Standing in solidarity with “Mother Emanuel” Families in Charleston, South Carolina one year later

By Raul Vasquez

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As I rode in the back of a taxi on a warm Sunday morning in June through the historic streets of Charleston, South Carolina, it seemed at first glance like a perfectly normal day. Couples leisurely pushed strollers. Vendors set up booths at an outdoor market. Picturesque horse-drawn carriages rolled along by the light traffic.

I asked the driver to drop me at Marion Square, in the heart of the city and a few hundred feet from the African Methodist Emanuel Episcopal Church.

Over the last few years, Americans have seen groups of civilians massacred on a scale that can only be described as shocking. To cite them, we only need mention their city: Orlando… San Bernardino… Roseburg… Dallas…

And Charleston.

Just after 8 p.m. on June 17, 2015, a young man joined a Bible study group at the AME Church. After an hour of sitting with churchgoers, who’d welcomed him, he shot and killed nine of them.

The next day, when he was being interrogated by the FBI, he said his goal was to start a race war in the United States.

A few weeks after the shooting, the granddaughters of one of the victims, the Reverend Daniel Simmons, Sr., were invited to Public Allies’ National Leadership Institute to share their story, and to describe the birth of their campaign, “Hate Won’t Win,” which was a direct response to the killings. This June, the sisters — Ava and Alana Simmons — invited Public Allies to be a part of their March for Unity in Charleston on the first anniversary of the tragedy.

“The purpose of this event,” wrote Alana in the invitation, “is to have people from all walks of life stand in love against the hateful acts that took the lives of nine wonderful souls.”

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When I emerged from the taxi on the morning of Saturday, June 18, I cut through the seeming normality of Charleston to join hundreds of people who’d assembled in front of the AME Church. Most of those in attendance had personally known some or all of the nine people who were killed here exactly a year earlier.

For some of them, being here on the first anniversary brought back fresh the pain and anguish.

As I was waiting for the service to start, I began a conversation with a woman who told me that one of her family members was among the killed, and that this was the first time she had participated in any memorial service for the victims.

“It’s been just too painful,” she said. “That night I was going to be at the prayer service, but at the last minute I couldn’t make it…”

We stood for a short prayer service in front of the AME Church, and afterward everyone began to march to another plaza a few blocks away, where a large tent had been set up. Those who couldn’t fit inside stood nearby to listen to speakers such as Ava Simmons and Dr. Bernice King, daughter of Martin Luther King, Jr.

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The message of the day — not just in words, but actions — was love. A love for community. A love by and for the people who have been carrying the weight of their loss. And as the service carried on, I stood there in the hard shade of a midday Charleston summer day, and I could feel the power of their love.

Through all the pain, in spite of such a hurtful, hateful attack on their community, the people of Charleston and especially the members of then AME Church congregation had found the courage to come together to love one another, to show forgiveness, and to recommit to the bonds that make them a community.

There were many tears that day, but there were many more embraces, and warm smiles. Healing itself seemed to hang in the air.

After the service, I walked back to the AME Church. When I reached  the base of the building that held a flower-filled memorial for the victims, I saw a young woman clutching a single red rose while she sang and wailed at the top of her voice.

She stayed in that spot on the sidewalk for several minutes. A couple with two children were walking past the AME Church and saw her. They walked closer to her and stood by her side. The mother of the family gently laid her hand on the back of the young woman’s neck for a few moments.

Soon after, I saw the same young woman walking away from the AME Church, looking completely exhausted. The family’s mother now had her arm around the young woman’s shoulder, and together they all walked away from the church.

“This is the first time I cried since it happened,” I could overhear the young woman saying as she wiped the tears from her eyes. “I haven’t been able to cry until today.”

Arizona Ally and LGBTQ activist Sam Castro helps create safe spaces at high school after tragedy

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A few months into Sam Castro’s time as an AmeriCorps Public Ally in Phoenix, Arizona, tragedy struck a nearby high school. Two young women who had been romantically involved died in a double-shooting. The event shook the campus, and unfortunately attracted attention from anti-gay activists who chose to protest outside the school while students and faculty were still in mourning. Sam had been serving her apprenticeship with the organization one•n•ten, a support organization for LGBTQ youth, which was invited by school officials to help create a Gay Straight Alliance club on campus, to enable students to feel safe expressing themselves.

For Sam, who holds a Bachelor’s degree in family and human development, this was the kind of work she was passionate about. As a young woman, she had to face her own challenges in coming out as queer. In this Q and A, Sam talks about her leadership journey as an advocate for the rights of LGBTQ people.

Q. Tell us about yourself growing up.

A. I moved several times growing up, so most of my life it was hard to find confidence and stability within myself. I was raised in a traditional, Catholic and Filipino household, and I was very quiet and reserved. Moving to California helped me step out of my shell and truly find myself and my voice. I was class Secretary for Student Government, as well as editor for both the school newspaper and daily video news.

I’m sure my parents would say that I was rebellious growing up because of how strictly they tried to raise me and because of the obstacles I went through with coming out. I was an adventurous teenager who wasn’t afraid of taking risks, and with my parents being immigrants from the Philippines, they were conflicted about how I should present myself because they were not accustomed to American culture. Most of the dreams I had at that age involved helping others and traveling around the world.

Q. What was it like coming out to your friends and family?

A. I definitely felt a lot of pressure and anxiety in terms of coming out. When I was younger, I suffered through a lot of internal homophobia before I accepted the fact that I was queer. I always had attraction to masculine genders but it was when I was in middle school that I realized I was attracted to feminine genders just as much, if not more. I would consistently lie about the women I dated, as well. While my friends were accepting of this part of me, my parents believed it was a phase of confusion, and that I was being influenced by others. I believe coming out is an everyday process for people who don’t follow the heteronormative structures of society. The pressure of validating or explaining my sexuality is something that I will always have to overcome.

Q. There was a tragedy that happened at a high school you worked at while you were serving your AmeriCorps apprenticeship. Can you tell us what happened?

A. It was unfortunate that two young students in Phoenix faced difficulties in their lives regarding their personal identities. I can’t go into much detail, out of respect for the two young women and their families, but the situation resulted in their deaths. There was a lot of negative publicity and anti-gay protestors showed up at the ladies’ school following that day. It made for a very solemn and unwelcoming vibe for those at the school still mourning.

Q. What role did you play at the school after the tragedy?

A. After the tragedy, I had the chance to visit and speak to the students and the Gay-Straight Alliance sponsors about their feelings towards the situation. I introduced the class to one·n·ten’s safe-space guidelines, which is a list of rules we abide by that guard and encourage each person’s self-respect, and the respect of others. I also explained the services that my placement offers, and the many ways they can benefit from the resources we provide. Additionally, I offered advice and team building strategies on how to maintain solid connections among the GSA members. It was my goal to give them tools to help form their new GSA, and empower them to embrace their uniqueness.

Q. You seem to be a strong role model, not just for people of the LGBTQ community, but really anyone.

A.It is an honor to hear that I have been a strong role model for some, although I definitely have not always been this way. I had a lot of suicidal tendencies when I was younger, and suffered a lot from depression, substance abuse, and self-harm. I used to feel very inadequate, and sometimes I still can, but I’ve learned that the things I was ashamed of about myself are actually things I should be proud of. Really, my resilience to move past those dark moments is what helps me find my self-confidence.

Q. What is one thing that society needs to change for our LGBTQ community, and how do you see yourself playing a role in it?

A. A huge thing that society needs to change is the stigma that is directed towards individuals in the queer community. It is the discrimination and alienation of LGBTQ individuals that instill the fear of coming out in young people. Every day, I see youth like myself getting kicked out or running away due to their identities. Our well-being as adults is highly influenced by the way we are brought up in our youth, and if our kids are facing barriers to housing, education, resources and health services at such a young age, it makes it harder to achieve self-confidence and overall success.  I see myself playing a role in this change by educating others on the importance of inclusivity and acceptance. With gay marriage being legalized, as well as a lack of education on LGBT matters, a large portion of people don’t realize that there are still discriminatory laws in place, or that there is a lack of laws protecting against discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation. Subsequently, people aren’t aware of the amount of exploitation and violence that the queer community faces. I am aiming to bring these issues to the face of society and hopefully lead people to be the change the LGBTQ community needs.

Q. What do you think are the best ways to bring these issues to light?

A. Education is important to get messages across; I want to pursue my work in the social sector and continue advocating for the LGBTQ community whether it be through outreach, working for policy changes, program coordination within organizations, counseling LGBTQ youth, facilitating educational workshops on LGBTQ matters, and more. I see myself playing a role in being the change that society needs by continually being the voice to educate those who are unsupportive of the community, or simply unaware of LGBTQ issues and risk factors that our youth may be facing. Regardless of anyone’s beliefs, it is important to use inclusive language and behaviors, and to know how to provide LGBTQ youth with safe spaces within the school, workplace, and home. Through my work, my goal is to continue helping my LGBT brothers and sisters in their journeys, as well as educating our allies on how to effectively support our community and the development of queer youth.

Q. What is your next step, and your future goal?  Will it involve more experience like this, in either a nonprofit or in LGBTQ support?

A. I definitely see myself remaining within the nonprofit sector, but anything within social services is my aim. There are many underserved and oppressed communities I would love to offer support to, such as those who suffer from homelessness, mental health issues, substance abuse, and more. But, within serving those populations, I know I will never stop focusing on my LGBTQ community.

Chicago Alum James Marvin Taylor receives CNCS’ Harkin Award

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James Taylor remembers his mother as the kind of person who was always driven to be of service to others — someone who would help out everyone she possibly could, all the time.

“The whole community knew who our family was,” says James, a recent graduate of Public Allies Chicago’s AmeriCorps program who Sept. 22 was awarded the Tom Harkin Excellence in AmeriCorps Award by the Corporation for Community and National Service (CNCS). “If it was within her means to help someone in the family or the community, she’d do it.”

When James’ mother lost her ability to care for herself and her family because of her struggle with multiple sclerosis, James — still a child — stepped up.

“My mother had done everything for us, but it got to a point where I was the one taking care of her,” he says. “It went from me being her kid, to her being like my child. That’s what I took on.”

James’ mother died when he was 18 years old, and after a difficult period of mourning, he says he has chosen to carry on her mission to serve others.

“I feel like I carry on her spirit.”

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Besides embodying this desire and willingness to serve others, James exhibits another trait very clearly, according to those who have gotten to work with him: Perseverance.

“His attitude speaks for itself,” says Kimberly Mercer, a manager at Chicago Public Schools’ (CPS’) Office of Diverse Learner Supports + Services. “He’s always persevering. He overcame incredible personal struggle just to come to work every day, which wasn’t obvious to his coworkers. He’s a remarkable person.”

When James was an Ally, he served his 10-month apprenticeship working for CPS’ Department of Rehabilitation Services. Kimberly was his supervisor. When his apprenticeship ended, she hired James as a full-time employee. It’s easy to understand why.

The department James worked in at CPS has a caseload of about 1,600 students — many who are special education students needing assistance to stay on track to graduate and transition to higher education or the workforce.

“I saw a lot of students falling through the cracks,” said James, remembering his first weeks as an Ally placed at CPS. “We had a lot of files that hadn’t been dealt with, that were sitting there for days, longer. I couldn’t understand how it happened.”

Seeing those stagnant files reminded him of his own harrowing experience at a university in Virginia, where he describes being given the runaround for a few semesters until, frustrated, he dropped out.

“I didn’t want to let that happen to anyone else,” he says.

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James says he carries the spirit of service his mother, Mary Vivian Taylor, modeled for him.

James took the initiative. Led by a belief that “there has to be a better way,” James got to work developing a new system that CPS could use to keep track of students who were referred to the Rehabilitation Services department. After some trial and error, he had it up and running.

The department embraced James’ innovation, which allowed staff to easily track whether a student was moving forward in getting services or needed attention. James also made it a priority to analyze the data regularly himself and advocate on behalf of students who weren’t moving forward in the system.

“James went above and beyond the call of duty,” says Kimberly. “When we had the opportunity to hire him for a full-time position after his 10-month period of service, it was a no-brainer.”

Through this whole period, James still faced his own personal struggles that few knew about.

When he graduated from high school, James attempted to enlist in the military, but it was then that a physical examination revealed that he, like his mother, had multiple sclerosis.

When James dropped out of university, he made his way to Chicago to work as a computer service technician through Job Corps. But after that year was over, he had a hard time finding a new job. Soon, he didn’t have enough money to pay rent and was homeless.

James arrived at the Breakthrough Urban Ministries shelter for the homeless. There, he enrolled in the Peace Corner Youth Center’s career development program, and was referred to Public Allies. James applied, was accepted, and was matched to complete his service with Chicago Public Schools.

Even though CPS hired him full-time after his 10-month apprenticeship, James encountered a major setback after only a few months into the job. Because of severe budget cuts to education in the state of Illinois, nearly half of the CPS’ Department of Rehabilitation Services was laid off. James, one of the recent hires, was among the seven employees who were let go.

Nonetheless, Kimberly says her department continues to use the system he created to ensure that student files don’t fall through the cracks. “It was difficult to absorb the body of work he was doing,” she says. “We miss him a ton.”

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James Ricardo Taylor III embraces his son moments before James walks up to accept the CNCS Harkin Award in Washington, DC on Sept. 22.

James has been unemployed since January, and was surprised when he learned he would be traveling to Washington, DC this month to accept CNCS’ Harkin Award.

“I’m still shocked about it,” James says. “I’m a person that’s not used to winning. I’ve always been about helping other people, giving them my all. But it’s truly a blessing, and a wake-up call that there’s more work to be done.

“This whole thing is a journey,” says James, still taken aback by the recognition and the attention he’s starting to receive. “A huge step-by-step journey.”

Brittany Packnett: Fight injustice, choose solidarity

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Brittany Packnett delivered a powerful keynote address at Public Allies’ August 2016 National Leadership Institute, where she was presented with the Living Our Values award for her dedication to equity, social justice, and education.

“Listen intently to those who have most been affected by social injustice, and there is no way that you will not be forever changed,” said Brittany, Executive Director of Teach for America–St. Louis, a member of the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, and an organizer of Black Lives Matter.

Her keynote, delivered to hundreds of Public Allies leaders, staff, alumni, and Board Members gathered in Pittsburgh for the annual conference, followed Brittany’s own personal journey to hold on to hope in the face of so much injustice and inequity.

“I think of what a middle schooler in Ferguson said to me with no words at all,” said Brittany, recalling the Missouri city’s uprising after the death of Michael Brown, who was shot by a police officer. “The first time I was tear gassed, I was standing next to this 8th grader. Running, I lost track of him. When I cleared my eyes and caught my breath and could finally function without pained sinuses or burning lungs, I went to look for him.”

When Brittany spotted him, she saw that he had wiped his eyes, picked up his cardboard sign, and walked right back out into the middle of the street.

“With his feet, he said ‘courage,’” she declared. “With his courage, he gives hope. With his hope, my feet follow his back into the street, back into the fight — feet firmly planted forever in the struggle for freedom, both his and mine.

“I won’t ever know his name. But he is my constant reminder that we always have and we always will be the ones we have been waiting for — and there is no age, no zip code, no race, no language or circumstance that will ever change that.”

Challenging everyone present to fight injustice and to stand with those most affected by it, Brittany’s final request to our network was a clarion call to each of us to live out Public Allies’ values:

“I’m asking us to move beyond charity and toward solidarity. I’m asking you to be good allies, but to be even better accomplices.”

Public Allies New York alum: ‘I was born to serve, love, and lead’

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When Karl Valere was growing up on Long Island, he remembers hearing a lot of anti-Haitian sentiment expressed on TV and across the world. His parents, who were born and raised in Haiti, would say to him: “We’re not what they say we are. We’re more than that. We have dignity. We respect ourselves and this country, and we love living in this country. That’s who we are. That’s why we’re here.”

Despite his parents’ encouragement, when he was about 7 years old, Karl admits that when someone would ask him about his background, he sometimes responded by saying he was Cuban. “I actually sort of bent under the pressure of the stigma that was associated with Haitians,” Karl says. “For me, that was a survival tactic.”

Today, Karl is not only proud of his Haitian heritage, but the 26-year-old young man has committed himself to fighting for Haitian and other Caribbean communities in New York. Karl graduated from Public Allies New York’s AmeriCorps program in 2014, during which time he worked in Brooklyn for a tenants’ rights organization, and was chosen by his Ally peers to deliver the class’s valedictorian speech. After Public Allies, Karl went on to found The Elmont Excelsior, Inc., a multifaceted civic-engagement initiative in Elmont, Long Island, and he’s also pursuing his Master’s degree in Urban Affairs at Queens College.

For Karl, there’s no doubt about what his purpose in life is now. “My focus is on creating far-reaching, generational impact that improves people’s lives,” he says. “If it’s work that’s just sort of tinkering on the margins, then you’re not going to find me there.”

Below, read the entire inspiring transcript of Karl’s valedictorian speech that he delivered to the Public Allies New York Class of 2014, in which he describes the personal transformation he experienced as an AmeriCorps Ally.

Speech by Karl Valere to the Public Allies New York Class of 2014:

I’ve never given a speech before. In fact, the closest I ever got to something like this was back in the 6th grade, when I caught a bug and decided to run for class president. So bear with me it’s been a while. And I’d like to thank the graduation committee for selecting me to do this, but this just means I did a terrible job of hiding myself these past 10 months.

Back in school I didn’t always have the best grades and I wasn’t the most talkative either; an advantage both my running mates in the 6th grade election had over me. But it was okay because all you needed was two votes—two nominations from your classmates to run for class president.

While I wasn’t a straight-A student or the most outgoing, I could connect with people naturally and at a very basic level. Surely I could convince at least two people that I was cool.

One of the many cool things about the Public Allies program is that it allows you to be who you are naturally.

At my placement, I’ve had the opportunity to serve the people of Flatbush in Brooklyn who live in rent-regulated apartments. I had no prior experience. Still, I quickly found that many different parts of the work truly resonated with me, and spoke inspiringly to my life’s commitments. I was able to help folks win repairs, connect them to non-profit services, and inform tenants of their legal rights both in English and in my parents’ language of Haitian-Creole. For me, this was special.

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During his time with Flatbush Tenant Coalition and Public Allies New York in 2014, Karl (standing with vest and tie) moderated a press conference where Brooklyn tenant leaders filed a discrimination lawsuit against their landlord. Also present were tenant leader Thomas Williams (center), Brooklyn Deputy Borough President Diana Reyna (2nd from left, with scarf), and Council Member Mathieu Eugene (3rd from left).

Now no one told me this, but when you go into housing you see it all – holes in walls, leaky ceilings, mold, mildew, you name it. Buildings neglected and fallen into disrepair. But as most of you Allies know, the challenges only made the successes that much sweeter.

I got to watch folks take back their homes, and be a part of something exciting that improved their lives and that connected them to a deeper sense of community in their neighborhoods. And again, I didn’t just watch, I got to be a part of that as well. The partnership between myself and our tenant leaders was such that they confided in me as a human resource, an advocate and an Ally in their struggle. It felt good to be helpful, to be needed.

The future is now.

This experience has awakened in me a confidence I can’t say that I always had.

Somehow back in 6th grade I managed to win the support of a few people who said they were willing to vote for me. It was nice to hear. But it didn’t matter. I had dropped out of the race early on simply because I decided they had asked too much of me. A personal essay, campaign posters, a petition for signatures. I didn’t really want to be at the forefront, and now they were giving me more homework? For me that was all the more incentive to gracefully bow out.

Hidden inside this adolescent experience was and in some ways still is a valuable lesson for me. There’s many different ways to be a leader. Humility does not suggest invisibility. You see, my instinct was to make myself small. Play it down. To tell myself all that I couldn’t do before I gave it a decent try. Even if I had support of my friends and family behind me. Now I know better.

Now is the future. And the future is now because – well, think back to a year ago when we were all candidate-hopefuls taking a chance on this Public Allies thing we’d heard about. Some of us fresh out of school, others on the heels of a bold move; all of us unsure, not knowing what to expect but taking a bold leap of faith on this nationally recognized, widely-renowned organization.

For some of us it wasn’t the program we doubted, it was ourselves. Did we have what it takes? Were we really cut out for ten months of service in New York City? Could we all work together? (The TSP certainly answered that last question!)

The future is now because think how quickly our first retreat came & went. It was early in the year and many of us were still adjusting, still learning – so naturally there were tensions.

But by the time midyear retreat came around I think it’s safe to say our defenses were down. I’m sure all of us remember that exercise we did at midyear retreat—now I won’t mention it by name, but the one that had everybody busted up like we just got done watching “The Notebook” with Oprah while cutting up some onions? Yeah, that one. What I learned from that exercise is we don’t give ourselves nearly enough credit for the good that we do. How we show up in other people’s lives and the positive impact we have on others. The fact is it is undeniable. We are who we are. We’re do-gooders. That doesn’t mean we’re perfect. But the beautiful thing about service is you don’t have to be.

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After Public Allies, Karl, far left, founded The Elmont Excelsior in Long Island. One of its projects was to bring awareness to a young Elmont man’s unique birthday experience, which consisted of gathering his friends to distribute food and clothes to homeless residents in New York City. The story went viral online and was covered by local media.

As someone once said, ‘[Service] is about being confident in your fullness and humble in your emptiness as well.’

Now, if I may, let me tell you what this program did not do. Public Allies did not make me a new person; instead it freed me to be the kind of person I always knew I could be. For my family, for my community and for myself. Public Allies did not transform me into a leader, but time and again it exposed me to opportunities to lead. Public Allies did not teach me how to be on time. I have to help myself out with that. But what it did show me was the value of my presence in the community, and how missed my contributions were when I was not around.

Public Allies isn’t just a program, it’s a culture. It’s a lifestyle. This idea that everyone leads is the cornerstone of transformative change in our communities. Integrity, asset focus, diversity/inclusion, continuous learning and collaboration – these aren’t just core values, to me they’re cardinal directions to guide us through the journey of life.

You might even say Public Allies is like a basketball team. We’ve had intense practices, we’ve been well-coached, now it’s time to get into the game. Those muscles we’ve been building and flexing for the past 10 months – it’s time to go out there and put them to the test, give the world what we’ve got, and be confident that our best is good enough.

They say the two most important days in your life are the day that you’re born, and the day you realize why you were born. Back in elementary school I obviously needed more time to figure it out. But as I stand before you here today it has become perfectly clear – I was born to serve. I was born to love. I was born to lead. We all were. Let us not shrink and allow anybody even our own selves to make us feel small. Get big. Dream big. Do good. Do it. Do it. Do it. Do it. Do it. Do it.

Go do good.

Thank you.

-Karl A. Valere

Inspired by family’s survival, Los Angeles Ally commits to fighting for marginalized communities of all backgrounds

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As a child growing up in Southern California, Sophanarot Sam would listen intently to her grandmother’s stories about what it was like to survive the Cambodian genocide that took the lives of one-quarter of the population from 1975-1979. Those stories still inspire her many years later.

Sophanarot Sam wasn’t yet born the day the Cambodian genocide began. But she knows what happened because her grandmother was one of the millions of people who in 1975 were displaced from their homes at gun-point and forced into slave labor on Pol Pot’s infamous “killing fields.”

Twenty-five percent of Cambodia’s population perished in the genocide over a four-year period, but her grandmother survived, and she made it a point to frequently share her survival story with all of her grandchildren.

“She says she was at home in her bedroom, it was night time, and these men barged into her house, tore it apart and took anything that resembled any paperwork, anything that looked like education, anything that resembled new developments of the world,” says Sophanarot, currently an AmeriCorps Ally at Public Allies Los Angeles.

Sophanarot’s grandmother, Kimly Or, and millions of others were forcibly relocated to farms, where they survived on a daily ration of a watery rice bowl.

“It wasn’t enough, it was never enough,” says Sophanarot. “So what my grandmother did at nighttime, after they labored all day … when told to go into their tiny sheds where each family lived, she would sneak to the forest to forage for root plants, vegetables, anything she could find. She would bring this back to her shed and, with rice and water, would make this huge stew for everyone to eat.”

Her grandmother and parents eventually came to the United States as refugees, and together they raised Sophanarot and her six siblings in Los Angeles. By conventional standards, they lived in extreme poverty. Her parents struggled to put food on the table each week while working minimum wage jobs, such as janitor and seamstress. But hearing her grandmother’s stories at such a young age helped sharpen Sophanarot’s perspective of what it means to have and have not.

“Even though there were 10 of us crammed into a two-bedroom apartment,” says Sophanarot, “I felt fortunate that we had enough rice to eat, that we could eat three times a day.

“Those stories I heard growing up about my grandmother’s resourcefulness and struggles have always inspired me.”

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Sophanarot Sam, front row and center wearing white vest, with her cohort of AmeriCorps Allies at Public Allies Los Angeles.

It’s this resourcefulness, combined with a strong sense of solidarity she feels for people, that helped Sophanarot find her way to Public Allies Los Angeles, a program of CD Tech that’s based in South Los Angeles and is part of Public Allies’ national network of leadership-training programs.

Through Public Allies, Sophanarot is completing her service apprenticeship with the Southeast Asian Community Alliance, where she has been able to reconnect with the city’s Southeast Asian community and see its struggles up close.

“I see a lot of families who are at risk of being displaced and being homeless here in Los Angeles because of gentrification,” says Sophanarot, who earned Bachelor’s degrees in Sociology and Anthropology at Mills College in Oakland, and has also worked as an organizer and private tutor. “In some ways, I was fortunate in that our family was on Section 8. If we didn’t have affordable housing options, we would have been displaced as well.”

Sophanarot says she felt isolated through a large part of her school years, and suffered from depression while attending high school, where she was one of the few students with a Cambodian background.

“It wasn’t just that I was different, or my skin color, but also because I came out as queer,” she says. “There were a lot of questions around my identity as a human being, and this experience pushed me to think beyond just skin color and background, and to think of the diversity of human beings in general — and to choose to stand in solidarity with other human beings.”

Because she grew up in a refugee family, and has seen the struggles of what it means to be different and low income in a place like Los Angeles, Sophanarot has known for some time that she wants to be an educator. But now she sees that working with youth doesn’t always have to take place in the classroom.

“Any community that’s at risk of being marginalized, I want to work with them to help represent them,” she says. “I see myself as part of that community, and I want to turn my knowledge into action.

“The reality is we’re all connected,” she continues. “We forget that sometimes. We tend to recognize all our differences, but we don’t always remember all our similarities.”

Sophanarot says knowing your history — whoever you are — means better understanding your place in the world. Increasingly, she is seeing her place as an ally of marginalized peoples everywhere.

When asked to imagine what our communities would look like if they were full of justice and equity, Sophanarot says she wants to see voices that are often ignored or silent in the shaping of laws and policies finally be “highlighted, recognized, and validated.”

“I see a community of people who feel empowered to work in collective solidarity, no matter their identities,” she says. “I see people who recognize their own intersectionality as a tool to create the change they want to see.”

Sophanarot hopes to do a second year as a Public Ally so she can continue to grow as a leader. “No matter where I go I will try to make the most of what I have,” she says, remembering the legacy of tragedy and survival that her family experienced before she was born. “I am definitely a fighter.”

Chicago conversations on MLK Day lay groundwork to rebuild battered trust

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Confidentiality. Respect. Honesty. Inclusivity. These are vital to building trust among people, and they were the ground rules for Chicago’s “peace circle” conversations hosted by Public Allies and others that brought more than 140 people together in January.

Outside the temperature hovered around 0 degrees, but inside Chicago’s South Shore Cultural Center, 140 people gathered to honor the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. through the warmth of human conversation.

Among the attendees were a dozen members of the Chicago Police Department, an organization that in the last year has found itself under intense media scrutiny for a series of scandals concerning alleged abuses of power.

The event, organized through a partnership between Public Allies Chicago, Community Justice for Youth Institute, and Bridging the Divide Program, presented a daylong opportunity for Chicago youth, community members, and police officers to build trust by participating in confidential small-group conversations, also known as “peace circles.”

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A Chicago Police Officer has opportunity to listen to a community member’s point of view.

“We don’t want to pretend that these conversations will solve the problem,” says Cory Muldoon, Public Allies Chicago Deputy Director. “But this is definitely a part of the process, and they help all of us to identify the realities that need to be addressed.

“We chose to honor the legacy of Dr. King by bringing people together and allowing them to communicate with each other in ways that are not possible in other settings.”

Kathy Bankhead, a former prosecutor in the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office, expressed optimism about the power of the conversations to sow a small seed of trust among differing groups.

“I think that this conversation,” she says, “knowing what it’s like from the police officer’s perspective, learning what it’s like from the community’s perspective, the young person’s perspective, what it feels like on the street for both those parties, and having us all come together to talk about that, I think that that really is the beginning of making a difference.”

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Our AmeriCorps Allies Trina Reynolds-Tyler and Kahari Sylvian-Blackburn participated in the daylong peace circles. Trina: “It was good to hear police officers, U Chicago social work students, young people in guidance programs, all in the same room and talking about their vision for our community.” Kahari: “Today was very positive, it gave a lot of different generations a platform to speak on the same topic together, and relate to each other.”

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