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In Lowell, Cambodians Seek Increased Representation


City Hall of Lowell is led by nine city councilors, including the mayor, who oversee development plans in the city where more than 30,000 Cambodians live.

City Hall of Lowell is led by nine city councilors, including the mayor, who oversee development plans in the city where more than 30,000 Cambodians live.

The city has a population of about 105,000, almost one in five of whom are of Asian descent. More than 30,000 first-generation Cambodian migrants live in Lowell.

Cambodians in Lowell, Massachusetts, continue to seek representation on the City Council after four Cambodia-born candidates unsuccessfully ran for office last year.

Some see a lack of representation of the Cambodian community on the council could mean lost opportunities.

The city has a population of about 105,000, almost one in five of whom are of Asian descent. More than 30,000 first-generation Cambodian migrants live in Lowell.

Many Cambodians in Lowell want to see more opportunities available to them, and some see getting representatives elected as the best way to achieve that goal.

Ok Tolayuth, a Cambodian-American who runs a foster care agency in Lowell.

Ok Tolayuth, a Cambodian-American who runs a foster care agency in Lowell.

Ok Tolayuth, a Cambodian-American who runs a foster care agency in the city, said he was disappointed that no Cambodians were voted in last year's election.

“Having our own representative means better protection and needs provided to our community,” he said.

“I know the current city council are doing their job, but it is not the same as having a Cambodian who linguistically and culturally understands us and especially the problems we are facing.”

Rady Mom, a state representative for the Eighteenth Middlesex District, said there were not enough Cambodians in positions of authority. “Our voice remains in the minority in the Lowell community because we do not have enough votes.”

Rady Mom, state representative of Eighteen Middlesex District, Massachusetts.

Rady Mom, state representative of Eighteen Middlesex District, Massachusetts.

“They [the Cambodian community] can easily get the responses they need if they understand how important their vote is in a decision-making process.”

Vat Savoeun, 82, said she does what she can to get out the vote come election time.

“It's a big disappointment, and I didn't understand why none of them got elected, because I encouraged as many Cambodians whom I know to go to vote as possible,” she said.

A community activist, Liang Sidney, said he believed there was discrimination in the electoral process in the city.

“Many believe the system [at-large system] is discriminatory against the minorities, and some want to change it,” he added. “But it is not going to be easy to want this change.”

Liang Sidney, a community activist leading a civic engagement project at Lowell Community Health Center, Lowell, Massachusetts.

Liang Sidney, a community activist leading a civic engagement project at Lowell Community Health Center, Lowell, Massachusetts.

But he added that many of the Cambodians living in Lowell are more concerned with the developments in Cambodia itself than with their new home, he added.

“This is an issue that everyone has to understand. Their livelihood is here, in Lowell, and that is what we are trying to get them to pay attention to,” he said.

Cambodian migrants first arrived here in the 1980s, and the community is still small, compared to African Americans, Hispanics, and especially White Americans who largely occupy the city.

“For this reason, our community still slowly understands the importance of their civic engagement, electoral participation and importantly how the electoral systems work in Lowell,” said Liang.

In the past two Cambodia-born Americans were elected to the council, Rithy Oung in 1999 and Vesna Nuon in 2011.

Nuon Vesna, is a former city councilor of Lowell.

Nuon Vesna, is a former city councilor of Lowell.

In a recent interview, Nuon said he was concerned about the low turnout at the election. “I think the votes were not enough to get one of their representatives elected,” he said.

“When I was a city councilor, I oversaw budget planning, and I brought the issues that my community was facing to the table,” he said, urging Cambodian-Americans to get out and vote. “I discussed with other councilors and pressed for responses.”

However, Pan So, a candidate in the 2015 election, said he thought he was not elected because he “was not closely enough involved with our community” before the vote.

Pan So is a former candidate running for 2015 city council election, Lowell.

Pan So is a former candidate running for 2015 city council election, Lowell.

“And it is an inherent problem in our community. We do not communicate well about our concerns, and many do not want to associate with others because of different political ideologies,” So said.

Like the other community activists, So encouraged the whole community to vote, regardless of their political leanings.

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