A $600,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services will support the work of two IUPUI faculty members at the Burmese Community Center for Education in Indianapolis. The funding will benefit a self-empowerment project at the nonprofit, which is designed to assist immigrants from Burma.
December 20, 2013
Indianapolis, Ind. — The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has granted $600,000 to the Burmese Community Center for Education supporting work that involves two faculty from the Indiana University School of Education at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis.
The three-year grant supports the BCCE Community Self-Empowerment Program, an ongoing project of the nonprofit organization with offices on the north side of Indianapolis established just over three years ago to assist immigrants from the war-torn country.
The project is directed by May Oo Mutraw, BCCE director, and Neineh Plo and Jerry Htoo, BCCE assistant directors. The principal investigators on the project are School of Education Educational Leadership and Policy Studies faculty members Thu Suong Thi Nguyen, an assistant professor, and Brendan Maxcy, associate professor.
The grant, awarded from the HHS Administration for Children and Families Office of Refugee Resettlement, is designed to support community-based organizations such as the BCCE. The Indianapolis organization has been conducting work largely through volunteers based in a building at First Baptist Church. The focus is on education, workforce development, family and social health, and housing for the Burmese community, estimated to be more than 8,000 in Indianapolis.
“The funding supports ongoing program efforts in two ways,” Nguyen said. “The BCCE connects community members with bridging services to help their transition to this country. The center also provides advocacy and education programs to empower the community.”
Nguyen's research focuses on how students from immigrant families navigate their new environments and how educational policies and practices affect their experience. She began working with the BCCE shortly after it began. Nguyen's work on the experience of refugee families and students is informed by personal experience. Her parents fled Vietnam when Saigon fell in 1975 and resettled in Texas.
Burma, officially called the Republic of the Union of Myanmar as designated by the military government, has largely seen little but conflict since the military junta overthrew the democratic government in 1962. Refugees have fled the country since, only slowing slightly since the military government dissolved in 2011 following elections that installed civilian leadership.
Most of the refugees who arrive here have come from camps in neighboring countries, said Mutraw, places that did not provide a lot of services.
“When they come to the United States, it’s more than a challenge for them to settle down and pursue what they came for: a better life, better education,” she said.
Mutraw was able to leave Burma in the 1990s to pursue higher education, most recently pursuing a Ph.D. in law from the IU Maurer School of Law in Bloomington.
“The majority of our people came with very little or no formal education,” she said. “So when they arrive here, the difficulties are enormous. We try to address those difficulties so they can help themselves to be independent.”
“I share the same background as many of these families,” Htoo said. He helped start the BCCE while he was finishing studies at IU Bloomington, where he earned a degree in International Studies in 2010. “I came from the same refugee camps, so I've been in their situation before, so I know exactly what their problems are. I also feel like when I finished school, I’m one of the lucky few, so I have an obligation to help them when I have a chance.”
The work of the BCCE pairs well with the efforts Nguyen and Maxcy both support as co-principal investigators with the Great Lakes Equity Center at the IU School of Education at IUPUI, a center focused on equitable access to high-quality education for all students and families. Additionally, Maxcy and Nguyen introduce members and students from the BCCE to future school leaders through the Urban Principals Program that Maxcy directs at IUPUI, a master’s degree program that can help lead to administrative licensure in Indiana.
“It’s been enormously enriching for the program and for our students,” Maxcy said. “They come away with a broader understanding of not only the challenges that the families and students face but also the strengths and the assets they bring to the community as well as the ways groups like the BCCE can assist and partner with schools to support students and families.”
The programs at the BCCE touch on a variety of areas related to the primary areas of focus. Events have included celebrations of language and culture, a community gardening project, summer freedom trips, citizenship education and other social matters in the community. Daily, the BCCE, which is largely staffed by volunteers, answers calls or meets with community members to translate important documents or navigate necessary services.
“For newly arrived families, the first thing we can provide is relief,” said Plo, who left a Burmese refugee camp on a U.S. State Department grant and earned a Bachelor of Arts in international studies from IU Bloomington in 2009. “We provide relief to see that we are here for them.”
The trauma of fleeing a war-torn country is certainly eased through the supports from community members who can converse in their heritage languages and who have first-hand knowledge of these experiences, Nguyen said.
Maxcy and Nguyen hope their research can further provide evidence of what works for such community efforts to assist immigrants resettling to the U.S. They are working with the founding members and youth from the center to document how the BCCE grew out of the efforts to support and empower the community through formal and informal education. Last month, BCCE staff and Burmese youth presented on the center’s work with Maxcy and Nguyen at the international conference for the University Council for Educational Administration in Indianapolis. The conference provided an opportunity to share this work with other grassroots organizers, scholars and practitioners.