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Pomona College Students Win $10,000 to Help Vietnamese-Americans in New Orleans

Three Pomona College students have been awarded a $10,000 grant, from Davis Projects for Peace, to help the Vietnamese-American community in New Orleans.

The Vietnamese-American community of Versailles, in eastern New Orleans, was hard-hit by Hurricane Katrina and most of its 12,000 residents — refugees from Vietnam and their children and grandchildren — were displaced to Houston. When they returned to rebuild, they discovered that the new map of New Orleans excluded their neighborhood. After a fight to return to their homes, they discovered a new unprotected toxic waste site nearby. They succeeded in getting the site closed but toxic debris remains.

Friends Ashwin Balakrishnan ’09, Jacob Cohen ’10 and Patricia Nguyen ’10 were moved and alarmed by what was happening to this community. During summer 2009, they will use the grant to mentor Versailles high school students in constructing a youth-led grassroots oral history anthology. “When we heard about the Davis grant, we began brainstorming a project that would serve to amplify the voices of marginalized New Orleans folks,” says Cohen. “The inter-generational dimension of this project and its inclusion of both oral histories and photography were especially compelling to us.”

Working with the Vietnamese American Young Leaders Association of New Orleans (VAYLA-NO), the Pomona College students will provide a four-week curriculum to the Versailles high school students, giving them the tools to collect stories and engage their parents, grandparents and broader community in the writing of their history. The month of July will be spent in the field as they each collect historical testimonies from two relatives and one community member. The project will conclude with the editing and publication of the anthology for everyone involved. The Pomona students will also assist the youth in submitting their material to local university presses. If no publishing houses pick it up, the anthology will be published online so that anyone can access it. There will also be an event unveiling the oral history project for the Versailles community.

The Pomona students hope that, “The history that is produced will be a source of strength for generations to come,” and that “fueled by knowledge of all that their ancestors sacrificed in building Versailles, [the students] will be emboldened to fight for the peace, longevity and environmental health of their home.”

According to Cohen, the three Pomona College students connected through their community-based approach to social change, “visions for a more just society, and sense of passion and optimism.”

Balakrishnan, an environmental analysis major from Bloomfield Hills, MI, has worked with artists and activists to document environmental and social injustice. His most recent projects include a documentary on water scarcity in India, funded by a Pomona College grant, and photo essays on the impact of urban highways and rivers on the communities of Los Angeles. A link to some of his photos recounting his ‘Pomona Walk’ can be found at www.pomona.edu/museum.

Cohen, a resident of San Francisco, has conducted two oral history projects while working on a major in history. He most recently worked with Professor Tomás Summers Sandoval on an archive containing the life histories of Pomona’s Latino service employees.

Nguyen, a resident of Chicago and a sociology major, has experience as a community organizer and visual artist who has worked with Southeast Asian youth in the Los Angeles area. She is also a leader of the Pomona College Asian American Resource Center and co-founder of the Claremont Colleges Rare Diamonds, a support group for women of color.

The Davis Projects for Peace, now in its third year, supports grassroots projects designed by undergraduates at American colleges and universities in the Davis United World College Scholars Program. The objective is to encourage and support today's motivated youth to create and implement their own ideas for building peace. The Davis Projects for Peace is made possible by Kathryn Wasserman Davis, an accomplished internationalist and philanthropist.

Pomona College, founded in 1887 and one of the nation’s premier liberal arts colleges, is known for small classes, close relationships between students and faculty, and a range of opportunities for student research. In 2009, it was named to the “Best Value” college lists of Kiplinger’s Personal Finance Magazine and the Princeton Review.