Laotian community fights Chevron, environmental injustice
on December 10, 2009
To encourage the Laotian community to fight against environmental injustice, the Laotian Organizing Project in Richmond has been working for almost 15 years to educate the Laotian refugee and immigrants how to speak up for their rights in the United States.
Laotian Organizing Project (LOP) is an community organizing group set up in 1995 by Asian Pacific Environmental Network, an activist group in the Bay Area aiming to help Asian Pacific Islander communities seek environmental and social justice. The LOP aims to educate and train the Laotian community in Richmond to stand up and voice their concerns about the well being of their community.
The LOP’s most recent campaign is against the expansion of the Chevron refinery in Richmond. After a three-year campaign, the LOP and other activist groups eventually won the case and the court ordered Chevron to halt the project in June this year.
And they’re still working on the Chevron campaign, as the case has been brought back to court. The LOP aims to collect 1,000 postcards with signatures from the community by January to present to the Richmond City Council. By talking to people at supermarkets, parking lots and grocery stores, they collected 800 postcards since this September.
Speaking of the recent one-million donation from Chevron to five non-profit organizations in Richmond, one of the two staff organizers with the LOP, Torm Nompraseurt, 54, said it is insulting to him. “They had 20 billion profit last year and if they really want to help the Richmond community, they should have done more,” he said.
Richmond is home to thousands of Laotian war refugees whom arrived in the US from 1975 to the early 1990s. According to LOP, 10,000 Laotians currently live in West Contra Costa County. And, most of them are of low income. In LOP’s opinion this makes them vulnerable to social injustice.
Nompraseurt says he was the first Laotian settled in Richmond. He escaped from Laos before the Communist took over his country in 1975, and immigrated to the US as a refugee. Having worked in social services in Richmond for almost 30 years, he says he now knows every single Laotian family here.
South Asian immigrants from Laos and other South Asian countries, Nompraseurt said, are not used to participating in the political process, because they didn’t have a political culture comprable to that of the US.
“Because of their cultural background, people are scared to speak in front of the authorities,” Nompraseurt said. “On the other hand, they’re shy. People who speak for the first time, we can see, they were nervous and they were shaking.”
This is what the LOP has been striving to change.
The first successful change they brought about was a multi-lingual emergency warning system in Richmond after a fire in Chevron in 1999. The fire caused environmental and health hazard, yet at that time there was only one English-language warning system.
LOP then encouraged the Laotian community to campaign for a multi-lingual warning system by testifying at the Richmond City Council meeting, To prepare, the LOP invited people to house meetings before the council meeting and explained to them how they could achieve this goal.
They also taught people how to speak succinctly and tell their personal stories to move the city council. “We had to prep people several times before the meeting to make sure they were ready,” Nompraseurt said.
The warning system eventually got approved, which built the fame of the LOP in the community as well as in the city. And the Laotian community realized they could actually change policies.
Over the past ten years, the LOP has also organized campaigns against rent increases, and to establish a South Asian student advisory program at Richmond High school.
Through those campaigns, the Laotian community is more willing to participate in the political process now. “Most of our leaders are now sophisticated to talk about the issues and campaign on behalf of the community,” said Nompraseurt. Now the LOP has about 25 campaign leaders and a couple hundred of members.
The LOP also works on communication between older and younger generations as well. According to Sandy Saeteurn, 26, the other staff organizer with the LOP, they invite the Laotian women elders to teach gardening and sewing — activities essential to Laotian culture — to young Laotian girls.
“What’s sad is we’re losing our own culture. Through the project we adopt the American way while have our own culture preserved,” Saeteurn said. “We teach the seniors to learn how to vote and how to voice their opinions; and the youth learn from seniors our own culture. We’re seeking the balance between both generations.”
Although Nompraseurt has been encouraging people to speak for their own rights and participate in the political process, he himself doubts how political decisions are made. He thinks sometimes the process lasts too long and things might not change, despite of all their efforts.
“But we have to have people take part,” he said. “Because if people don’t get involved, it’ll get worse; if people are involved, you might get something out of it.”
The biggest achievement, Nompraseurt believes the LOP has, is “to make sure people understand that they can — not just understand—that they can fight against injustice policy.”
“We have done that in terms of Chevron. People said Chevron is too big to fight,” Nompraseurt said. “We said no. That was the process we needed to go through. And we won it.”
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