Too Far From The Sun: Political Participation in Worcester

David LeBoeuf Image 1

They said they vote because elections are free here, unlike in Vietnam.

David LeBoeuf didn’t have to look further than his hometown of Worcester, Massachusetts to find the idea for his senior thesis, which examines political participation among the city’s Liberian and Vietnamese communities. LeBoeuf, a senior in Social Studies, had worked at the city hall as part of a coalition on voting, which led him to become interested in the obstacles to political participation faced by local immigrant and refugee groups. “Some of the other students and I had been talking about how different neighborhoods were treated differently based on where they were from,” LeBoeuf explains. “It made me wonder if by getting more people from these groups to vote, we could improve their treatment.” 

The past experiences in this case are the wars and political repression that had wracked both Liberia and Vietnam in the late twentieth century. For LeBoeuf’s subjects, even for younger and second generation respondents, political participation was a way to address these historical traumas. LeBoeuf describes a group of elderly Vietnamese who spoke no English but were well-versed and active in the American political system. “They said they vote because elections are free here, unlike in Vietnam. A lot of the older Vietnamese I talked to said that Vietnam before the Communist takeover was a lot like the U.S. is now, so they see voting here as a way of liberating Vietnam from its Communist past.” Similarly, one Liberian interviewee maintained that voting in the U.S. strengthens both Liberia and Liberian-American community. “Because Liberia was founded by the U.S., Liberians feel that this is their country as well,” LeBoeuf says. “Political activity here is a continuation of the trajectory of their cultural narratives.”With the help of the local Liberian and Vietnamese associations, LeBoeuf amassed a pool of first, second, and 1.5 generation immigrants who were willing to be interviewed about their voting experiences. His findings suggest that for these groups, political participation is a way of engaging with the culture and historical narratives of their home countries. “People often said that they voted because of the togetherness of their communities,” LeBoeuf recalls. “Participation is a part of their identity, a way of moving beyond their past experiences as nations.” 

LeBoeuf concluded that policy makers should design voter initiatives that better engage with new citizens’ ethnic cultures. “If we have people in our own city or country who feel unable to participate in democracy like everyone else, that’s a problem,” he says. While he hopes to eventually expand his research to include more ethnic groups and more socioeconomic variables, in the meantime he will let the communities themselves use his findings to determine a direction for future projects.

Ultimately, LeBoeuf is optimistic about the possibilities for raising immigrant and refugee engagement in the political process, though he acknowledges the obstacles that stand in the way. The title of his thesis, “Too Far from the Sun,” is a direct quote from a Vietnamese-American community leader he had encountered, who felt that the Vietnamese-American community was politically isolated from the population at large. “This was someone who epitomized civic engagement, and yet she still had this feeling of otherness, of not belonging,” LeBoeuf says. “I hope this project will show that although these communities feel ‘too far from the sun,’ what they see as a sunset is actually a new sunrise.”

The writer can be reached at catwood@college.harvard.edu.