Heritage keepers — Women of Color Empowered honorees share secrets of the past to build brighter future

By Nan Nan Liu
Northwest Asian Weekly

The Women of Color Empowered honorees and emcee Bonnie Miller (far left) at New Hong Kong Restaurant at the Feb. 3 luncheon (Photo by George Liu/NWAW)

“If people know what their culture is, they have lots to be proud of. They also recognize other cultures and celebrate and embrace differences,” said LaVerne Hall, associate minister at Mount Zion Baptist Church and one of the honorees of Women of Color Empowered networking luncheon at New Hong Kong Restaurant.

Hall and 15 other women were recognized for their excellence in preserving and teaching their cultures.

Through dedication and hard work, these women have not only preserved their own cultures but have connected with other cultures. They have not only made Seattle’s diverse population groups aware of and tolerate each other, but they have bridged the gap that divides people of different races and backgrounds.

Preserving cultures

Thu-Van Nguyen immigrated to the United States as a political refugee in 1975. She was 22 years old. After spending all her life in Saigon, Nguyen adjusted quickly to completely different surroundings. However, others were not so tolerant of her Asian background.

“I [experienced racial intolerance] when I was asked why we do coining therapy to relieve body pain, aches, and a variety of illnesses … [I was asked] about the food we eat for certain holidays,” said Nguyen. “I had a few incidents in the past when I felt discriminated against …” Because of her own experiences as a female refugee, Nguyen created SEAWA (South East Asian Women’s Alliance) in 1985 “to [help] refugee women with practical services, education, and psycho-social support.”

“These women were isolated, spoke little English, and had difficulty working outside the home. Many went through domestic violence. My mother and I wanted to help them with all of these things.”

With increased popularity, SEAWA opened its doors to women of all races. The organization eventually became REWA (Refugee Women’s Alliance).

After getting married and having children, Nguyen began to see cultural preservation as even more important, especially because her husband is Jewish.

“My husband and I…have learned how to balance our cultural needs so we can get the most out of the cultures. … We welcome the Sabbath on Friday evenings according to the Jewish practice. … We also celebrate the major Jewish holidays,” said Nguyen.

Vietnamese traditions as well are honored in Nguyen’s home. “We celebrate Tet together and welcome our Vietnamese and Jewish ancestors with incense and the traditional altar.”

While Nguyen accustomed herself to American culture, Marianne Scholl, who is white, adopted a different culture by studying in Japan. After returning to Seattle, Scholl wrote for local publications and realized how talented local women are. However, there wasn’t a way for these women to connect and learn from each other.

“I found that women needed resources,” said Scholl. “As women, we really value being connected with other women. We draw strength and aspiration from that. We like to support each other by sharing information and ideas.”

Along with her business partner, Scholl started Seattle Woman Magazine, a free community publication that tells stories and accomplishments of local women. The magazine was an immediate hit.

“People got the idea. … Advertisers also got what we were doing. … It was wonderful how much people embraced the idea,” said Scholl.

Since Seattle Woman Magazine’s inception seven and a half years ago, Scholl ensured that the stories told encompassed women of various cultures and backgrounds.

“We try to represent a diverse community,” said Scholl. “People are really out there to preserve cultures for all of us.”

Also representing a diverse community is ArtsFund, a nonprofit organization that supports nearly 60 local arts groups, including the International District’s Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience. Mari Horita, who has been involved with ArtsFund for almost 20 years, spending time as a volunteer and on the board of trustees, has recently taken on the position of ArtsFund CEO.

“One of the things we are looking to do is to broaden the reach in our community,” said Horita. “Art brings everyone together.”

Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience Executive Director Beth Takekawa started out as a volunteer, “retreating people’s stories,” she said. Today, she is a proud heritage keeper.

“The museum is unique in the country. It’s not easy to support a place of culture,” said Takekawa. “People have to go beyond their day-to-day life and try something new. Being able to tell a multi-culture story, you are including so many different communities.”

“It’s a part of the historic truth,” added Takekawa. “There are so many instances where groups of people are forced to discard their heritage. We have an opportunity here to [let] people be proud of what their origins might be.”

As a minister, Hall “has always been involved in the church.” However, while caring for an ailing family member, her faith grew stronger. And it was through her faith that Hall realized the importance of preserving one’s culture and being open to others as well.

“We cannot live in isolation,” said Hall. “When you know the artistic and literary aspects of your culture, then you look at someone else’s culture. You can appreciate the similarities and celebrate the differences.”

For those reasons, Hall, who is retired, has been active on the Seattle National Council of Negro Women. She helped develop Black History Exhibit, puts on a month-long black history tribute all over the city every February, and opens a worship service to people of all racial backgrounds.

“Everything I’ve done is from a multicultural point of view,” said Hall.

Words of wisdom

As Scholl said, women need resources and support from each other. The Women of Color Empowered honorees, after having succeeded in their own endeavors, are sharing advice with young women about aspiration and learning from others.

“Young women should be focused on what their aspirations are,” said Hall. “If you don’t dream, you don’t have anything to work on or hold onto. Be courageous to resurrect what you enjoy.”

“Learn as much as you can from other women. Find a mentor,” advised Scholl. “Follow your passion, but follow it strategically and wisely. Wisdom comes from talking to others.”

WPI Real Estate’s Shiao-Yen Wu said, “America is all cultures in a melting pot. Each culture has its own character. You should not forget where you come from. You should not forget your root.” She added, “You can accomplish anything if you have a good attitude. Have confidence in yourself and believe in yourself.”

Other honorees included teacher Victoria Romero, former Seattle City Councilmember Dolores Sibonga, Filipino American National Historical Society’s Dorothy Cordova, Native Action Network’s Iris Friday, Evergreen State College’s Maxine Mimms, University of Washington Associate Professor Michelle Habell-Pallan, Asia Pacific Cultural Center’s Patsy O’Connell, The African ConeXion Project’s Rose Cano, Tacoma Art Museum’s Stephanie Stebich, Tulalip Heritage High School’s Shelly Lacy, and Tanjavur Dance School’s Lalitagauri Agashe.

The master of ceremonies for the event was Bonnie Miller. About 250 people attended the luncheon. (end)

For more information, visit www.womenofcolorempowered.com.

Nan Nan Liu can be reached at info@nwasianweekly.com.

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