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Seattle Transportation Plan | Route 120: A reflection by Judy Khun, Community Programs Coordinator at Khmer Community of Seattle King County (KCSKC) 

Editor’s Note: We at SDOT and the Office of Planning and Community Development (OPCD) are partnering with community-based organizations to develop the Seattle Transportation Plan and One Seattle Plan. Together, we recently attended an event led by one of these partners, the Khmer Community of Seattle King County/ Noio Pathways/ KIMYUNITY. This group has partnered with us to reach Seattle’s Khmer/Cambodian community in a respectful, sensitive, meaningful way, to ensure people in this community see their perspectives represented in the Seattle Transportation Plan and One Seattle Plan. 

As part of this, they are piloting an innovative civic education curriculum and community engagement approaches that center Khmer culture, prioritize relationship and skill-building, and invest in the well-being of Khmer elders and youth. Through their lived experiences as members of and organizers in BIPOC communities and their experience navigating systems of growth, they are bridging community and institutions to help shape the Seattle Transportation Plan and One Seattle Plan.  

This engagement event was designed as an exploratory field trip for a group of Khmer elders, and was facilitated through the translation services of several KCSKC interpreters and staff, and supported by youth employees of KCSKC.

The following reflection was written by Judy Khun, one of the KCSKC youth employees providing documentation and technical support for the day’s events. 

My fondest memories come from riding the bus. With both my parents working full-time, my younger sister and I were often left in the care of my grandparents. Many of my childhood memories come from riding the 128 bus with my Yeay (grandmother) and Tha (grandfather) that took us from Southcenter to the bustling Khmer community of White Center, where Khmer grocers and shops were all within a few blocks of one another. Over a decade later, it is here that I had the opportunity to create new memories with some of the elders of the Khmer community.  

On a chilly Wednesday morning, 11 Khmer elders, 6 KCSKC staff (which I am one of them), and 2 community partners all gathered in Apsara Palace, a Khmer restaurant in White Center. Recently, Khmer Community of Seattle King County (KCSKC) in partnership with Noio Pathways and KIMYUNITY were awarded the opportunity to conduct community engagement workshops for the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) and the Seattle Office of Planning and Community Development (OPCD). Part of the project aims to gather input from Khmer elders regarding public transportation and how Seattle can build towards becoming a more accessible and equitable city. We are bridging the gap between traditional civic engagement efforts and our community members by taking an Elder field trip from White Center, onto the 120 bus to downtown Seattle, then hopping on the Monorail to the Seattle Center.  

The morning began by learning about elders’ backgrounds and experiences with public transportation, particularly King County Metro buses. The participants were divided between new bus riders and veterans, one of them boasting a 25-year bus-riding track history. After a short bus-riding 101 tutorial presented by our veteran bus-rider, we set off to the bus stop on the corner of 15th Ave SW & SW 100th St. 

Gathering at Aspara Palace. 

Not long after we arrived at the bus stop, the 120 came by and our veteran bus-rider assisted the other elders in tapping their ORCA cards as they boarded the bus. Once everyone settled into their seats, we were off to downtown Seattle. I situated myself beside an elder who endearingly told me to call her Yeay P. It was Yeay P’s first time riding the bus in her over 30 years of living in the U.S. During our commute, Yeay P shared with me snippets of her life; stories about her day-to-day life now that her husband has passed, and about her daughter’s asthma that keeps her up at night. It was the first conversation that we ever had but the depths of the stories she told relayed to me how much she has to share. 

As we approached our stop, one of the elder’s granddaughters pulled the yellow stop request cord; we hopped off at 3rd Ave & Pine St and headed to our next stop, the Seattle Center Monorail. On the way there, we passed by a waterfall sculpture at Westlake Park, at which point one of the elders jokingly mentioned taking a pitstop for a quick shower. A block later, we arrived at the street entrance to the Monorail. The group split into two with some elders riding up the elevator and others choosing to take the stairs, three stories up. I was pleasantly surprised seeing how much energy they had as they made their way up. One of the KCSKC staff members had to convince them to take a break at the halfway point.  

Finally, we made it to the top and boarded the Monorail. I found myself sitting next to a different elder who shared with me that Seattle is so different from what she heard. Having lived in Washington for over a third of her life, she very seldom came to Seattle because of stories she heard of downtown being crime-filled, stories she heard from news outlets and through word of mouth. She told me a story of how during the pandemic, one of her daughters was to transfer to work downtown which filled the elder with worry; worry that her daughter might be harassed for being visibly Asian during the height of anti-Asian hate sentiments amidst COVID-19 scares. Against her wishes, her daughter followed through with working downtown and found it to be rather safe. The elder expressed how she would often pray that her daughter stayed safe but now seeing downtown for herself firsthand, the elder found the city to be quite beautiful, noting the tall skyscrapers and luxury shops that lined the streets. Before my eyes, I could see the previous fear-based notions that the elder held quickly change as she saw the beauty of the city. 

On the Monorail. 

A few minutes later, we reached our final destination at the Seattle Center and disembarked to have lunch at the Armory, a food hall with many food options that the elders don’t have the opportunity to eat often. It brought a smile to my face seeing their faces light up as they spoke with such enthusiasm about their favorite pizza toppings. “I really like the pizza that has pineapples on top of it, it’s called Hawaiian.” “My favorite has mushrooms on top.” It served as a gentle reminder that joy can be found in even the simplest of things. After making a few rounds in the food hall, everyone got their food and settled in for a lunch break. On the elders’ menu we had pizza slices, sub sandwiches, gyro plates, fish and chips, and rice with orange chicken.  

Once we finished eating, we met up with City of Seattle OPCD and SDOT staff, who patiently listened to our debrief and elders’ reflections on their experience riding the bus and Monorail. A common theme I observed was how highly appreciative that the elders were that they got to go on this trip. Many of them don’t have the chance to explore outside of their neighborhoods, so to go on a trip to the city with their friends was a huge change in pace and scenery. City staff inquired about things the city could improve on but each elder only had something positive to say about their experience. It made me wonder a bit about where the elders might be coming from. Without much prior exposure to Downtown Seattle, it could be difficult to offer feedback about where improvements could be made. On the other hand, they might not have wanted to share with them critiques about the city after traveling and dining on the city’s card. Regardless, it was clear to see that the elders were happy simply to have had the opportunity to go to town, literally. 

The conversations died down so we wrapped up in the food hall and took a stroll outside. The elders didn’t miss a beat when it came to taking pictures, whether that was a picture in front of the Space Needle or at the International Fountain. A gentleman came up to our group and asked for spare change to which the elders didn’t hesitate to reach into their wallets and offer a dollar or two. A busker was playing music along the street which prompted some elders to give him a few dollars, and others to bust out a move. These interactions cemented in my head the kindness that the elders hold. While not the most financially affluent, the elders took out the spare change that they had to give to others. Along the pavement, the elders were quick to point out the vegetation. A plant used to decorate the streets in Seattle is actually an herb perfect in Banh Chav, a savory Khmer crepe dish. It made me reflect about how our community lives thousands of miles away from our homeland but they’re still able to find pieces of connection to their roots through plants. After one last photo op by the Artists at Play Playground, we hopped into two City of Seattle vans to take us all back to Apsara Palace in White Center.  

This short day trip filled my heart with so much joy being in community with the elders every step of the way on this new adventure.  

Near the Seattle Center. 

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