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New commission chair says finding home in Long Beach, ‘felt right’

Suely Saro is the first Cambodian-American chair of Long Beach Citizens Police Complaint Commission

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Paige Pelonis | Signal Tribune
Suely Saro (right) presents a certificate of recognition on behalf of State Senator Ricardo Lara to Jose Flores, a former commissioner of the Long Beach Citizen Police Complaint Commission, Wednesday.

In fourth grade, she drew a picture of a store with herself inside. Her dream was to grow up and become a store manager– not because she felt inspired to run a store, but because she thought that was the highest she could climb.

Growing up in Los Angeles as a Cambodian refugee, Suely Saro thought owning a store would be the only career path available to her.

She arrived in the United States with her family when she was 2 years old, joining the wave of Cambodian refugees who arrived in Camp Pendleton, California, while Cambodia was under the reign of the Communist Party of Kampuchea.

Not wanting to move any farther than they had to, Saro’s parents found work in LA and moved around the big city a handful of times as she grew up. Reflecting on those years of moving around and struggling to make the new environment a home, Saro described her childhood as one filled with sadness and disconnect.

“I remember just growing up in an environment of grief,” Saro said. “I remember a lot of adult conversations about not knowing where family was. My mom didn’t know where her brother was, and my dad didn’t know where his sister was. It was kind of like […] survival, like, ‘How do we find work here?’ and us going to school and just feeling lost and not knowing what I was supposed to do in school. It was really actually a very hard time even as a child growing up in that environment.”

Saro’s mother was a homemaker, and her father worked a variety of manual-labor positions. She grew up in the middle of three brothers, which she said taught her from a young age not to complain and to fight for herself when necessary.

“I have always advocated for myself,” Saro said. “Even as a small child, when we were getting our lunch program tickets, and I didn’t– for some reason– get tickets, and I said, ‘I need those tickets so I can eat’ […] my parents couldn’t be an advocate for me because they were dealing with so many challenges.’”

Saro said she thinks the element of having refugee parents who struggled to be present is a common thread shared by many Cambodians in her generation.

“I think that’s reflective of the Cambodian community today,” she said. “The generation that is getting deported is my generation that have gotten into, you know, bad situations and were influenced by things, you know, they were surrounded by and made a lot of mistakes because they didn’t have adults who were mentally present to be able to check in with them because they were dealing with their own trauma.”

In school, Saro didn’t feel challenged by the classes she was placed in at first. She remembers spending time with the kids in the accelerated programs and wanting to read the books they were reading and try the advanced assignments they were given because she loved to learn.

“I was a lot smarter than the classes they were putting me in,” Saro said, reflecting on how she worked to get herself into the honors program in school and put herself on track for college. “I’m the only one who actually went to college of my three brothers […] I kind of overcompensated by getting my doctorate because all of them barely graduated high school, and I wanted my parents to at least feel like […] they sacrificed for at least one of their kids to be able to take advantage of going to college.”

Leaving her ambition to one day manage a store far behind, Saro explored a handful of career paths before discovering what she feels is her true calling: advocacy and community organizing.

Saro realized shortly thereafter that she wanted to begin building her own home on top of her career. She settled down in Long Beach with her would-be husband and secured a position as executive director for the newly created Khmer Girls in Action (KGA). The organization began in 1997 as HOPE for Girls, and, at 25 years old, Saro was determined to “hit the ground running as a start-up.”

Friend and colleague Cindy C. Sangalang was a staff member at KGA at that time. She said the extensive search process for an executive director for the organization led right to Saro, because of her activism and her deep involvement with the community.

“Her application stood out because of her background in community organizing,” Sangalang said. “[Everyone] was impressed by her qualifications […] but also by her well-roundedness in terms of being rooted in the community. [Saro] is very committed. I am always impressed with the way she has always been balancing a number of roles and committees.”

Saro remained in her position with KGA for five years, applying her community-organizing experience and skills to empower women. A young executive director of a newer organization, Saro said she never imagined she would have ended up working for an elected official, which is the role she fills today.

She is a field representative for a California state senator, and she was most recently named the first Cambodian-American chair of the Long Beach Citizen Police Complaint Commission (CPCC) since its origin in 1990. The commission investigates allegations of police misconduct and reviews the service provided by members of the Long Beach Police Department.

“I think that [being chair of the CPCC] is a great opportunity for [Saro] in Long Beach,” Sangalang said. “There is a need for someone to represent, not only [the Cambodian-American community], but all of the communities that have been marginalized […] I think [Saro] has the skills, the capacity, the leadership and the vision to take on this type of role.”

Saro said one of her goals as CPCC chair will be to increase community involvement to help to clarify the role and the nature of the commission.

“I think there’s a lot of kind of hesitation because of the misconception or stereotype about who we are,” Saro said. “Some people think that we advocate for the police, and sometimes the police thinks, ‘Oh, they’re out to get us.’”

The commission consists of 11 individuals who are volunteers in their positions and are appointed by the mayor and the city council. Nine of the commissioners each represent one of the Long Beach council districts, and two commissioners are at-large. Saro is an at-large commissioner along with fellow commissioner Dana Buchanan.

“Suely is smart, fair and tenacious,” Buchanan said. “She possesses the ability to keep our meetings on task while allowing for necessary dialogue in both our open and closed sessions. I am in eager anticipation of her leadership over the next year and looking forward to well run, succinct and productive meetings for the CPCC.”

Saro has plans for the commission to present before neighborhood associations and community groups in the upcoming year as a means for improving community engagement and awareness.

“I’ve always known there haven’t been very many Asian Pacific Islanders in general, much less Cambodians, on the commission,” Saro said. “I think that people have always felt intimidated and scared because of the history we came from of fearing government […] I hope that my role inspires other younger generations that you can really get more involved into the city and that your place is in the city […] that you can do public service.”

The generational difference in perspective toward government and police is one that Saro has faced with her parents since she was a child.

“Other parents might be really excited that their daughter is the chair […] I think for [my parents], they come from an environment where they’re still kind of fearful about what that means, “ Saro said. “Growing up, it was always, ‘Don’t speak out, don’t be so vocal, don’t be so involved.’”

Her parents’ concern and advice notwithstanding, Saro said her personal practice has been to say yes to every opportunity. As such, she will soon be taking on an adjunct faculty position at the California State University, Los Angeles School of Social Work. In this role, she will be teaching part-time the vocation that she says has become her lifestyle: community organizing.

Now raising two children of her own, Saro said she almost cannot believe her fourth-grade self who thought becoming a store manager was the biggest dream she could have.

She intentionally brings her kids with her to as many work-related events as possible because she wants them to see the work she does and learn early the importance of belonging to and contributing to a community.

“Growing up, every Sunday, we would come [to Long Beach] because it was a break for my family,” Saro said. “It was like feeling like we were home, like it was Cambodia for [my family] for a bit […] we would come here, go to the supermarket, hang out with family […] For me, being in Long Beach was like seeing my parents not as stressed. I never felt like I belong in L.A. more than I did here. L.A. always gave me the feeling of being lost. [Long Beach] felt like home. It felt right.”

1 Comment

One Response to “New commission chair says finding home in Long Beach, ‘felt right’”

  1. malou mariano on August 3rd, 2018 6:14 pm

    Dr. Suely Saro makes us all proud. Learning about her story makes us even more appreciative of her accomplishments. We foresee that she will be an excellent political leader. We hope that she will continue to inspire and be a trailblazer in the community.

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New commission chair says finding home in Long Beach, ‘felt right’