A version of this story by Ayana Crichton is published in Public Lab's Community Science Forum, Issue 17. Read more from this issue here.
Cranston, Rhode Island’s immigration story isn’t unique. Our history followed national trends in the 19th century: European migrants, many from Ireland and Italy, coming to America and finding employment in American mills and textile manufacturing companies. Immigration is an American story that is still being written, with patterns of migration changing in every chapter.
Over the past 50 years in Cranston, we’ve seen the growth of immigrant populations from Cambodia and the Dominican Republic, and the 2017 census tract report shows that both populations are still growing locally. As we look at where migrant groups find work, we find that many in our Cambodian community have found employment in hands-on work including textiles and other manufacturing jobs, in leadership roles at the non-profit level, and in our schools. However, according to community leaders, the local Cambodian community still faces a lack of opportunity and an overall lack of feeling welcomed by the city.
The vibrant and energetic Cambodian community has been migrating to Cranston (and all of New England) for five decades. The first wave of people from Cambodia coming to America was refugees who escaped a dangerous government system that was killing hundreds of thousands in their home country, and many people still carry these traumas.
As Cambodians have made their homes in the area, many have found employment locally, but have had limited access to career ladders — a story that has changed very little over the past five decades. The community is marginalized when it comes to equitable educational opportunities, and it isn't consulted appropriately on city-backed initiatives to address gang violence. The community lacks safe spaces to gather and organize, and often doesn't have the means or is barred from creating a space for themselves. Further, leaders in the Cambodian community are often excluded from meetings of the larger Cranston community. Through outreach and partnerships, we’re hoping to build greater Cambodian representation at events, forging relationships to develop safe spaces for a more organized leadership in the community, to advocate for equitable work opportunities (including professional development and advancement opportunities) and equal access to culturally appropriate education.
Recently, the Cranston Public Library held a celebration of Southeast Asian culture, in which monks from three Buddhist temples blessed the building. The library also unveiled a new collection of bilingual books and introduced new resources for community members: meeting spaces, educational programming, and technology classes. A move in the right direction. However, there are still many questions left to answer. How will the city address the Cambodian community as a whole and continue to use institutions like the library as examples of appropriate ways of working together? How will Cranston, as a whole, work more cohesively to address equitable education, career ladder opportunities, workforce development, and fair livable wages for migrant communities? At OneCranston, we’re working on addressing these questions through a collaborative leadership table that shares power to increase upward socioeconomic mobility for all Cranston residents. As our future is written, we’re working to make sure all of neighbors can be the authors.
Ayana Crichton is the Initiative Director for OneCranston housed at the Cranston Community Action Program and an initiative of the Working Cities Challenge through the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, and is an Afterschool Alliance Ambassador for Rhode Island.