Pomona Students Win Davis Grant

Ashwin Balakrishnan PO ’09, Jacob Cohen PO ’10, and Patricia Nguyen PO ’10 were granted a total of $10,000 from the Davis Projects of Peace two weeks ago. This summer, the three friends will work with the Vietnamese-American community of Versailles in Eastern New Orleans to construct a youth-led grassroots oral-history anthology.

The Davis Projects for Peace is a program that encourages college students to design and implement their own summer grassroots project advocating peace anywhere in the world. The initiative began when Davis United World College Scholars Program philanthropist Kathryn Wasserman Davis celebrated her 100th birthday by committing $1 million for 100 projects for peace conducted by undergraduate students. Although the program is in its third year, this is the first time Pomona College has participated.

To receive a grant from Davis Projects of Peace, Balakrishnan, Cohen, and Nguyen wrote a two-page proposal outlining the framework of their project. It was then reviewed local selection committee consisting of Pomona College faculty, staff, and students, selected and submitted to the national committee for approval.

Director of Community Programs and Volunteer Center Maria Tucker, a member of the selection committee, was particularly impressed by the rapport already being established between the students and the community they proposed to work with.

“We were looking for partnership… and [these students] had already been working on building a relationship with this community-based organization,” said Tucker. “Another thing was that their project was something that the community-based organization suggested to them. It was clear to us that the organization really wanted the students to come in and help with this project.”

The idea for their project first came when Nguyen came upon a short documentary of the Vietnamese-American in New Orleans and saw an opportunity for community engagement.

“I’m really passionate about working to empower Southeast Asian youth. There is a history that links us together… These histories need to be revived and the stories of our people embraced as we journey to build community together and fight against systematic and institutional oppression,” Nguyen said.

After Hurricane Katrina, around 12,000 residents of the community—most of them refugees from Vietnam and their families—were displaced. Coming back to rebuild, they found that their home had been excluded from the New Orleans map. After a grueling fight to return to the place they called home, the Vietnamese-American community found an unprotected toxic waste site built near their community.

Balakrishnan, Cohen, and Nguyen will work with the Vietnamese American Young Leaders Association of New Orleans (VAYLA-NO) to create a four-week curriculum to equip high school students with the tools to collect the stories of their parents, grandparents, and other community members. The goal is to compile and publish a communal history anthology, which the group hopes will give the Versailles community a powerful voice.

“By affording their parents and grandparents space to tell their stories of struggle, endurance, and resilience, the youth empower their elders to define their lives for themselves, dismantling demeaning narratives that have been imposed from outside,” the students wrote in their proposal.

There are a number of signs that make this summer project a promising one for the three students, according to Cohen. One is the strong sense of community that already exists in Versailles.

“There’s a lot of inter-generational energy and camaraderie right now in the wake of the community coming together to fight for their rights,” Cohen said. “And so it seems like an especially appropriate moment to conduct a project like this, because the documentary made it very clear that there’s a lot of collaboration between generations.”

Another indication of this project’s potential is the willingness that already exists among many of the youth to construct an oral history anthology for their community, he said.

“This project is something we’re happy to lend our support in any way we can, but ultimately the project will be driven by the youth and the interviewees,” Cohen said.

The three students have already shown a passion for peace and social justice throughout high school and college. Balakrishnan, an environmental analysis major, worked with artists and activists to document environmental and social injustice; Nguyen, a sociology major and a leader of the Asian American Resource Center, worked with Southeast Asian youth in Southern California; and Cohen, a history major, was involved with several oral-history projects.

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