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December 6, 2021

Movement Maker Profiles: Chhaya Chhoum

Chhaya Chhoum and her family lived in refugee camps in Thailand and the Philippines before being resettled to the US. In 2012 she co-founded Mekong NYC, empowering Southeast Asians through arts, culture, community organizing, and advocacy. She is the executive director of Mekong NYC.

Who are your people?

My people are Southeast Asian, mostly Cambodian refugees who survived the genocide and also the war in Southeast Asia, mostly women and queer folks who have been leading this movement for a very long time. They come with a lot of art and culture in all ways, that's how they've survived US imperialism. My people are also the Bronx people. It's a mixture of Cambodian refugees, but also folks who grew up in the Bronx and who was raised by the Bronx.

What brings you to your work?

I think it's a respect and a deep love for my people, and for culture, and for justice, and hope for there to be a better life, a more liberated life for our people and of all people, and a clarity around what my role is in this work as a Cambodian woman.

Undoing and changing culture is really important, but also a commitment to my deep understanding and solidarity for Black people in this world, and around the world, and in this country. A commitment to the people of the Bronx who undo a lot of anti-Blackness, particularly for Southeast Asians, when we were resettled here in the Bronx, it was all Black and Brown folks that were here before us.

It made me think a lot around what it means to honor the Bronx history as Southeast Asian people who were resettled here. I met a lot of veterans who fought in the war in Southeast Asia. Us having to come together and sit and break bread and talk about what it means to be the wedge in White supremacy and the tools of weapons against each other. I think what brings me to the work is my lived experience but also honoring culture and history, undoing patriarchy and centering Black lives. That's been my journey thus far in the social justice movement.

What aspect of your movement work brings you the most joy?

There are many. I think about the movement that we've built in the last 20 years since there were many Southeast Asians organizing back then with the Black Panther Party, against the war in Southeast Asia. I think there was something about having refugees be the start of this movement, the Southeast Asian movement for social justice. It started in the Bronx, we started organizing and so it rippled. I think, for me, one of the biggest joys is creating a pipeline and an ecosystem that really support radical Southeast Asian, queer women-led organizations and people.

With that comes a lot of the joy of learning new things, of looking at things in different ways, of challenging myself, of undoing and learning like I said before. I get really excited when it's like, okay, this analysis makes so much sense, stuff like that, reading those things and seeing we've built a space where our organization and our movement, centered not only just Black people, and our experience, but also centering queer folks in our movement. Even coming to a place where everyone knows that if you walk into Mekong, you queer unless you tell us otherwise.

Creating a world that is counter to everything else that we exist in, and that we know. We have a youth program and an elder program, they get into it around some fucked up cultural practices, which is great. I think for me raising my kids in the movement, they get to see it brings me a lot of joy. I think parents say this all the time, how their kids bring them joy, and just like my daughter, who's going to be 21, who has the most feminist thinking that I can imagine. My son, raising a gay son who's constantly checking patriarchy, constantly telling me how fucking mediocre men are. Things like that.

Then my youngest daughter who's like, "No, you don't get to talk to me like that, this is boundaries," to see the way they've lived, it's such a real life, but in a way that challenges their father, challenges their grandparents. They're the one who's actually now doing the cultural shifting in our family because we get checked. My biggest joy is to see them--I said, wow, they were listening at these meetings that I bring them to, long-ass meetings and conferences or rallies and protests. That's what brings me joy as well to see them grow in a feminist lifestyle in all ways.

They just living feminism every day. They don't bullshit with the White feminism, we don't do that. I'll give you an example. My son started this people of color group in his high school. He goes to Alvin Ailey Dance Academy. My kids all dance, and he's like, "Ma', one of the whites wants to be part of our club" and he's like, "I had to tell her to go be with your people." Go talk about racism, with your white people, because we can't hold that space for you.

I didn't tell him that or maybe I did, I don't know. It's innately in him to understand what it means to have space. He's like, "I am the gayest of the gays in our family." I say, "I get it, we get it. We have a lot of gay family members, and trans members." For him it's like, “I'm actually leading the conversation internally in our family.” Anyway, this family has learned what it means for him to take space and what it means to be like, "No, this is our space, not yours." It's not even like, I'm studying how you have to sit down, and like, oh, let me talk to you about this, and this, but he's going, he's listening. He's been listening.

That's beautiful. Are you also a dancer?

I am, I dance. We are professional dancers. They know it too. We don't really have a cultural pipeline that way too because all of our artists were killed off, the dancers. My work internationally is about reviving that as an act of resistance. 

What moves are you making to end violence?

There's different levels, there's community level, there's personal level and there's movement level. On the movement level, challenging and fighting against Southeast Asian deportation and deportation in general. Always again, I realized that when I move into these spaces, we can talk about capitalism, we will talk about imperialism, but we can't do the work unless we actually center, how transphobic, homophobic and also gender violence shows up in our work.

I'm saving you, but also I'm surviving you at the same time. I'm ending your deportation, but you're not ending violence against me or my son. On a personal level, it's that, around just--it's all connected, though. The personal, the political and really, for me, building a Southeast Asian feminist lens. For a very long time I don't think I ever gave myself enough recognition around the labor and the work that I put into building this movement in the last 20 years. How do I begin to tell stories around Southeast Asian feminism-- how did it get developed and what does it mean to be a Southeast Asian feminist?

What is our contribution to the feminist movement in this world in ending gender-based violence, in ending violence against queer folks, trans folks? I thought about building Mekong, when I started Mekong nine years ago. I didn't know what I was doing and I was like, "I can't do this." I was coming out of depression, I was coming out of postpartum, I'd just given birth. The young folks were literally like, "You can." I was like, "I'm done with the movement. It has failed me so many times." I was so heartbroken and then they were like, "No, you can." Every day they were at my house.

I think every day is about being hopeful. To live in a world where people get to live the fullest. I'm the type of mom that, again, I go to my kids and I'm just like-- I've never raised them to be like, you have to be a certain way. I get so much joy seeing them live their best life and I think that's what it is for everyone. All of us deserve to live our best lives and all of us get to be what makes us feel the most free. The Buddhist teaching also helps me to think about suffering and all that stuff.

I think every day my work is to remind ourselves who we are really mad at. We're really mad at white supremacy and imperialism. It's not just these words but it actually has implications that don't allow me to live my fullest, don't allow my kids to live their fullest most beautiful life. That's the work, is to remind ourselves to be hopeful, to love so, so deeply and to share those things when we do have victories, big or small, kids, not kids, all that stuff.

How would you describe your leadership strengths? 

I had a conversation last night and she was like, "You are too forgiving. " I told her, I said, "I actually don't feel like me forgiving people is a bad thing." People might think that but what I've learned in the movement and how it's failed me and how people have treated me and my closest comrades causing harm and like all that stuff. I'm super forgiving, I'm like, "They didn't know."

The idea that I know that they're surviving something and I'm surviving them and that understanding, I don't know how to put it in the term leadership style, but I think about the-- Forgiveness comes a lot of love too and so I lead with love a lot. I used to think it was a huge gap, like why am I so forgiving? We're taught to be a certain way, stand firm. I'm firm but I'm also very forgiving because I know that you didn't come at your best last week and that's why you were talking to me a certain way and I want to know where that came from.

Forgiving for me is rooted in love but also just like this discovery of what their story is, what am I forgiving them for and why it is important for them to tell their story when they're asking for forgiveness. We're building. I want to say that is my leadership style.

What keeps you in the work? 

The movement is my first love. I really want for us to live freely and so the hope keeps me in the work, the fight keeps me in the work, the constant growth and the constant deepening of analysis and thinking of ways to be that we didn't even know can exist.

I think a deep love for justice, a commitment to our own people. A lot of times I've seen people in the movement get stood out and they come, they want to-- It's like they leave the movement. I think there is hopelessness in that, our people are going to free each other and then our liberation is tied to each other and hope for a really free world. That's what keeps me in the work.

Art by lizar_tistry