Community organizer Jesus Rodriguez has been developing a connection to the Cambodian Buddhist Temple over the past year through his relationship with two healthcare workers from Asian Mental Health Services who are leaders at the temple. Through this connection, Jesus and I were invited to the temple to register elders to vote.
Most of the elders had escaped Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge, only to find themselves stuck in refugee camps for years waiting to be allowed into the U.S. or Europe. They reported horrendous conditions, having to build their own homes, not being allowed to work, yearly flooding, not being allowed to leave the refugee camps for any reasons, forced to trade and barter to make ends meet. These refugee camps were cut off from their surroundings making it hard for people to learn the fate of their families and communities still in Cambodia. Few reported having the opportunity to engage in politics in Cambodia.
Therefore, the electoral process in the U.S. was completely new. Because of a lack of outreach, voter education opportunities and, most importantly, because of language barriers, these elders—who have been American citizens for 10 to 20 years—have been totally isolated from the voting process the entire time they have been in this country. For many, this year was the first time they had the opportunity to learn anything at all about the election process. Some were so disconnected that they were confused at first and thought that registering was the same as voting.
Throughout October and during a three-day festival called Bun Pchum Ben (a festival for the ancestors), OCO helped register over 100 elders in the Cambodian community. Because of the language barriers, the majority of them were registered as absentee or mail-in voters.
During the last two weekends before the election OCO, temple leaders Pysay Phinith and Suon In ran voter education workshops. There ,we talked about the propositions and what they meant. While there was a lively debate among the elders about which political candidates they were going to support, Prop. 30 was something they all rallied behind. Providing educational opportunities for their children, being able to address the many health care needs of the elders and safety in their community resonated with voters across the spectrum.
At one workshop, UC Berkeley students who were part of a Cambodian Student Union on campus, came to talk to the elders about the importance of Prop. 30 and what it would mean to them if it didn’t pass. The room of 50 or so elders were visibly moved by the testimony from the students. Even without understanding the language, I could tell the elders in the room were 100% behind Prop. 30.
Two weeks before the election, over 50 elders showed up at the temple with ballots in hand ready to vote. They sat for two hours at the temple learning and discussing all the things on the ballot. Some who had not yet received their ballots came just to find out how to ensure they could vote. Throughout this entire process, they went from being not engaged to being passionately committed to voting in this election.