Attending the National Consortium on Racial and Ethnic Fairness in the Courts in Seattle

Photo © Getty / seb_ra

My name is Vanna Sing, and I’m a Khmer Rouge genocide survivor from the country of Cambodia. I call Pierce County my home. My roots are from the kingdoms of Cambodia, Thailand, and Laos. As I write this, I am freshly 44 years old. 

I was raised in Salishan, on the east side of Tacoma, from 1981–2004. Reflecting back on my journey, I realized I was a part of the problem in my community. The existing traumas our parents and elders were still going through at that time impacted how we were treated as children. Our parents did not have the right support mentally and physically. They were struggling to adapt to the American lifestyle, and becoming financially stable was hard. Living off government assistance forced them to look for other ways to make money while many of the children looked for other places to be, rather than in our own homes. I was very ambitious and there weren’t any positive or healthy connections or opportunities for women like me, and that led me to the streets.

Most of my family and friends were going to jail and prison between 1994 and 1999. I witnessed my family members and people in my community being over-criminalized in the courts, not receiving quality translation services, and not always being advised by their lawyers that if they pleaded guilty and they weren’t citizens, they may be deported.11 It was in the early 2000s when immigration laws started to impact us. Most non-citizens were being released from prisons, into the hands of ICE, which meant you went straight to the detention center in Tacoma. Some folks went straight to Cambodia after their paperwork was finalized and the families left behind were forced to live with broken hearts.

In addition, there is a complex history between the United States and Southeast Asia. One example is the bombing of Laos by United States forces in the late 1960s and early 1970s.22 We also went through the Khmer Rouge genocide of 1975-1979. Many Asian Americans have family or ancestors who were a part of all that and did not survive. These stories and generational traumas are what migrated with us as we arrived on U.S. soil.

It was with this history and knowledge that I attended the National Consortium on Racial and Ethnic Fairness in the Courts33 at the Motif Hotel in Seattle in May. The 35th annual, three-day event was hosted by the Washington Minority and Justice Commission and featured educational programs for legal professionals and judicial officers. The Washington Supreme Court also held its annual symposium44 on the first day of the event. 

I consider myself to be one of the lucky ones from my community who has been given the chance to step into environments like this. At the same time, I questioned why I was the only one from my community in this space. I wondered if there were more opportunities for my people to show up, would they? I know that the fear they have of government officials is the main reason they may not. The criminal justice system has had a negative impact on many people. 

At the consortium, I listened to representatives of the courts and staff at the agencies and felt they understood the problems faced by members of the public. One session I attended was on the topic of “crimmigration law,” the intersection where criminal and immigration law meet. Tim Warden-Hertz, an attorney with Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, was one of the speakers. He is an immigration attorney who has faithfully worked with the Southeast Asian and Hispanic communities in Pierce County to help save families from separation. He is very good at what he does and is genuine and compassionate. 

The consortium also had a specific session called “Japanese American Incarceration during WWII and Its Relation to Modern Justice Movements.” Lorraine Bannai, Seattle University School of Law professor, was the facilitator. I learned that Southeast Asians are not the only group of people in Asia that experienced the destruction of their cultures in their own countries through wars and colonization. I saw how the U.S. government did acknowledge some of that destruction for other groups, and I feel that we Southeast Asians deserve the same treatment. 

I think the consortium is a great start. But if we are truly committed to seeing epic change in the justice system, we must walk the walk. That means being open to new ideas and strategies. Money spent on deportation and monitoring could be spent on healing or helping families. Before we can heal as a community, we must come together at the same table. Hold a safe and sacred space where we will not be judged, but encouraged to speak from our hearts. Listen with your heart and demonstrate compassion while checking your unconscious biases. 

While on my healing journey, I was able to see how my community and those of other races were affected as a whole by the criminal justice system. I have many family members who struggle with recidivism and decline in quality of life. I am writing this to share my people’s unique struggle with the hope that it will contribute to improving civil legal aid services, the criminal justice system, and the quality of social determinants for Southeast Asians. As President Barack Obama once said in a speech, “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.”

About the author

Vanna Sing lives in Pierce County and is a member of the Access to Justice Board. She founded the nonprofit Tacoma Healing Awareness Community to help disrupt the cycle of systemic/internalized oppression of Southeast Asians. Her passion is building a safe and thriving community for all.