Abstract: Rebuilding the Village: (Re-)Forming and Adapting a Karen Voluntary Association in Resettlement (Society for Social Work and Research 27th Annual Conference - Social Work Science and Complex Problems: Battling Inequities + Building Solutions)

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142P Rebuilding the Village: (Re-)Forming and Adapting a Karen Voluntary Association in Resettlement

Friday, January 13, 2023
Phoenix C, 3rd Level (Sheraton Phoenix Downtown)
* noted as presenting author
Tonya Horn, Ph.D., Assistant Professor, University of St. Thomas, Saint Paul, MN
Background and Purpose

Decades of research indicate that refugee communities establish informal associations in resettlement, and play important roles in healing from loss and trauma, providing opportunities for collective sharing of knowledge, and providing mutual assistance. The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the critical, but often unfunded and unseen, role that refugee community-based organizations play in supporting broader health and social service systems. However, little attention has been paid to how, why, or for what purposes new communities (re)form historically utilized structures in resettlement, or what supports or barriers impact the ability to utilize them. This paper draws from a broader qualitative study and focuses on how the first wave of Karen refugee leaders to Minnesota formed an informal association - their motivations, strategies, and factors that impacted their success.


This paper presents findings from a broader qualitative study that drew on grounded theory and ethnographic methods to understand the community organizing experiences of 10 first-generation Karen women leaders in St. Paul, Minnesota. Semi-structured, qualitative interviews asked participants about their community organizing experiences pre- and post-resettlement, including their motivations and goals for organizing, activities, supports, and constraints. Interviews were analyzed using constructivist grounded theory methodology and trustworthiness was enhanced through use of member checking, cultural consultants, negative case analysis, and prolonged engagement.


Four themes emerged to inform preliminary theorizing about first generation Karen women’s experiences of ‘power’ to organize in resettlement. This paper presents findings related to the first theme of (re-)establishing an organizational structure. It provides an in-depth description of the formation and structure of an informal association, the Karen Community of Minnesota (KCM) as an adaptation of historical sociocultural structure. It describes the motivations for forming an association, purpose, use of historical sociocultural models, and the impact of resettlement policies on their efforts. It also describes how KCM has been adapted over time to respond to the greatest unmet community needs. Findings reveal major gaps and inequities in U.S. health and social service systems for meeting the needs of a new refugee-background community, in particular related to responding to ‘family problems’ such as domestic violence. KCM has played an essential role in filling these gaps, though its role remains unfunded and largely unrecognized.

Conclusions and Implications

Findings describe processes through which a first-generation Karen community (re)established a historical organizational structure as a voluntary association to meet the needs of their community in resettlement, and the resettlement policies that affected their agency and capacity to do so. They reveal that Karen people are active in their own resettlement and mobilize significant strengths and resources to promote mutual aid, in stark contrast to dominant research and policy conceptualizations of ‘refugees’ as dependent, passive recipients of services by refugee resettlement professionals. Findings underscore the need for resettlement policies and interventions that are participatory and build the capacity of new communities to utilize the strengths, resources, and strategies they bring with them to resettlement, in place of current policies have been described as top-down, systematically exclusionary, and disempowering of refugee-background communities.