Alexis Chem (second from left), with Khmer Girls in Action & Building Healthy Communities Long Beach Youth Committee, meets with Councilwoman Lena Gonzalez Chief of Staff Cory Allen who invited them to present to the mayor and city council on the Invest In Youth Campaign budget priorities and survey findings at a future city council meeting this coming May. Photo courtesy of KGA.

People Post is a space for opinion pieces, letters to the editor and guest submissions from members of the Long Beach community. The following is an op-ed submitted by Alexis Chem, a youth leader with community organization Khmer Girls in Action, and does not necessarily reflect the views of the Long Beach Post.

Every April, my family and community come together for one of the biggest and most important events in our culture, Khmer New Year. Even if we don’t have much, we do a lot to prepare for our special celebration. We save money to give out to relatives and to spend on buying event tickets, new clothes and food.

This past weekend, I celebrated Khmer New Year at El Dorado Park, where so many families come together to enjoy our culture’s food, music, dance and games. It feels really nice to spend time together.

Celebrating Khmer New Year is like a break from everyone’s busy schedule. Work, school, commuting long-distance and even financial problems can keep us from spending time with our families. I got to reconnect with a cousin who I haven’t seen in ages because he was always on the move looking for a sustainable job. I also got to “break the ice” with relatives who I was never close to.

Khmer New Year is also bringing me to meet a “new leaf” on our “family tree”—an uncle that was in the deportation system. When I think about meeting him, I am reminded of the people who can’t celebrate with us because they are detained or have been deported. I’ve learned that many who are facing deportation in my community are 1.5 generation refugees that came to the U.S. when they were really young. They didn’t have the resources to cope with intergenerational trauma or to help their parents with translation or employment.

Most of my friends, and thousands of youth in Long Beach, only have access to the resources that the city provides. But not all youth in each district get the same access or opportunity. For youth and teens who need the most support, this can be a problem. My organization, Khmer Girls in Action, and nine other community-based organizations are working to change that by bringing funds back to our community with our newest campaign called “Invest in Youth”.

Community Groups Call on City to Invest More in Youth Development

We have already seen what happens to the youth in our neighborhoods who are not given a chance to grow. What if the neighborhoods our families resettled in had more mental health support, youth leadership programs, jobs and after-school programs? Investing in youth is vital to supporting our community and the future of our city. By investing in youth there will be less youth like me going through hard times in school, at home, on the streets by themselves and in life.

If Long Beach believes that youth are the future, then it should show us love by creating a fund just for children and youth. This fund can come from 50 percent of the marijuana sales tax and from the general fund. We need positive resources in our community and we believe that the children and youth fund can make a difference.

Students will have an easier time focusing on their studies instead of being in survival mode. With more positive support, there will be less youth on the streets getting caught and profiled by the police, leading them to the school-to-prison pipeline. Right now, Long Beach spends $10,500 on each youth that gets arrested, but only $204 per youth on positive youth development, which includes resources that help teens succeed such as leadership programs, mentorship, tutoring and after school activities that develop useful skills to get us ready for jobs and college.

To me, this spending doesn’t make sense. Since youth are the future shouldn’t our city be investing in programs that help young people succeed? Personally, I’ve seen what investing in youth can do. As a proud Cambodian-American, I joined Khmer Girls in Action (KGA) about three years ago and now I spend most of my free time there because it keeps me involved and I have seen how far I’ve come by joining the programs.

I was once a really shy introvert. After seeing how many youth members were able to speak so effortlessly about our community and the work they’re doing to make a positive change, I felt inspired to do the same. KGA’s community-based youth programs taught me more about my Cambodian history and what I can do to make my mark in the community. KGA has provided resources for me to succeed and believe in my potential. They even provided me with transportation to events like the Women’s March and the Pride Parade to help me get more involved in taking a stand for what I believe in. They challenged me to step outside my Cambodian community in Long Beach. They helped me make the connection of how important it is to support groups who fight for the same thing.

I remember when KGA also took me on a campus trip to UC Davis and to Sacramento to be part of a youth movement called Free Our Dreams to talk to legislators about local and statewide bills that support all youth to achieve our dreams— no matter our history, ethnicity or income level.

In this new year, my hope for my Khmer community is for the adults to not be afraid of what happened in their generation to happen to the Khmer youth today. Another hope is not just for Khmer youth but for all teens, especially young people of color in my community, to feel that we belong and that we are loved and supported.

Now is the time to invest in youth and show youth the love. I hope our city leaders support a budget that reflects that we are valued.