This piece highlights a student from Khmer Girls in Action. Keo’s story is truly inspiring. We look forward to learning more about KGA this weekend at Docs on the Block.
Growing up in Eastside Long Beach means you have to fight for your dreams and the most basic needs for living. Poverty wears different faces and the youth who survive the daily hustle know this. From over-crowded schools, unstable and poor housing conditions, not having enough food on the table or seeing their family less because a sibling gets caught up in a gang or their parents work longer hours in poorly lit sweatshops to compensate for their low-wage hourly labor.
Keo Ouk, a young Khmer woman, born and raised in the Eastside is one of many who know this story all too well. She joined Khmer Girls in Action, shortly after she lost her childhood friend in a random drive-by shooting. She was sitting next to him on the front porch when it happened. It took her two years to begin sharing this story. She recalls getting kicked out of an advanced learning program because her grades had dropped. She was only a freshman at the time.
“I joined KGA because it’s like a second home to me. My sister used to go there and my friends too”. One of the staff organizers, Sophya Chum, is also a close family friend, making it really easy for her to feel comfortable. It was also through KGA’s writing program called Tongues Afire that she was able to face and talk about her loss. She’s written several pieces including “The Stranger That Wears Your Skin” and “Super Womyn”. The first is about not being able to recognize her own brother once he joined a gang and the second is about her mom’s round-the-clock daily routine on her Singer sewing machine. “The program taught me how to write down my emotions and thoughts that give justice to what I’ve been through.”
Just a couple of months after she shared the story about losing her best friend, an even greater loss took place. Keo’s oldest sister was killed in a tragic hit-and-run accident just one week before her sister’s 26th birthday.
“How can I go through all of this and still be okay?” She was getting straight F’s during her junior year when grades for college admission matters most. KGA’s academic and personal support program called LIFE (Learning to Impact for Empowerment) worked one-on-one with her. Keo recognizes LIFE Coordinator, Ashley Uyeda, for stepping in to create structure and an academic to-do list for her. Ashley intervened by talking to her counselors and teachers. “ I was able to talk to my teachers and wasn’t intimidated by them after that. I’m usually scared to talk to adults with power.” At the end of the school year Keo’s GPA for her junior year was close to a 3.0. She flipped her F’s into an A, four B’s and two C’s.
“I’m still going to school and now I’m applying to college. I’ve seen a lot of people where I come from just give up and I’m glad I didn’t give up.” Keo is in the process of applying to college and is amazed that she has options and a door to a better future. She wants to work in a health related field—after all, the A she earned was in Biology.
Youth in Long Beach need more public resources and organizations like Khmer Girls in Action to help them understand the world in which they’ve inherited and be proactive in making individual and social change. Specifically for Khmer youth whose parents survived genocide in Cambodia, daily living means healing from that loss and then surviving high-rates of poverty.
KGA offers youth a framework they can use to see how their individual experiences are connected to a collective struggle in which political education is the key to empowerment, self-determination and justice for all people.