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Safe Public Spaces Like Community Gardens Needed For Asian American Elders, But Funding In Jeopardy

Mee Vue stands in the middle of tidy dirt rows, looking down as she points out the watering line running the length of her garden. The drip system feeds her newly planted corn crop and cabbages, all flowering in various stages.   

She’s busy moving her garden hoe, getting rid of weeds that have sprouted since her last visit to the community garden at Fresno Interdenominational Refugee Ministries, or FIRM.

Vue lives right across the street and often spends time in the garden. A translator speaks for her. 

“I started gardening here because my kids said it would be a great way for me to be able to be active as well as have some social interactions so I wouldn't be as lonely while the kids were out or folks were at work,” she says.

Vue is one of 16 Hmong and Lao elders who maintain this garden. Every square foot of space is filled with Southeast Asian herbs and vegetables.

Garden director Tony Bounthapanya gives a tour of the community garden he manages.

Tony Bounthapanya is the garden director and bookkeeper at FIRM. He walks along the garden rows, pointing to various plants growing. 

“This the green mustard seed, but they’re drying it so they can plant them next year,” he says as he splits one of the beans in half to show the seeds.


He manages a total of five community gardens like this throughout Fresno and Clovis. In all, he says 70 people work the gardens, but there's not enough space for everyone. 


“Over 40 something people is on the waiting list. Because once they get to come and work, they never want to leave,” he says. 


Bounthapanya says the gardens have always helped elders with their mental health, relieving stress and encouraging social interaction with peers. But now, they’ve become even more crucial as safe spaces in a threatening climate.


Mustard seeds drying the garden.

Christine Barker, FIRM’s executive director says people talk to her about their fear of being attacked, especially after the mass shooting in Atlanta that left six Asian-Americans dead. 

“I hear from the elders we serve here about how much they’ve changed their lives upside down to avoid going outside,” she says.

Barker says since the start of the pandemic, elders have told her about racist incidents like slurs and property crimes. But tensions escalated this year.

“It’s really only been in 2021 that we started hearing stories about physical assaults,” she says. 


Vue lives with her granddaughter Melanie Lee, who also works at FIRM. Lee says she was already worried about the risks of COVID-19, but the recent rise in anti-Asian violence has made her even more protective of her grandma. 


“Like, I wouldn't let her go out. If she goes out,  I'll let her know, I was like, ‘Please only go there and come back. Wash your hands. Put your mask on. Put your gloves on, put your shields on.’ So, I was very cautious,” she says.


Fresno city leaders announce anti-Asian discrimination resolution during news conference at FIRM.

It’s an issue Fresno City leaders addressed this week when they introduced a resolution denouncing discrimination against Asian American communities. The announcement was made during a news conference Tuesday morning at FIRM. Mayor Jerry Dyer acknowledged the rise in hate crimes.

“We know they occur. They occur right in our own communities, but seldom do they get reported to government officials,” he said.


He said the underreporting of crimes is linked to cultural barriers and distrust of government authorities. 


That’s why as part of the resolution, the city outlined hiring a liaison to the Asian American community first.


The Mayor wants to create the Office of Community Affairs that will staff liaisons to serve all diverse communities in Fresno.


“I’m hopeful that we can through this Office of Community Affairs, establish that level of trust, that liaison with folks being out in the community and partnering with community based organizations so that they’re more willing to come forward,” he says.


The council has 120 days to hire the first position. One of the commitments in the resolution is to provide safe public spaces for Asian community members, especially elders. 


FIRM’s executive director Christine Barker says the community gardens are a prime example of that.


“We deserve to feel safe when we leave our house. We deserve to feel safe in our house. We deserve to feel safe outside of our house. So that’s what we need from the city of Fresno and this is an example of what that can look like,” she says.


But right now, funding for the gardens is in jeopardy. Money for the Therapeutic Horticulture Community Center Program through Fresno County’s Department of Behavioral Health runs out at the end of June. 


FIRM hopes the city of Fresno will approve a community development block grant for $50,000 to keep the program running for another year starting this July. 


Still, that’s only half of what they usually get and FIRM hopes the new liaison will advocate for more aid.  


Garden director Tony Bounthapanya says funding is important because the program also provides mental health services. 


“We have peer support group so that we can teach them how to deal with the stress and suicide prevention,” he says.


In a survey of the people who take part in FIRM’s community gardens, results found that 90% of participants agreed that they feel better about themselves because of their involvement in the gardens. Most also said they don’t feel as alone, think less of suicide and are more physically active and more involved in their neighborhood. 


Barker says the Department of Behavioral Health cut the funding because an internal analysis determined that the impact of the gardens couldn’t be measured. But Barker disagrees.


“We could immediately tomorrow, fill four more gardens. And in a couple months, we could fill 10 more, just with the pent up demand to fill more spaces like this in our community,” she says.


The Department of Behavioral Health did not immediately return KVPR’s phone call, requesting a comment.


These days, Mee Vue’s granddaughter, Melanie will often go with her to the garden. She says working there helps her grandma feel more connected to her Hmong culture. 


“Gardening is part of their life. That's how they grew up overseas in Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia,” she says. “They all learned and that's how they feed themselves, they earn themselves and so you know, gardening is a very important thing for them.”


It’s a legacy she hopes the elders can continue to grow and maintain.

Soreath Hok is a multimedia journalist with experience in radio, television and digital production. She is a 2022 National Edward R. Murrow Award winner. At KVPR she covers local government, politics and other local news.
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