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Martha Thawnghmung


Burmese Parents Summer Enrichment Program

4317 W. Dickman Road
Springfield, Michigan 49037
Martha Thawnghmung connects to the Burmese refugees in Battle Creek not simply as clients, but as her brothers and sisters. Through the Burmese American Initiative she helps Burmese adults and children overcome language and cultural barriers and navigate government and agency systems to access resources for their health and education. 
Michigan Nightlight: What does being a leader mean to you?
Martha Thawnghmung, Executive Director of the Burmese American Initiative: A leader means standing with the people when the wind is fierce, and showing them the way out of that wind. This is of the utmost importance—to be with our clients. When they are facing the most difficult situation they have ever faced and they think they cannot hold on another minute, we empathize with them. We acknowledge the struggles they are facing. And it is also our job to show them how strong they are to have come half way around the world, and that they can face anything else that comes.
Often our clients feel helpless because they have a problem, and they cannot see the solution or the way out of it. The rules of Burmese society are no longer valid in their new environment. They must operate in a new world with new rules and new ways of being. Add language and communication barriers and it is easy to see why one feels helpless. We guide them through resolving their problems in a new system. Someday, they will be able to resolve their own issues.
The personality traits that makes me able to stand with people is my belief in the connectedness of human beings. When I see everyone as my brothers and sisters, I am willing to withstand anything for them.
When I see everyone as my brothers and sisters, I am willing to withstand anything for them.
The other part of that is of course, the knowledge that there is a way out of everything, a confidence that yes, we will overcome.
What is your dream for kids?
My dream for kids is what I dream for my own child – that they feel loved and valued, that they celebrate their uniqueness, that they have every opportunity for discovery and learning, and that they someday reach their full potential as human beings. My dream world for kids would be a world where they are celebrated just being alive, a world where they feel totally confident in being who they are, a world where they are excited about exploring and discovery. Burmese kids don't quite have that yet. They have parents who are very insecure in a new world, who are frustrated because they don't know how to access resources, who cannot communicate with the larger community, and who cannot give their children the guidance to be successful in a new world.
What is one concrete thing that could be done to improve the environment for social sector work in Michigan?
If agency leadership and funding entities culturally and racially reflect the customers we serve, the social sector environment would be improved. When we are far removed from our clients, we don’t understand them and as a consequence don’t know how to fully empower them.
How do you know you’re making progress?
When a man tells us that he feels the Burma Center, where the Burmese American Initiative is operated, exists just to help him, then I know we are making progress. When a woman tells us that she again feels hopeful about the future, that we lifted the weight off her shoulder, then I know we are making progress. And when clients talk openly about where they would be if not for the Burma Center, then I know we are making progress. And when the Early Childhood Connections Friday morning playgroup is so popular that children are overflowing out of the Burma Center, I know we’re making progress.
What are you most proud of?
I am most proud of the fact that we give people hope for their future.
I am most proud of the fact that we give people hope for their future. 
For example, we guided young adults through financial aid applications and community college applications. We continue that assistance and advocacy through direct communication with their instructors to help them transition into college students. These college students are excited about possibilities.
Recently we organized and held a community town hall meeting to address the mistreatment by an agency that new Burmese refugees endured. We heard their stories and knew "if not for us, then who?" The new refugees were very nervous to speak up. We accompanied them, stood with them, and empowered them to tell their stories. We conducted the town hall style meeting in a way that honored the dignity of all parties, including the agency and its personnel, while giving the refugees the platform to share their experiences. As a result we have a task force forming to ensure that refugees are treated with dignity going forward. The people are empowered by their own courage to speak up and they are optimistic about the future.
What role have networks played in your professional career? How have those networks, both personal and private affected the work you are able to do?
Networks are the foundation of my career. They are the relationships that have allowed us to accomplish anything and everything. There are so many organizations that make us who we are—the Kellogg Foundation for funding us and connecting us to amazing people and their agencies; the First Congregational Church and its leaders for readily accepting the request to serve as fiscal sponsor and supporting us through very difficult situations; the religious organizing group JONAH for guiding us and standing behind us; the city of Springfield and its leadership for actively welcoming Burmese people; the Battle Creek Public Schools for giving us use of a middle school for ESL classes; the Lake Michigan Presbytery for believing in the people through their Self-Development of People funding for the community garden needs; the Early Childhood Connections team for breaking barriers and doing what made sense for the new population instead of what has always been done; the Family Health Center, WIC and other health care agencies for pursuing the heath education of Burmese people; Legal Services of South Central Michigan for their amazing dedication to helping Burmese clients with their unique situations; and the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center for connecting us to higher level systems, just to name a few.
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