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Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month Spotlight on Suely Saro, First Cambodian American Councilperson in Long Beach

Suzanne Im, Acting Senior Librarian, Digitization & Special Collections,
Suely Saro, First Cambodian American Councilperson in Long Beach
“I’m trained as an organizer. Connecting is just part of my nature.”—Suely Saro

Dr. Suely Saro won the seat for Long Beach City Council District 6 in the November 3rd, 2020 election, becoming the first person of Cambodian descent to hold political office within Long Beach, one of the nation’s most ethnically diverse cities and home to the largest Cambodian diaspora in the world. Her historic election is viewed as a major feat for the Cambodian community, not only because she defeated longtime incumbent Dee Andrews, but also because her victory antecedes the redrawing of district lines that have Cambodia Town split across four districts. Residents had been working for the last decade to move Cambodia Town into one district to improve representation and community voting power. Dr. Saro’s priorities entering office include providing pandemic relief, focusing in particular on obtaining access to food and job opportunities for her constituents, while remaining sensitive to different cultural and language needs. Dr. Saro’s vision also includes working to tackle Long Beach city's most challenging issues, such as economic development, affordable housing, homelessness, and violence.

A number of factors drove Dr. Saro to pursue political office, one being the immigrant/refugee experience. Her mother and father were aged 17 and 18 respectively and had just married before the radical communist Khmer Rouge regime overtook Cambodia in 1975—an event spurred by the U.S. bombing of neutral Cambodia as a means to intimidate Northern Vietnam during the Vietnam War. The ensuing Cambodian Genocide claimed the lives of an estimated 2 million Cambodians, nearly a quarter of the population at the time. While Dr. Saro’s parents survived to see the ousting of the Khmer Rouge, violence and corruption continued to afflict the country. Hoping to find a better life, her parents escaped to a Thai refugee camp in 1980, where Dr. Saro was born. She and her parents eventually settled in the city of Los Angeles, then El Monte, before Dr. Saro moved to the city of Long Beach. She recalls visiting the Echo Park and Central locations of the Los Angeles Public Library in her youth, where she was “always reading to improve [her]self.”

Growing up in neighborhoods in which immigrants were the majority developed Dr. Saro’s understanding of the unique challenges that confront immigrant communities, including those who suffered the effects of war and genocide, post-traumatic stress disorder, and resettlement challenges such as language and cultural barriers. From a young age, she recognized that much of her experience was marked by injustices that she had to advocate to ameliorate. She was and continues to be responsible for navigating life in America for her parents, who never finished high school. Despite not being labeled as “gifted,” she negotiated her way into honors and Advanced Placement classes at the public schools she attended, setting herself on a course toward higher education. Suely was the first in her family to attend college, and would go on to earn three degrees: a Bachelor’s degree in Molecular Cellular Developmental Biology from the University of California, Santa Cruz; a Master’s degree in Public Administration from California State University, Long Beach; and a Doctorate in Education and Organizational Leadership from the University of La Verne. Note: Counter to the model minority myth, only 14 percent of Cambodian Americans complete a four-year degree, according to American Community Survey data.

Suely Saro’s career has been dedicated to fighting for equity for working families, youth, immigrants, and women. After college, she moved to Seattle, where she was introduced to the labor movement through her friend’s parents, who were Filipino care workers. “[T]hat's how I got into the world of organizing,” she said. “I realized...a lot of my experience[s] are shaped by injustices, inequity. And I was like, wow, there's a whole world where you can fight and advocate for your rights. And I realized...that's a place where I belong, because...that's just what I've been doing. What got me here is not waiting for permission, not waiting for approval, not waiting until I had all my information, but just going, you know, really with the gut and passion and purpose of knowing that I can do the work and [I could do it well], and that I would do it with people.” Suely became a labor organizer working alongside janitors at SEIU Local 6 and healthcare workers at SEIU 1199NW in their fight for fair wages and better working conditions. She went on to become the first Cambodian American Executive Director of Khmer Girls in Action (KGA), a Long Beach nonprofit that develops leadership skills in youth to improve their schools and communities. During her 5-year stint with KGA, she brought out-of-the-box thinking and built the capacity to involve youth in participatory action research in partnership with UCLA. She later joined the Health Access Project at Asians Americans Advancing Justice Los Angeles to provide education, build coalitions, and conduct advocacy on the Affordable Care Act.

One of Dr. Saro’s proudest achievements occurred in 2005, when she embarked on a human rights delegation to Cambodia. This was her first time witnessing first-hand the disparities that existed in the country, and she felt compelled to act. During the trip, her husband introduced her to Chanveasna Nhean, a local designer, and they co-founded the Women for Women Foundation (WfWF), an NGO dedicated to alleviating poverty and empowering women with disabilities in Cambodia. The organization develops vocational training incorporating Nhean’s designs in the production and sale of handbags and accessories, leading to job placement and long-term employment. Dr. Saro continues to serve as the board chair of WfWF, which has helped over 700 Cambodian women with disabilities and their families increase their economic security by working in their social enterprise program. WfWF recently obtained World Fair Trade Organization (WFTO) certification, allowing their products to reach a worldwide audience.

With regard to the Cambodian community in Long Beach, the council member says there is a “need for bringing Cambodian Americans to this city to help us rebuild the community and the Cambodia Town area. We're going through a generational shift that's pretty natural in most communities. [The] first generation has certainly built the path and paved the way for us, [but] they've had a lot of bumpy roads along the way … If you just drive through the Cambodia Town corridor [you could see] that even the prior to the [COVID-19] pandemic, the quarter had been struggling.” Dr. Saro is heartened that there are more Cambodian Americans coming into their own professionally, and that there are even a few published writers in the diaspora who are addressing themes beyond Cambodian resilience. The overwhelming majority of western literature and news features has focused on the Khmer Rouge and survivors, a narrative built around victimization and the trauma of losing so many members of one’s family. “What do the legacies left for us mean, and how do we continue it when we're still trying to identify what it means for us to be Cambodian Americans?” she asks. “I want there to be an intentional shift by us creating our own narrative.”

The Councilwoman’s office partnered with the Asian Empowerment Association to do just this with “Remembrance and Renewal: Honoring Cambodian New Year and Cambodian Genocide Remembrance Day,” which streamed live on April 17, 2021. From community leader and owner of Phnom Pich Jewelry Charles Song to professional MMA fighter Sovannahry Em, the filmed interviews examine the multigenerational experiences and accomplishments of Cambodians who can serve as role models for future generations. She wanted this video to demonstrate not just to the Cambodian community, but the Long Beach community and society at large that Cambodians have “shifted in our place in America, in where, while we remember and honor the history of our elders and what's happened...we can allow it to strengthen us to really forge a path forward. And that is our own story that we're telling.” Dr. Saro wants to create supportive spaces, because “more than ever, in our community, we need to create that space for ourselves, because our older generation hasn't modeled the best process to do that...[and] not just a local, but at some point, a national scale, too, because another thing I’d like to do is to support other Cambodian Americans in different parts of the state running for office...And, you know, helping lift them up, makes a huge difference, right? In decreasing the isolation. Because when you do anything, it helps to have a base of supporters, you know, that will always have your back. And that's something we don't often have for our community and for our generation.”

Dr. Suely Saro in a yellow blouse
“I want there to be an intentional shift by us (Cambodian Americans) creating our own narrative.”

In Cambodia, restrictive legislation, media censorship, and judicial harassment of proponents of civil society have created a culture of silence, which may explain why few Cambodian Americans have pursued political office. When asked about how her parents feel about her serving the sixth district, Dr. Saro responded, “It still creates an uncomfortableness for my dad...He's used to politics in the homeland, where it's not about freedom of speech without getting to some extent, physically...harmed and it's not like that in the U.S.”

Suely sees her position as the only Asian American Councilmember in Long Beach also as an opportunity to lift up the local Asian Pacific Islander community. In March she introduced an Anti-Asian hate resolution to the council floor to ensure that the city acknowledged the nationwide rise in attacks against Asians and Pacific Islanders during the COVID-19 pandemic, and would take steps to address incidents locally. She feels that her representing the Asian community, let alone the Cambodian community, in Long Beach is new to her Councilmember peers, as she is the third elected official of Asian descent in Long Beach history. The first Asian American city councilperson in Long Beach was Eunice Sato, a daughter of Japanese immigrants, who was elected to office in 1975 and served the seventh district until 1986. Sato’s term included two years as the first female mayor of Long Beach (which also made her the first Asian American female mayor of a major city) from 1980-1982. The second elected official was Suja Lowenthal, the first Indian American city councilperson in Long Beach, who served the second district from 2006-2016, four years of which she served as vice mayor.

In addition to Dr. Saro’s city council duties, she is an adjunct faculty member at the School of Social Work at California State University, Los Angeles where she teaches courses on community organizing. She is also a consultant for the San Gabriel and Lower Los Angeles Rivers and Mountains Conservancy (RMC), which works to preserve open space and habitats to allow for low-impact recreation and educational uses, wildlife habitat restoration and protection, and watershed improvements. She was previously a field representative for the Office of former State Senator Ricardo Lara and has also served as Chair of Long Beach’s Citizen Police Complaint Commission, where she supported the mission of providing independent, impartial, and objective investigations into alleged police misconduct, reviewing services provided by members of the Long Beach Police Department.

Dr. Saro lives with her husband and two children in the Wrigley neighborhood of central Long Beach. A public servant focused on unity, civic engagement, and advocacy, she strives to ensure a bright future for all Long Beach residents.


Councilperson Suely Saro’s Current Reads


Book cover for Dare to Lead: Brave Work, Tough Conversations, Whole Hearts
Dare to Lead: Brave Work, Tough Conversations, Whole Hearts
Brown, Brene

Book cover for Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success
Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success
Grant, Adam M.

Book cover for A Nail the Evening Hangs On
A Nail the Evening Hangs On
Sok, Monica

Book cover for Apsara in New York: Poems
Apsara in New York: Poems
Svay, Sokunthary


 

 

 

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