By Samantha Pak
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
One of the key themes in everything the Cambodian American Community Council of Washington (CACCWA) does is its focus on working with others.
From government agencies, to other local Cambodian groups, to crossing the generational divide within its own organization, building partnerships are how CACCWA works to help the Cambodian community throughout Washington state.
For its latest project, the Small Business Resiliency Network (SBRN), the nonprofit has partnered with the state departments of Commerce and Labor & Industries (L&I) to help Cambodian-owned businesses by disseminating and translating information from the two state agencies.
“We can explain it to them,” Bill Oung, CACCWA co-founder and interim board chair, said.
The two public entities serve different purposes. While Commerce offers resources, such as consulting, grants, and COVID-19 assistance, L&I focuses on safety and regulations compliance (as well as those related to COVID-19). Oung said CACCWA wants to help businesses take advantage of government programs and assistance if they need it, and make sure they’re functioning within the law.
Sambath Eat, program director for SBRN, said the network and CACCWA have been hosting informational events for small businesses, in partnership with Commerce and L&I. The first two events, one at the end of January, and the second one last week, were held in Tacoma.
Since he started his position with CACCWA, Eat has also been taking classes, meeting with banking institutions, filling out documents, and going through the steps business owners would need to in order to apply for grants and other resources—all so he can explain the processes to business owners.
“It can be a frightening experience,” he said, pointing out that people would be disclosing their finances and other sensitive information on applications.
Right now, Eat and his SBRN staff are concentrating on Seattle and King County. And as many Khmer people prefer talking in person—as opposed to over the phone or by email—Eat has been visiting business owners in person. These interactions have taught him the importance of showing up. Because even if people don’t need help, connections have been made during these meetings. Eat has introduced himself, the network, and CACCWA to members of the Cambodian community, letting them know what the organization is and what they do. He said if all his legwork helps just one person start their own business or one business owner apply for a loan—if just one person or business benefits from his work—then that will have accomplished his goal for SBRN.
Eat’s next goal for the network—which is currently paid for through state grants—is to secure funding so it can be a sustainable program within CACCWA.
Building a stronger community
CACCWA’s origins date back to 2015. Oung and others in the community began organizing an event to mark the 40th anniversary of Cambodians in the United States, following the Khmer Rouge genocide in Cambodia. The event took place in August 2015 at North Seattle Community College and CACCWA was formed shortly afterwards, Oung said. It officially became a 501(c)(3) nonprofit in 2020.
Since its inception, CACCWA’s mission has been to strengthen the Cambodian community. Oung said they share this goal with many of the other Cambodian organizations and groups they work with throughout the state, stressing the importance of these partnerships.
“Without them, we could not function,” he said.
Building a stronger community means different things to different people—ranging from cultural centers and events, to a robust business community. For CACCWA, Oung said, it meant making education a priority.
CACCWA holds an annual event celebrating students who have graduated from high school and college (undergraduate and graduate levels).
Tey Thach, who sits on the organization’s education committee and was co-chair from 2020-21, said it’s to recognize students and tell them, “We see you.” While the events started out in person and were held in the greater Seattle area, like most events in the last two years, they moved to the virtual space as a result of the pandemic. Thach said one of the positive things to come from this was that it became easier and more convenient for students and families from all over the state to attend.
This event is Thach’s favorite part of CACCWA—seeing the graduates of all levels of education all together and being able to put faces to names from their applications to participate.
Ammara Touch, a 2021 University of Washington graduate, wasn’t able to attend last year’s virtual graduation, but has been to in-person events in the past and loved the energy in the room. She said a lot of the students are likely the first generation in their family to go to college following the genocide.
“Being the first to go to college is a big thing,” she said.
It all adds up
In addition to the celebration, CACCWA offers students scholarships, which are typically about $1,000. Touch received the CACCWA scholarship in 2020 and it was one of many scholarships that paid for her entire college education.
As a woman of color, attending a predominantly white institution and going into a STEM field (double majoring in biology and American ethnic studies and double minoring in Oceania and Pacific Islander studies and diversity studies), Touch put her body through a lot during college.
This included commuting every day from Kent to Seattle, and back home. Not having to worry about finances took away one stressor for her and her family.
Touch is very grateful that the CACCWA scholarship is specifically for Khmer students. She noted the community’s low high school graduation rate (about 66%) and even lower college graduation rate (about 14%), and hopes they can grow their sources of money so higher education is more accessible.
Strength in the next generation
Touch said the stories of the Cambodian community and Khmer people have been systemically and systematically erased. So to her, being Khmer is about creating a space where their stories can be told safely, honored, and held in the way they should be to restore the community. Being Khmer means being a future ancestor, a story catcher and teller, and a healer, and understanding and knowing about the genocide because, Touch said, they need to know their history in order to know themselves.
As a member of the older generation, Oung admires younger folks like Touch and their determination for a better future—which is why CACCWA finds strength in the next generation.
He said for the older Khmer folks who came to the United States, it was difficult for them in a new country and adapting to a new culture. But for the ones who were born here, they’re able to access the Khmer community as well as society as a whole. It’s easier for them to navigate the multicultural environment.
And tapping into this strength is key for the community’s ongoing success.
“We can remind them of the past,” Oung said of his generation, “but the future, it’s not for us to say.”
Samantha can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.