How One Woman Promotes Cambodian Culture and Community

Daily Point of Light # 7803 May 2, 2024

Meet Daily Point of Light Award Honoree Mariko Kahn. Read her story, and nominate an outstanding volunteer or family as a Daily Point of Light.

Mariko Kahn was born in Osaka, Japan. Her mother was a Japanese war bride who married a Chinese-American soldier. At the time, this type of marriage was not recognized by the U.S., but eventually this changed and Mariko and her mother were allowed to accompany her father to his next Army posting in Texas. It was a different time and even though she was the child of a U.S. citizen, she had to apply for citizenship. Today, Mariko lives in Marina del Rey, California. She has lived abroad, studied acting and enjoys tennis and social dancing.

Mariko believes that being part of a community is a priority so wherever she goes, she seeks to become a member of one. It is a powerful and rewarding experience that integrates her into a different culture while offering a new circle of friends. Mariko has become an integral part of the Cambodia Town community where she works tirelessly to support this vibrant cultural element of Long Beach, California.

What inspires you to volunteer?

Many years ago, I didn’t understand volunteering. While getting my Master’s Degree in psychology, during an internship, I became involved with the wellness community where I developed an understanding for helping people and having a sense of community. Whenever I move, get a new job or start a new hobby, I try to find a new community. I become very involved with these communities. The connection drives me. When you have a sense of community, you can’t help but care about its people.

2024 Mariko Kahn, Cambodia Town volunteer /Courtesy Mariko Kahn

Tell us about your volunteer role with Cambodia Town.

Securing funding was an important part of what I did as an executive director for nonprofits for several decades. Grant writing is probably the most significant volunteer activity I do for Cambodia Town (CT). I research suitable grants, write the grant and handle all of the administrative and financial set-up if a grant is awarded including hiring the staff, coordinating the program and writing the final report. Over the past 16 years, I have gotten millions of dollars in grants and contracts while working for Pacific Asian Counseling Services (PACS). This organization provides mental health services to those with mental health challenges, with expertise in culturally and linguistically appropriate programs for many Asian Pacific Islander communities.

I am the secretary for Cambodia Town. I take all the board meeting minutes, set up the meetings and agenda, and as part of the executive committee, handle issues as they occur. We have a board meeting every month and often have special board meetings in between. We also have at least two social events every year that need planning, including a fundraising dinner in July. I attend many meetings to represent CT and often testify on issues at the Long Beach City Council, community focus groups and town halls. The board made me an authorizing official for the agency with the authority to represent, negotiate and sign contracts for CT.

This year, I was the co-chair of the Cambodia Town Parade and Culture Festival (CTPCF) which happened on April 7, 2024. This is a major community event and due to its size, it involves a lot of logistics and planning. There’s fundraising, recruiting performers for the festival program, overseeing vendors, recruiting volunteers, outreach and much more. Thankfully I’m good at logistics!

The CTPCF is a very important community event. This year, we have 55 entries for the parade. The parade ends at a park, where we will have eight food booths, about 55 information booths for local nonprofits and commercial vendors. There’s a band, dance groups and at any given time, 2,000 to 3,000 people milling around. There’s lots of entertainment, including multicultural dance and music groups so the festival isn’t really just about Cambodian culture; it includes the multi-ethnic diversity of the neighborhood. The neighborhood was originally Black. Then the demographics shifted to Latino and today, it includes a large number of Cambodians. The CTPCF is the largest parade in Long Beach and draws almost 5,000 attendees. This year we are featuring 90 Buddhist monks who will be marching in the parade. Cambodians are very spiritual, and this is part of the cultural aspect of Cambodia that we want to showcase in the event.

I am also a key member representing CT in the development of the Cambodian American Studies Model Curriculum for the State of California. Some years back, legislation was passed to include more history about Asian-Americans into the state’s school curriculum from kindergarten through high school by including courses on the Cambodians, Vietnamese and Hmong. There was community protest because it was titled the Cambodian Genocide curriculum and many people did not want the Cambodian experience to be limited to the Khmer Rouge genocide period. This caused an uproar and the program was almost axed. I was asked to be a member of the CT Work Group. We held focus groups, info meetings and advised on artwork, history and terminology. Several Cambodian community-based organizations were involved in the process, but our work group was especially impactful because of our members’ knowledge and expertise on the Cambodian and Cambodian American experience. The agency that developed the curriculum appreciated our input. We are known for getting things done! Now, the title has been changed and the first draft of the model curriculum is being tested in schools through 2025.

CT also helps Cambodian community members and businesses. During COVID, three CT board members who work for PACS distributed masks and test kits. Through their efforts, our board notified the community about vaccines and answered questions. We helped Cambodian businesses apply for COVID relief funding. Several businesses received thousands of dollars that helped to keep their doors open, pay staff and improve their facilities.

CT was a key mover in the passage of a Property and Business Improvement District or PBid in the Cambodia Town district which collects funding to improve the safety and appearance of the area. In 2021, CT took a lead role in helping to distribute relief funding to 23 businesses in the CT District that were damaged due to anti-Asian vandalism.

What are your long-term plans or goals for Cambodia Town?

I would love to see the CTPCF become a better-known event that attracts people from all over Los Angeles County area and even beyond. One way would be to have more food vendors as that is a big draw for non-Cambodians.
Second, I would like to see the board grow in number. A significant number of current board members are going to retire and there needs to be a succession plan.

Third, I would like to see CT have full-time staff.
Fourth, CT needs more diverse fundraising by the board. It may need to rethink its mission to include direct program services to bring in revenue.

What’s been the most rewarding part of your work?

The most rewarding part has been making friends. I love meeting interesting people and developing a sense of community. I like learning new things. The world is still wide open!

What have you learned through your experiences as a volunteer?

I’ve learned that I can ask people for money or help for a cause even though I could never ask for myself. For me, it’s important to be identified with a just cause. Without that sense of identity, I wouldn’t have the passion or dedication to put in the long hours and do whatever needs to be done. Also the caring and passion of the people I’m involved with is so important to keep me going. And it goes back to community because that creates a sense of belonging which is essential for me.

I think I am a good grant writer, but I learned that getting a grant is also about having a connection with the foundation and its staff or the department giving out the contract. Once they trust you and they see the quality of your work, they are more likely to fund your proposal, and not just once but continually. Government grants are much more difficult to get than private grants just because of the tedious nature of the application but once you get one, such as the Department of Mental Health grant that we received, it gets renewed year after year. I did not have any grant writing skills when I first became an executive director with a cancer support group but I took a lot of classes and went to a lot of meetings to meet people. I was committed to learning how to do this.

Originally, CT paid to boost social media and Cambodian cable TV to spread the word about the CTPCF. We are finding that the event is viewed by as many as 5 million people in the U.S. and abroad because of the personal videos taken by attendees and shared on their social media. That’s how it spreads. And that’s why our event has to be so amazing, so compelling, that people will make it go viral.

023 Cambodia Town Fundraiser for the Long Beach Kickboxing Center. Kickboxing is a Cambodian martial art. /Courtesy Mariko Kahn

Tell us about future partnerships, programs or events that you are excited about.

Cambodia Town will participate in an educators’ conference on the Cambodian American Studies Curriculum in October 2024, where 200-plus educators from all over California will come to Long Beach to learn about the curriculum and how to teach it. CT will be tasked with helping them get exposure to authentic Cambodian food, traditions and customs, and learn about the history of Cambodia Town.

The Olympics are coming to Los Angeles in 2028. CT is working with the Long Beach City Council to build a spectacular Chinatown-style gateway into Cambodia Town. I’m involved as a volunteer. I’m not historically or artistically knowledgeable with regard to the design, but I know how to maneuver through the process. The City Council has already allocated $1 million for this project.

Any advice for people who want to start volunteering?

It’s easy to find ways to help. Do a Google search, or ask your friends or neighbors. What can take more effort is finding an organization that aligns with your skill sets. You may need to explore several different opportunities until you find one that works with your interests and skills. When you find “your people,” you just know it. Everything clicks. I do what I do because I believe that CT is an organization that gets things done: I advise anyone just starting out to find an organization that you can be enthusiastic about and has an impact.

What do you want people to learn from your story?

It was through my volunteering and working in the nonprofit world that I learned who I am. Working in different communities taught me that knowing about your culture is important. The pressure in our American culture is to be Americanized if you’re an immigrant or belong to a non-white group. However, there’s such richness in understanding and studying your culture and its traditions. It makes you more complete and can build your self-confidence. It’s important not to be ashamed of your origins. Own it.

I believe strongly in the benefits of having a sense of community in the broadest sense. Community helps you to dream big.

Do you want to make a difference in your community like Mariko? Find local volunteer opportunities.


Jarmila Gorman