Chanravy Proeung ’09
Fighting for injustice is a labor of love for Chanravy Proeung, a Khmer American, who was catapulted into the role of an activist more than 10 years ago. Proeung's parents were refugees of the Viet Nam War. She became not only a first-generation American but the first in her family to graduate college, earning a degree in nursing in 2009 at Rhode Island College. Yet her life work would lead her into the community, where she would pour all her energy into grassroots organizing and building a collectively resourced vision.
Proeung is former executive director of the Providence Youth Student Movement, which she led from 2010-2014. In 2016, on a Soros Justice Fellowship, she worked in solidarity with domestic and international groups around human rights violations against Southeast Asian Americans, twice testifying at the United Nations in Geneva about racial profiling, mass incarceration and mass deportation of Southeast Asians. In 2017 she co-founded SISTA FIRE, an organization that invests in the direct leadership of women of color.
In the following interview, Proeung talks about how she emerged as a leader in the effort to include the Southeast Asian community and women of color in the larger struggle for social justice in America.
On your social media site you posted the quote: "To become a successful leader, begin by putting yourself in over your head … putting yourself in the deep end." It takes a lot of courage to go in over your head, doesn't it?
Yes, but I think if you want to create change, you have to step out of fear. One of my other favorite quotes is by Audre Lorde, who said, "When I dare to be powerful – to use my strength in the service of my vision, then it becomes less and less important whether I am afraid."
Why was SISTA FIRE created?
SISTA FIRE came out of necessity. My partner in this work, Ditra Edwards, had returned to Rhode Island after over 20 years of working in the national field. We began to have conversations, asking, "What kind of support systems do Black women, Indigenous women, Southeast Asian women, Latinx women, trans women have in the State of Rhode Island? "Where is the leadership pipeline for the growth and development of women of color?" And "How do we create a space that can support and nurture leadership in women, build collective power and change political conditions?"
Where does change start for SISTA FIRE?
The most important part of any process of change is grounding the work in the communities that are directly impacted, talking to folks who have the lived experience, allowing them to tell their stories and developing not only community-led solutions but a collective vision for change.
What issues in the community are SISTA FIRE currently working on?
Right now, we're providing economic relief to community members as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. We're developing a campaign for reproductive justice to address Black maternal and infant mortality. Black women are four times more likely to die in the hospital giving birth than white women. And we're addressing police violence against black and brown bodies through the lens of gender-based violence.
At the end of the day, SISTA FIRE's work is about changing systemic racism and oppression through leadership development. We're fighting for a new world. This current system of violence against black and brown bodies is not working for us anymore. We're tired of our kids dying by the hands of the police. We're tired of the public education system not nourishing our kids' brain development, their critical-thinking skills and their identity. We want basic housing, universal health care. You have people wondering if they should pay their rent or buy food.
In 2018 more women of color took seats in Congress than they've had in our nation's history. As a seasoned grassroots organizer, what advice would you give these sisters going forward?
These women have been trailblazers in a larger system that hadn't been working for us, and they're trying to move the collective visions of their communities. They've done the on-the-ground organizing and listening. What's different about them is that they continue to go back to the community and keep listening. Once you get disconnected from that base and forget to listen to your community, then you're no longer creating change. That's going to be important going forward.
Do you see yourself ever returning to nursing?
I would like to do nursing, but every time I try to galvanize in that direction, I get pulled back into fighting for the community. That's where my heart is. The community needs us.
This interview has been edited and condensed.