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Issue 3: Education for Community Building

The Southeast Asian Environmental Justice Partnership: Citizens Revive a New England Mill Town River

Photo by Joshua Reynolds

Linda Silka

As a partnership, we began with a simple premise. Our community—Lowell, Massachusetts—had many environmental problems and if we worked together we could overcome them. Not surprisingly, the problems were most pressing in the poorest sectors, the immigrant neighborhoods where newcomers were making their homes, working, and going to school.

Lowell is an old industrial city, perhaps the oldest in the nation. It has an urban national park that celebrates the emergence of the American industrial revolution in mill cities such as ours. Yet this same industrial revolution left a legacy of brownfields—industrial sites contaminated long ago and never cleaned up because interest in reclaiming and reusing dirty sites was lacking. A river and its canals divide the town. This river that once was used to power the textile mills quickly became a dumping ground for industrial waste, yet this same river was also the city's resource for swimming, fishing, and drinking water.

In recent years, Lowell has become home to the second largest Cambodian community in the United States. Into this highly industrialized city thousands of Cambodian and Laotian refugees have arrived from agrarian backgrounds, fleeing the trauma of the Khmer Rouge and the "killing fields," and struggling with untold challenges on top of unfamiliar environmental threats that are a part of everyday life in Lowell. Two places more different from each other than Lowell and Cambodia can hardly be imagined. Both, however, have histories that are deeply tied to their rivers: the Merrimack and the Mekong.

The Southeast Asian Environmental Justice Partnership—leaders in the Cambodian and Laotian community, scholar-activists from the local university, and local health care providers (Our partnership has no formal structure, board of directors, or paid members)—came together to address a host of environmental problems, including lead paint, soil contamination, and water pollution, but we quickly began to focus on water as the most important issue. We learned early that concerns about water and its purity were of greater urgency in the Southeast Asian community than were questions about air or soil contamination. The purity of water has been central to many aspects of their culture, and is tied to religion, recreation, the economy, and jobs. For hundreds of years in Southeast Asia, festivals along the Mekong River celebrated the importance of water.

As it turns out, the Merrimack River flowing through Lowell has played a parallel role of cultural and historical significance, and so the partnership worked with other groups to recreate along this modern, industrialized river a traditional Southeast Asian water festival, adding an environmental underpinning that recognized water as a "gateway" issue to other environmental topics. Lowell is a city of ethnic neighborhoods, and this festival was to take place along the Merrimack in a largely French Canadian neighborhood. To the local residents an event bringing in thousands of Southeast Asians from the poorest parts of town was not entirely welcome. Those of us involved in the planning—Cambodian and Lao leaders and university partners—attended a neighborhood meeting to describe our hopes for the festival. We were met with hostility and suspicion from Vietnam-era veterans and others, and it appeared that staging such a festival would be unacceptable to the neighborhood. The meeting turned, however, on the words of an elderly French Canadian who had moved to Little Canada in Lowell as a youth. The River, he argued, had always been special to Lowellıs new immigrants. They made Lowell their own through the river, through finding secret fishing and swimming holes, just as he had done as a youth. So as far as he was concerned, if a new group was now going to become neighbors by adopting the river and making it work for the Southeast Asian way of life, then they should be welcomed. The festival was on.

This festival, now in its fifth year, has become a tradition for thousands of Lowellians. Each new year has brought additional groups on board to celebrate water and its life-giving properties through an approach that respects the cultural authority of the Southeast Asians. In some ways, the event has become part of the city's self-definition. When in 1999, Lowell was awarded the coveted status of All-American City by the National Civic League, the recognition was based largely on the success of its distinctive Water Festival, as well as the community process of planning and problem-solving that brought it into being. The festival has helped many Lowellians approach environmental issues in new ways.

Photo by Joshua Reynolds

The Festival and Environmental Issues

The first festival in 1997 was a reverberation of old and new, East and West. It was a fascinating study in contrasts. Following the tradition on the Mekong, multigenerational families spread out their woven mats on the river banks. In Lowell the festival grounds were on a bank opposite old industrial sites and just upstream from a dam that at one time channeled water into canals to power cotton mills. Festival goers were able to watch traditional Cambodian and Laotian dances, but also view contemporary exhibits on water quality. They took part in historical long-boat races of vessels especially commissioned in Southeast Asia, yet also learned from Khmer and Lao-translated displays about environmental health issues. Children participated in Khmer games that have been played for centuries, and also visited environmental booths designed for them, having "passports" stamped at each one. And, water specialists of all sorts worked with translators to call community attention to river cleanups.

The festival was a way of responding creatively to everyday environmental dilemmas. We had been watching, with concern, Southeast Asian elders fishing in the river and its canals and children swimming in canals near industrial sites. Reports from local residents also indicated that Southeast Asian families frequently fished in ponds adjacent to unmarked hazardous waste dumps, and that fish caught there were at times resold to local Southeast Asian markets. Our partnership was meanwhile receiving regular fish advisories published by the state reminding residents not to eat certain species of fish caught locally. Far from being helpful, however, these warnings were unintelligible to the local residents. They were filled with technical language, used unfamiliar location names, employed American terms for the fish, and were not written in Khmer or Lao. Compounding the problem was the fact that many Cambodians were not literate in their own language or in English. As a partnership we saw we could not rely on standard public education approaches.

Indeed, we found that diet, tradition, culture, recreation, and the economy were deeply intertwined in ways that were not addressed in conventional outreach communications. The partnership spent time in one of several local Buddhist temples with the nuns learning their traditions of preparing and cooking fish, which showed us which parts of the fish were consumed (we were especially concerned about the fatty parts where heavy metals accumulate). We held community conversations at other Buddhist temples (one new temple had relocated because it had been next to an uncapped landfill and Laotians were suffering health effects from their visits to this holy place) in which we exchanged personal fishing stories with Laotian elders so we could learn about parallel traditions.

Because the testing of local fish was inadequate, we made plans to catch fish ourselves to test in a state toxicology lab. The canals are filled with schools of large bottom-feeding carp that can be seen swimming in and out of the old television sets and trash. We underestimated, however, just how skilled the Southeast Asian fishermen were in snagging these fish. We were unable to catch any without their help! Meanwhile, despite our limited knowledge about the fish, we began receiving inquiries from numerous groups, including the Army Corps of Engineers who requested our summaries on local fish consumption and fish contamination. To our dismay, we were told by many groups that we were the only source of locally useful information.

Meeting Multiple Aims

We also realized that existing water quality testing had yet to involve the Southeast Asian community. So the Partnership secured funding to hire Chhavy Sinuon, a high school student who had learned formal water quality testing during a summer of work with the local watershed association and the university's chemistry department. In addition to testing the water, we hoped to build linkages between the community and these organizations, to heighten community awareness of water issues, and to reach parents through their children. Chhavy acted as a "pied piper" of sorts, involving Southeast Asian youth in identifying testing sites where they regularly fished and swam and bringing enthusiasm for science to faculty who had not yet worked with students from immigrant backgrounds. We also used the testing program as an opportunity to draw press coverage on water quality issues and their importance to all cultures.

At the first festival, we presented results from the tests and arranged opportunities, led by Chhavy, for youth and their parents to collect water from the river and carry out the tests themselves. On the day of the festival, the colorful displays of the test results worked well to draw the attention of families, but we failed with the "hands-on" component. Parents considered the river too polluted to allow their children to wade into even shallow parts. Paradoxically, one of our partners from the city's water department insisted that no one be allowed to wear waders into the water fearing the message would be sent that the river had not been cleaned up at all.

Photo by Joshua Reynolds

An Environmental Youth Group Is Formed

Each step led to a further, sometimes unexpected, and often fruitful step for bringing new groups into the community planning process. As the festival planning moved into full gear, local youth became more interested in what we were doing, and a group of them formed the Southeast Asian River Ambassadors Program—the RAPs as they are known. What began informally as a few youth teaming to assist with the festival grew into a sustained program of community learning, outreach, and action. The RAPs continue to meet weekly, taking on a multitude of urban environmental issues—not just river cleanups, but air quality and asthma, soil contamination, brownfields, pollution prevention, and recycling.

Originally, the Environmental Justice Project had begun looking into broader environmental issues than just water quality, and the RAPs have helped to bring the Partnership back to these interconnected concerns. In pursuing them, the RAPs discovered the history of initiatives by environmental justice pioneers, such as Lois Gibbs' work on the Love Canal. They made this information their own by transforming the Love Canal story into a Jerry Springer-type show they knew would reach a teen audience and help them apply what they learned to Lowell's own environmental challenges. Those musically-inclined among the RAPs created songs that spoke to environmental justice and urban ecology. And they published essays and environmental reviews.

The RAPs Draw in Other Helpers

The RAPs also began efforts to reach out to other interest and age groups, hoping more community residents would become informed and involved. They worked to draw in faculty from the university: chemistry faculty to help with water quality testing, philosophy faculty to involve students from the university's environmental philosophy classes as mentors and participants. To reach middle school students, the RAPs created a pilot environmental day camp for the local school. And most importantly, the RAP students kept trying to draw their parents in because they worried about how little their parents knew about urban environmental issues. One of the struggles the RAPs faced in all of this work was their young age; coming from an elder-oriented culture they faced great barriers to being seen as credible sources. Much of the groupıs success in overcoming such challenges is attributable to their two adult leaders and mentors, Khan Chao and Rassany Khakeo, who created the program as college students and have sustained it for four years, expanding the group to include youth from many different refugee and immigrant communities.

Creating a Cable Television Show

All of these efforts helped the partnership begin to understand the kinds of time-pressured environmental decisions families have to make, and the serious environmental issues that are a part of everyday lives. People in their neighborhoods are buying lead-contaminated houses, renting damp apartments that could elevate rates of asthma, gardening below windows framed in peeling lead paint, or starting businesses such as nail salons, dry cleaning, or home day care where environmental concerns are urgent.

At the same time there were intergenerational tensions to be addressed. The RAP group talked about the estrangement they sometimes felt with regard to their parents and other elders in the community. And the parents of Southeast Asian youth often said they were losing their children to American culture just as they had lost their families to the Khmer Rouge. We kept being reminded of how very hard it is for generations to understand each other and wondered if there might be ways to shape our activities so that we would not exacerbate the problem.

Bringing these two concerns together, the partnership sought out resources for creating a series of local cable television shows for the Southeast Asian community on environmental decision-making. The shows would be produced by the RAP members and would include technical information, but would also emphasize interviews with elders about their environmental experiences in Cambodia and Laos. The completed shows included episodes on air and water quality, lead, and recycling, but the key to their success was the way they bridged generational differences by including elders speaking about traditional environmental practices as well as trendier information about Internet web sites of interest to teens.

traditional cambodian racing boat

Photo by Joshua Reynolds

Exploring Urban Aquaculture Opportunities

The Partnership also raised money to bring traditional fishing and aquaculture artifacts over from Cambodia to be displayed at the Water Festival. These artifacts included traditional fishing nets and bamboo hoop baskets that were used to catch fish in the Mekong and Tonle Sap (the largest fresh water lake in Southeast Asia, now nearly barren but at one time called the "breadbasket" of the region). We also discovered accounts of traditional aquaculture practices that had been followed on the Mekong River for generations. After the festival, leaders from around the state, who were knowledgeable about aquaculture and intrigued by these historical practices, sought possible opportunities in Lowell. They wondered if the community had given thought to starting an urban aquaculture initiative in Lowell—perhaps in the abandoned mills or brownfields.

The partnership hosted meetings for leaders throughout the refugee and immigrant community to gauge interest. One of our members, Cheryl West, received National Science Foundation-funded training, and we began to form links with experienced groups in other parts of New England. We wanted to consider not only the economic opportunities, but also any potential environmental impacts of intensive indoor fish farming. We explored business plans by which old industrial sites might be utilized, including a small demonstration project with the Cambodian Mutual Assistance Association in which fish would be raised in renovated textile mills. We recruited university faculty who specialize in environmental engineering issues to involve graduate students in designing ways to address waste issues. We convinced the State Heritage Park to set up aquaculture educational demonstrations on the river at the site where the festival occurs annually. A new nutritional project has partnered university faculty with the community to test the possibilities of raising nutritionally enhanced fish.

Conflict as a Part of the Effort

As a community, we moved a long way drawing on culture and history to approach environmental issues effectively. Some steps, however, also raised conflicts. For people who had escaped the "killing fields," those conflicts could be deep. A community tension arose over whether the Buddhist monks should oversee the festival, as is traditional in Cambodia, or whether a partnership including non-Southeast Asians could appropriately facilitate a secular approach, one that might recognize that Southeast Asians in Lowell were increasingly of diverse faiths. A Vietnamese cultural group wanted to participate, but many Khmer elders still bore witness to the role that Vietnam played in invading Cambodia.

Early on, scholars from a folk life center were insistent that emphasis in the festival be on authenticity. They argued that only non-power hand tools should be used to build the boats that would be used to recreate the historic races. When Cambodian leaders gently observed that hand tools are not used these days even in Cambodia, the folk life experts refused to continue participating, labeling the festival as merely an exercise in community organizing and not a true re-creation of Southeast Asian traditions. Conflicts between Cambodian and Laotian communities also kept arising, often having a strong historical flavor of events in Southeast Asia but also reflecting differences in size and visibility of the communities.

The whole process of interacting with the public officials was often puzzling and conflict-ridden. As planners we were new to this process and had to obtain all manner of permits for the festival (permits for park usage, cooking food, water craft); most things in the city were run on an informal basis, so the rules were often unstated, making it difficult to know what was required. And, we forgot to involve the police in our planning process the first year. On the day of the festival, a New England SWAT-type team was sent with reinforcements because of rumors that so many Southeast Asians gathering in one place would likely erupt in gang violence. As a precautionary measure, the police asked us to close the festival early because of their concerns about gang violence, that in the end never materialized. And, conflicts emerged after the festival, which were outgrowths of its success. The festival was so well received that we were asked as a partnership to submit a proposal to a regional bank that hoped to underwrite the cost of next year's festival. To our dismay, when one of the partners sent a proposal to not only that bank but to all of the banks' competitors, it cost us the support of every bank.

Sometimes we felt overwhelmed by the many mistakes we had made. Yet, it was these very conflicts and mistakes—and how we overcame them—that became the basis for Lowell's "All American City" designation. The festival has now become an important tradition in Lowell with thousands of families participating each year.

History as a Model

What have we learned from all of these experiences? In many ways, what we have come to as a community is our own way of combining culture, economic development, and a concern for the environment through the use of history. The challenge—always the challenge for Lowell—is how to use the collective history. The ugly history of the mills. The stark history of the killing fields. The history of discrimination against immigrants by people who were once immigrants themselves. The history of industrial contamination that grew out of the very innovations that placed our city on the map. Even the bumpy history of our coming together and working with each other.

These histories are not pretty; they are complicated. And disagreements abound about whether such history is best brought up or hidden. Indeed, young Cambodian men continue to die in their sleep in our community because, some say, of the history they were forced by the Khmer Rouge to be a part of. (A valued member of the Environmental Justice Partnership and one of the central planners of the first festival, Noreth Som, died in his sleep of unexplained causes a few months before the festival. He had come to the United States after suffering greatly during the Pol Pot years. The first Water Festival was dedicated to Noreth's memory.). Asserting that history is to be recognized, to be a basis for activity is thus a serious proposition, and hardly without consequences.

Yet in Lowell we are successful to the extent that we keep weaving these histories together, we keep blending our histories. We reach into our rich complex past and find instructive examples, models, traditions, and guides. We mix it up in different ways as we integrate it with the present. And, without anybody quite planning for such a thing to happen, certain members of the community come forward to serve as historical guides and tie their perspectives to activism: the monks, the survivors of the Khmer Rouge, people who track the environmental history of the Merrimack River, national park interpreters who see the value of drawing on Lowell's immigrant history, Southeast Asian elders who remember how villagers went into the mountains to find the trees with appropriate spirits to be made into the racing canoes. And we have the blenders: people who look for ways to create common ground between traditions and between generations. These two groups are helping to build sustainability in our community.

We started with a vision to solve environmental problems. What we discovered in the process is the interconnection of environmental issues to other parts of life and how to draw on our unique community resources. Together we turned problems on their heads. We also learned that the best way to effect change is not to try to change things immediately but to learn enough about our community that we can build partnerships. The partnerships allow change to occur in more creative ways, and ways that can be sustained over time and across obstacles.

Dr. Linda Silka co-directs the Center for Family, Work, and Community at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, where she is Professor of Regional Economic and Social Development. Dr. Silka involves community residents, students, and faculty in using new technologies such as community mapping with geographic information systems. In 1999, she was honored with the University of Massachusetts President's Award for Outstanding Professional Service, and the Center she co-directs has received a HUD "Best Practice" award for their economic development work with refugee and immigrant communities.

Portions of this project's research were funded by the National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences Environmental Justice Partnership Grant, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Community Outreach Partnership Grant, the Greater Lowell Community Foundation, and the University of Massachusetts Lowell.

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Resources for University and Community Partnerships

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