with my family. Leaving one battlefield and coming into another in the U.S. inner city was really, as a young person, confusing, hard and challenging. 

I was trying to make sense of the world around me.  When I became activated as a youth organizer things became clearer. I started building my consciousness and actually having an alternative view of the world. One in which young people are important and can make change in the world. It informed the rest of everything that I do today. I came full circle now working at a youth organizing organization.

Liberty Hill: What kind of outreach do you do to attract youth to KGA?

Lian: The majority of our outreach is done by our youth leaders and members. They do a lot of our recruitment and turnout for whatever events or campaign activities we’re having. A lot of our young people who are in our leadership development program are recruited through word-of-mouth. We generally get a lot more applications than we have room for in the leadership program. Which is, to us, a great problem to have.

We’re excited because we’re going through a process now on voter education and mobilization to support our community in understanding and acting on issues on the fall ballot. 

Also, the process for many youth who are non-voting citizens and non-citizens is convincing adults in the community to support them and to vote on their behalf and on their future.

Liberty Hill: There’s such a large gap in youth voters who are registered to vote but don’t actually turn out to the polls. With so much weighing on this year’s election how does KGA focus on youth civic engagement?

Lian: One of the things that we’re proud of is that young people who come into KGA’s leadership development program take a pledge to be lifetime voters.

Also, we try to do a lot of things in the organization where we utilize youth culture and adolescent culture to help generate young people’s interest in our work. We’re going to integrate games and widgets into the voter registration process. This includes, but is not limited to, putting out “lures” at Pokéstops in Pokémon Go to attract young people to voter registration locations, particularly those who can’t afford to buy their own “lures”. We will also use “Hustle” to text millennial and young voters about issues this election season.

Liberty Hill: How are KGA’s youth organizing around immigration justice?

Lian: Our approach is at the intersection of criminal justice and immigration. People in our community who have served their time are now getting sent to ICE for deportation. A lot of our folks came to the U.S. under asylum, as a refugee population. Some ex-offenders are stripped of their papers and their status as legal residents. That has a huge impact on a lot of families.  It’s compounded trauma, from forced migration to the unstable resettlement in the U.S., that has affected this particular refugee population in this country. Now we’re starting to lose family members again, and this time it’s through permanent deportation back to Cambodia.  We have a 62% PTSD [Post Traumatic Stress Disorder] rate here in Long Beach, which is higher than veterans returning home from war.

Many of our young people are dealing with really high depression rates as a result of dealing with their parents who have PTSD, and trying to make ends meet. Many young people live in poverty, and some of them get caught up in the streets.  We call this the “school to prison to deportation pipeline.”

To create a “bad immigrant” versus “good immigrant” narrative is damaging to us all. The immigration battle is also a battle around decriminalizing our community and saying no one is disposable. We can’t incarcerate our way out of our problems. We need our young people. We need our families. We need each other. That’s how we build a movement.

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