In 1980, Ladine Chan was born in a Thailand refugee camp on the border of Cambodia. His parents survived genocide, while so many of their friends and family did not.

“I had two older sisters who died of starvation,” Chan said quietly.

His family got sponsored by another in Arizona, so they made it out of Southeast Asia in 1982. They lived in the Grand Canyon State for a year before moving to Long Beach to join the burgeoning Cambodian population made up of others fleeing death.

While his parents survived the killing fields, they were left with deep emotional scars that put a strain on their relationship with their son, especially when it came to teaching him about his culture and the events that led them to the United States.

“My parents were dealing with PTSD,” Chan said. “So every time I tried to have a conversation around it, my parents didn’t want to talk about it.”

“Growing up, I was dealing with cultural identity issues,” he added. “Just not being able to know who I am as an individual, but also not knowing my history.”

This was an issue within the city’s entire Cambodian population, Chan said, which led to high rates of violence, teen pregnancy and dropping out of high school.

“There was definitely a need in the community to really address these issues,” he said.

In 1996, the United Cambodian Community of Long Beach partnered with Families in Good Health at St. Mary Medical Center to create Educated Men with Meaningful Messages, or EM3, an advocacy and health education program for young men ages 14 to 19. Chan was among EM3’s first cohort.

A group photo of the students who attended EM3’s 2023 summer camp at YMCA Camp Oakes in Big Bear. Courtesy of EM3

The program, Chan said, focuses on leadership development, community organizing, paths to higher education and “just really being able to understand the landscape of issues of social justice here in Long Beach around violence, housing and school.” EM3 is meant to prepare youth for the future through mentorship and counseling.

One of the most important aspects of the program, however, is its focus on creating healthy relationships, a topic not focused on enough in many young mens’ lives—especially in the Cambodian community, Chan said.

“It’s very important just being able to have meaningful conversations about healthy relationships and being able to express your feelings,” he said.

Each school year, the program works with a group of 15 to 25 students from the area’s high schools. While some students only participate one year, Chan said some students are part of the program for all four years of high school.

After he graduated from Long Beach Poly, Chan went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in sociology from Cal State Dominguez Hills, something he said would not have been possible without the guidance from EM3. While attending the university, he took an internship with the organization.

When he graduated in 2004, wanting to give back to the Long Beach community, he took a position at EM3 as a youth organizer. Since then, he worked his way up through the organization until taking over the top spot of program coordinator in 2020.

“It’s about getting involved in your community, making a difference,” Chan said. “It’s about being a leader.”

Chan is currently enrolled in a master’s program at Capella University.

While the program’s focus in the early days was male Cambodian teens, Chan said it has since expanded to be inclusive of other races, cultures and genders. EM3 does, however, still cater largely to the city’s young Cambodian population, he added.

To date, EM3 has touched the lives of over 5,000 of the city’s youth, Chan said, adding that 90% of the students who go through the program graduate from high school and continue on to higher education. The organization also has formed an alumni program that allows students who experienced EM3 to mentor others.

“It’s really important to have programs like this to empower our youth,” Chan said. “It’s important that [they] become the next generation of leaders and have a voice in their community to address the social justice issues.”

If not for going through the program himself, Chan said his life likely would have turned out much differently.

“I didn’t have support to really help me shape my future—I could have joined a gang,” he said. “But EM3 helped me to become a leader, to have a voice.”

Brandon Richardson is a reporter and photojournalist for the Long Beach Post and Long Beach Business Journal.