If you walk into the Karen Organization of Minnesota’s (KOM) office on a normal day, you will be greeted with a warm Ghaw luh a ghay (hello) by our receptionist. As you walk down the hallway, you may walk past children running around and be offered a cup of hot water with a Birdy instant coffee packet on the side.
Welcome to my AmeriCorps VISTA site, where I am delighted to serve as a community engagement specialist.
Serving at KOM has been an adventure ever since I started three months ago. I have planned our 5th Annual Gala, written our monthly newsletters, worked on building up the volunteer program and tried to recruit more individual donors.
Through these tasks I have tried to learn the ropes of my job description and as much as possible about KOM’s mission and programs.
But there’s so much more I have to learn serving at an organization where I am the minority.
As a white girl coming into KOM that is primarily led by Karen people, not only do I need to learn about the organization’s mission and programs, but I need to learn an entirely new culture.
And Karen culture is the stark opposite of American culture.
In Karen culture, community is valued above the individual. My co-workers share their rice, meat and fish paste with me every day in the lunch room. It is also common to see my co-workers talking and laughing with each other at someone’s desk.
Our workplace environment is very casual and relaxed, but this does not mean that we do not get our work done. My co-workers are dedicated and talented, serving over 1,000 refugees from Burma every year.
Learning Karen culture has been a valuable part of my VISTA experience. And I have concluded that in order for me to be successful in my position, I need to invest in the culture beyond the walls of our office in Roseville.
As a result, I am being pushed to do exactly what my job title says – community engagement.
I attend every Karen cultural event (like Karen Martyr’s Day and Karen New Year), I visit Karen churches, and I build friendships with other Karen community members outside of KOM.
Of course, it is not easy trying to enter a community where you do not speak the language and your pasty white skin and dirty blonde hair stands out.
But being able to be a part of these experiences has benefited me tremendously.
Because of the kindness and hospitality of my Karen friends welcoming me into their lives, I have been able to practice speaking Karen language and see what the home life of Karen people looks like.
But even more importantly, I have been able to listen to the stories of Karen people who have fled from Burma to the U.S. and learn about the struggles that Karen people face in their new lives in Minnesota.
What strikes me is that these are the same stories and struggles behind the faces of the clients I see every day in the office.
Even though I am a VISTA, not allowed to serve clients directly, I am still able to develop genuine relationships with the community we serve.
I’m learning that the more effort I put into learning Karen language, eating Karen food, and listening to the stories of the Karen, the more I am respected and welcomed into the Karen community.
It’s not easy starting a new job and it’s not easy learning a new culture, especially when you have to both of these things simultaneously.
But I wouldn’t trade my position for any other job in the world.
Ta wee oh luh dta koh boo.
“Something good will come from challenges.” – Karen proverb