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Sunday, October 30, 2011

Candidates address diversity issue at a Voice of Vietnamese Americans forum

Candidates join members of the Vietnamese community for a group photo

A candidates forum Oct. 28, sponsored by Voice of Vietnamese Americans, focused on diversity, cultural sensitivity, and outreach to immigrant communities.

Most of the 14 candidates at the forum, at the Mason District Government Center, related some experience from their lives aimed illustrating their solidarity with the immigrant experience.

Robert Sarvis, the Republican running against Richard Saslaw in the 35th District, for example, spoke about how his mother had fled communist China.

Fairfax County Board of Supervisors chair Sharon Bulova, who’s running for re-election, told the audience about a book she worked on, the Asian American History Project, which involved the collection of pictures and oral histories from local families. Her opponent, Spike Williams, had been scheduled to appear at the forum, but canceled at the last minute.

Among the at-large school board candidates, Lin-Dai Kendall was born in Honduras, and Lolita Mancheno-Smoak is from Ecuador. Steve Stuban talked about his father, a Ukrainian, who was in a labor camp in Germany, and his own experiences at a Ukrainian school in the United States.

Ryan McElveen had been a teacher in China and told the audience he would “amplify your voice on the school board” and focus on educating “the global citizen.” Ilryong Moon talked about how he immigrated to the United States from Korea at age 17 without knowing English and went on to become a Harvard-educated lawyer and the county’s first Asian-American elected official. He said his first accomplishment on the school board was to restore funding for diversity training for employees.

“There aren’t that many people that look like me in Richmond,” said Del. Mark Keam, a Korean-American who represents the 35th District. “We can’t really say we have a true democracy unless we all have representation in government.”
From the left: Bulova, Feld, Kendall, Sheree Brown Kaplan, Mancheno-Smoak, and McElveen
When asked how the county can improve civic engagement among people from diverse cultures, Bulova urged people to consider joining the county’s various advisory boards and commissions, which do not reflect the county’s population. “I consider diversity one of our greatest assets,” she said.

Mason Supervisor Penny Gross talked about her support for small businesses and homeownership and cited her work in getting home purchase documents translated into other languages. Her opponent, David Feld,  proposed an art and cultural center and vowed to make sure Mason District gets its fair share of investment dollars. Mason District “will be a model for the world,” he said.

Sen. David Marsden talked about his efforts to increase state funding for education and said one of his first legislative priorities will be to have the Sea of Japan co-designated as the East Sea in textbooks and maps, in response to requests from the Korean community.

Sarvis said his priorities include giving local school districts the right to set their own academic calendars, giving parents more rights in school discipline cases, and bringing more state funding to Northern Virginia.

Independent Jim Leslie, running in the 38th District against Del. Kaye Kory, told the audience he was born on a Seneca reservation and fought as a Marine in the Vietnam War. “I have the highest respect for the Vietnamese people,” he said.  He also acknowledged that “my chances of winning are very slim” and called himself “the world’s worst politician.”

All seven of the at-large school board candidates, plus Mason District school board member Sandy Evans, expressed support for retaining the need-based funding formula, which provides extra resources to schools with higher proportions of disadvantaged students and English language learners. That results in smaller classes in many Mason District schools.

A couple of the candidates—Stuban and Mancheno-Smoak—also said it’s important to make sure classes aren’t too big and that no one should be in a class with more than 35 students.

Several members of the Vietnamese community talked about their concerns, including a desire to have the Vietnamese heritage flag, rather than the national flag representing the communist government, displayed in schools. Evans told the group the school board has agreed to use the heritage flag in schools and also said she is working on getting FCPS to offer Vietnamese language courses.

Other issues raised by the Vietnamese community include the need for job training and health services and the need to find a permanent home for the Vietnamese School, which now meets in local high schools.

They also want to be treated with respect. Genie Nguyen of Voice of Vietnamese Americans recounted a horrible experience she had at the Falls Church courthouse when she came to observe the trial of people who had been arrested in a police raid at the Eden Center in August in a crackdown on gangs and gambling. When Nguyen tried to find out the names of the defendants, she told the audience, she was searched, harassed, and threatened with being arrested.

Gross said ”that wouldn’t happen here,” and Feld called for more diversity and cultural training.

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