Keynote speaker Tou Ger Xiong facilitates a workshop.  Photo by Mel Ponder
Keynote speaker Tou Ger Xiong facilitates a workshop. Photo by Mel Ponder

Over 300 community members including parents, students, educators, and policy makers gathered on November 22 at South Seattle College for the 2nd UNITE Summit hosted by the Southeast Asian American Access in Education (SEAeD) Coalition. This year’s theme, “Our Communities, Our Voices,” represents the need to share our diverse Southeast Asian stories and to feel empowered and/or empower others by them.

The narratives of Southeast Asian Americans oftentimes are left out because of the “model minority myth.” However, it is by sharing stories and having spaces like this summit that helps begin the unraveling process of the realities that exists for this community. By having this space and being around those with shared experiences, it helps forge dialogue, and with dialogue forges change.

“We are like a family here,” said one student participant. “I felt I could show who I was and say what I was thinking without being judged.”

To embrace this theme of empowerment through narratives, students came up one at a time and shared why the “ICount” message is important. Kayla Vue, a student and a participant at the event shared to everyone, “We count. We are not just Asian, we are the next generation of Hmong women leaders.”

When asked again why this event mattered to her, Vue said, “I count!” She repeated it again proudly.

For many volunteers, the summit held personal meaning. Volunteer Molly Yin, a Khmer American, said: “The summit allowed students to establish a foundation and guidance through a new journey by connecting with leaders and mentors in the community.”

According to Southeast Asia Resource Action Center, 68.5 percent of Khmer Americans did not attend college, 39.2 percent have limited English proficiency (LEP), and 18.2 percent are below the poverty line. These three factors alone, compounded by the psychological/physical changes when refugee families came to America and exacerbated by a system not prepared to help them, made accessing higher education a challenge.

Thus, for Yin, and for many volunteers, they had to step up where our education system lacks.
When these stories and data points surface and when students see living examples of positive Southeast Asian role models, they believe that their stories are also important.

For student presenter, Vane Khouansysombath, hearing Keynote Speaker Tou Ger Xiong was powerful to her because his story resonated with her life experiences.

“He connected with many of the audience including myself,” Xiong said. “He told the story of how his family had to escape the war, being born in a refugee camp, immigrating to the United States, and showed how he came to be who he is today: a leader not only to the Hmong community but also to the whole Southeast Asian community.”

Members of the SEAeD Council and SEARAC Staff. • Photo by Chung Liu
Members of the SEAeD Council and SEARAC Staff. • Photo by Chung Liu

The event included 12 different workshops that targeted each demographic group (such as parents, educators, policy makers, etc.). The workshops also covered a variety of applicable resources such as how to be financially literate, finding the right college fit, best practices for working with Southeast Asian students, and more.

By connecting families and students to the right resources and information through these workshops, there is a greater chance of success. SEAeD co-chair, Zer Vue, said: “Our SEAeD philosophy is to build awareness of resources within networks, communities, families, and organizations like ours [SEAeD] so that our communities not only feel their self-worth but effectively utilize them to achieve their dreams.”

The visibility or invisibility of Southeast Asian students goes beyond empowering those from within. What is needed is data reflective of our demographics to better serve our students. A large component of the event focused on the need of data disaggregation.

A national movement, the “ICount” movement was inspired this summer when Congressmember Mike Honda introduced the “All Students Count Act,” which would require State Education Agencies to report disaggregated data at the K-12 levels for their annual state reports. It would divide the Asian American and Pacific Islander categories into nine ethnic groups based off the 2010 census. And as demographics continue to change in the United States, the nine groups will expand. The legislation also allows for the cross-tabulation of gender and disability of all ethnic and racial groups.

The ICount message matters because for students like Bao-Dung Le, it gives her a voice. “I matter, because I’m not just one identity, there’s many layers to each of us,” Le said. “I’m Asian, but I’m Vietnamese, I’m a woman, a student at South Seattle College, an immigrant, and more.”

By continuing to raise the narratives of Southeast Asians, policy makers and legislators can better understand how it affects their constituents.

“This is exactly why we have the Summit,” Vue said. “To empower the youth and give them the opportunity to share their voices.”

Students brainstorm action items to tackle the educational disparities facing Southeast Asians. • Photo by Mel Ponder
Students brainstorm action items to tackle the educational disparities facing Southeast Asians. • Photo by Mel Ponder

At the end of the event, SEAeD councilmember Amy Van led a workshop titled, “Effective Storytelling—Call to Action.” Participants got the chance to hear powerful messages from local students and also brainstormed action items within small groups to bring back to their communities with the knowledge gained from the event.

Overall, participants left the event feeling inspired to take steps towards reducing the educational disparities for SE Asians.

Soua Xiong, a doctoral student in the Joint Ph.D. in Education between San Diego State University and Claremont Graduate University, flew up from California to attend the summit. Xiong said: “As a result of attending this summit, it reaffirmed my research interests of engaging in research that helps to address educational outcomes for Southeast Asian American students.”

The next summit will be held in fall 2016. SEAeD plans to continue to advocate for the needs of Southeast Asians in education in 2015.

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