Above, an elder discusses district mapping at the MAYE Center, a healing and organizing space based in Long Beach’s Cambodia Town. (Photos by Crystal Niebla)
This story was updated on March 27, 2018.
On Wednesday nights, about 20 Khmer Rouge refugees attend a government and community organizing class at the MAYE Center, a trauma-healing space often used by Cambodian elders.
After 13 weeks of learning the ins and outs of Long Beach city politics, there was one question that left student Vy Sron perplexed.
“How do we organize our community for more political power?” Sron asked her teacher, Marc Coleman, a Long Beach organizer and attorney.
“You’re limited because your community is diluted,” Coleman responded.
The class was at a quagmire. Since the ‘70s, the Cambodia Town area has been divvied up among various districts — currently districts 1, 2, 4 and 6 — and, for them, the answer explained why they had such little say in city affairs and no ethnic representation on city council.
Now, leaders and allies of Long Beach’s Cambodian community say they want more political power.
Sron’s question manifested into Equitable Redistricting for Cambodian Community, an initiative by Equity for Cambodians, a collective of Long Beach residents and 14 organizations that aims to redistrict Cambodia Town and the surrounding community for absorption into the 4th or 6th district, likely the farther east and south parts.
“We don’t have a voice to dictate resources in Long Beach,” said Laura Som, director at the MAYE Center. “Money is being spent, but no one represents us.”
Instead of taking the issue to the ballot this year, Equitable Redistricting for Cambodian Community will entered a petition process to educate people about redistricting and political power.
The collective threw a campaign launch party on March 18, having Rep. Alan Lowenthal (D-Long Beach) be the first to sign the petition. District 7 Councilman Roberto Uranga and field representative Suely Saro on behalf of State Sen. Ricardo Lara (D-Bell Gardens) also signed the petition.
“This is a very important step that they’re going through,” Lowenthal said, adding that he’s willing to help the campaign in any way.
“If they want me to go before the council, I will go before the council,” he said.
Organizers hope to gather between 1,000 and 10,000 signatures to present to the city council sometime before local elections in April. “Residents and friends” of the district are eligible to sign a paper or online petition. There are no age or geographic limitations to sign either.
“We want young people to be involved because this is their future,” Coleman said. “That is a huge force… It’ll be something they’ve never seen before.”
Advocates hope better representation can mean more access, for example, with language assistance in applying to the city’s affordable housing for elders or low-income residents.
“I do not want people to experience what it means to be divided and alone because I was all by myself,” Sron said via a Khmer translator, referring to when she arrived to the U.S. without friends or family.
“I’m constantly worried about not being represented, not being able to express myself, with many language barriers,” Sron said in Khmer.
In March 2011, Long Beach adopted a redistricting criteria indicating that “splits in neighborhoods, ethnic communities and other groups having a clear identity should be avoided.”
Members of Equitable Redistricting for Cambodian Community argue that the city violated one of its own redistricting guidelines, and it hasn’t been the first time local Cambodians sounded the alarm.
Suely Saro, a then-executive director of Khmer Girls in Action, gave a testimony to the California Citizens Redistricting Commission in April 2011 cautioning against the redistricting of Cambodia Town and the surrounding community among four districts. However, she was unable to convince the commission.
“Because the neighborhoods have specific needs and interests unique to the Cambodian community, we ask that you do not divide either Cambodian neighborhoods in the redistricting process,” Saro testified.
“In the last Redistricting in 2011, the City Council direction was to have the minimal changes required to each district to rebalance the population,” said Kevin Lee, a public affairs officer for the city, earlier this month via email.
“In March 2017, the City Council made a determine (sic) not to redistrict, based primarily on the fact that reliable data was not available,” Lee said.
“Reliable data” continues to be the obstacle for Cambodian community redistricting efforts now, and has been an issue since Long Beach received Khmer Rouge refugees in the 1970s.
Jack Humphrey, a former advance planning officer for the city between 1992 and 2002, cites that the 1990 federal census was “seriously undercounted” because many Cambodian refugees refused to participate due to trauma (during the Khmer Rouge genocide, the Cambodian government used their census data to find and kill citizens).
Although a case can be made that the division was racially discriminatory, a small Cambodian census number translated into “minimal interest” in that community since city council members cared more about voter turnout, Humphrey said. Cambodians were deemed too poor and too new for this investment, he added.
“The city council was not unaware that they were splitting up the Cambodian community up [then] three ways,” he said.
Since the city’s charter bases redistricting data on the decennial census, which will be recorded again in 2020, the next opportunity to redistrict would be in 2021, Lee said. But members of Equitable Redistricting for Cambodian Community are hoping for a win by 2020 because council seats will be up for election then.
“In 2021, should the number warrant a redistricting, the City Council would have a chance to look at the redistricting criteria and provide direction on what they would want to achieve as part of the process,” Lee added.
Now, as the city enters a new generation, Long Beach Cambodians are pushing harder to make their voices heard politically and want to see their community reunited under one voting district.
“If it happens in my generation, I would be so grateful to live among my own people with the desire to work hard in this community and build this community,” Sron said in Khmer.