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Koreatown Non-Profit Faces Challenges In Little Bangladesh

Sinduja Rangarajan |
March 17, 2014 | 3:16 p.m. PDT

Staff Reporter

Little Bangladesh, Los Angeles/via Flickr Creative Commons
Little Bangladesh, Los Angeles/via Flickr Creative Commons
Crystal Cedillo and Jennifer Mendoza were visiting A & A Liquor in Koreatown for the sixth time, making yet another attempt to get owner Tapon Kundu to sign a pledge to prevent underage drinking in the community.

He always seemed to dodge their request.

This time around, Cedillo and Mendoza approached Kundu with the copy of the pledge translated in his own language: Bengali. Suddenly, everything changed.

“When he got the pledge in Bengali, he signed it right then and there,” Mendoza said. “It was great.”

Cedillo and Mendoza work as community organizers at the Koreatown Youth and Community Center as part of the center’s prevention education unit that raises awareness among youth and parents and liquor store owners about alcohol and substance abuse.

Koreatown has an unusually high density of liquor stores – the number per 10,000 people is four times that of the Los Angeles County average, according to a study done in 2011 by the center to assess community needs with respect to alcohol and substance abuse.  

“Everywhere you turn, there is a place that sells alcohol,” said Christine Lee, the manager for the prevention education program.

Parents who had participated in the study felt that the sheer number of liquor stores in the area was one of the main contributors to underage drinking, Lee said.

“There is a sense among young adults and parents that these stores are a nexus of problems like graffiti and gang activity,” Lee said. “They also felt that there were many liquor stores that served alcohol to minors.”

The center decided to work with the store owners at the start of 2013, and started educating them about state alcoholic beverage laws. Immigrants own a majority of the liquor stores in the neighborhood and many are not well versed with the law, Lee said. Shop owners have to remove any graffiti drawn on their premises, ensure there’s no loitering outside the store, and can’t sell alcohol to minors.

“We started working with businesses like our clients,” said Lee. “We saw that businesses need information, they need resources, and they need education.”

SEE ALSO: LA Riots: Koreatown earns its place in city history

Lee and her team of community organizers, including Cedillo, Mendoza and others, went knocking on every liquor store in Koreatown. They offered owners “no loitering” signs that merchants could put outside their stores and invited them to trainings sessions on liquor laws. They asked merchants to sign a pledge to inhibit underage drinking.

It was a challenge to start a conversation with store owners, Cedillo said. Merchants regularly mistook them for solicitors or suspected them to be government authorities who were there to inspect them.

“Whenever we go in to a store, there’s a little bit of skepticism and paranoia amongst store owners,” Lee said.  “They would mistake us [for] a government agency and would be like ‘Are you here to get me into trouble?’”

The team was prepared for this initial skepticism and distrust. They visited every store multiple times and started building relationships.

“It was a challenge to build that trust, but we would tell owners that what we are offering is to help you and it’s for free,” said Carol Lee, another community organizer from Lee's team.

SEE ALSO: Los Angeles communities designated as promise zones.

Among them, they could speak Spanish, Korean and English fluently. They expected that the majority of stores would be Korean or Latino-owned and find an odd South Asian owned store here and there. The neighborhood known as Little Bangladesh is nearby.

What they did not expect was that South Asians owned more than 20 percent of the liquor stores.

“It did surprise us a little bit to know how many stores were actually South Asian,” Lee said.“Hindi and Bengali emerged as the most spoken languages after Korean and Spanish.”

Though 2010 census data shows that South Asians comprise less than 1 percent of the population of Koreatown, Lee said the number is much more. A survey conducted by the South Asian Network and the University of California, Los Angeles, in 2005 suggested a population of about 8,000.

The low census count might be explained by multiple families living under one roof and a large number of people who lack immigration documents and may have avoided census workers, Lee said.

“We have a blossoming Bangladeshi community here,” Lee said. “I know that it’s an underserved and underreported community.”

The organizers noticed that while most Korean and Spanish-speaking merchants started co-operating after two or three meetings, South Asian merchants didn’t respond even after four or five visits.

Many of the South Asian owners spoke limited English but enough to understand the community organizers. So the team was confused: Was there just a language gap or were there other underlying cultural barriers that contributed to the owners’ unresponsiveness?

“We didn’t know if the store owner[s] liked us or not,” Lee said.

SEE ALSO: Koreatown residents blast LA City Council district split

Eleven months after they started the merchant education program, Lee and her team took their first step toward reaching out to the South Asian community by translating some of their materials into Hindi and Bengali.

It’s only been a few months since the group started taking translated materials to the store owners, but they have already seen a change.

Kundu was one of the first shopkeepers to come around, but there have been others as well. Lee, Cedillo and Mendoza visited the Numero Uno Mini Market at least four or five times without any response from the merchant. When they showed up with the translated materials, he opened up for the first time and started talking about his country, Lee said.

Infographic by Sinduja Rangarajan
Infographic by Sinduja Rangarajan

“He started talking to us about the other dialects that he speaks and his experience working at that store,” Lee said. “It opened the door for us to come back and start a relationship with him.”

Kundu, one of the shopkeepers who signed the organization’s pledge, said the translated materials made a difference, but not just because of the language. Kundu understands and speaks English fairly well. But the gesture of translation made all the difference, he said. No other community organization had made the effort to connect with him in his language before.

“They try to make us comfortable,” he said. “The translations are helpful for those who don’t know English in the Bangladeshi community. I also get to know about what is happening in the community.”

Although the translation effort has bridged the language gap, Lee said that she thinks there’s still a long way to go. Many of the newer immigrant community store owners such as the Bangladeshi see the organization as one that serves only the Korean population. Lee and her team are making an effort to change that perception by working with local community networks and reaching out through them.

“Our outreach with this community is still fairly new, but I see a lot of promise here,” said Lee.“We have had a lot of opportunities even along with the challenges.”

Reach Staff Reporter Sinduja Rangarajan here. Follow her on Twitter.



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