‘The Danger of a Single Story’ (book excerpt)

Following is another excerpt from my book about the origin and influence of the national park in Lowell, which was written for the National Park Service in 2011-12. If the publishing process goes as planned, the book should be available in spring 2014. ‘Duey’ Kol, who speaks in this section, has since moved on from the Park in Lowell. She made an important contribution while she was here.—PM

Doeun “Duey” Kol


“The Danger of a Single Story”

“History is story. It means nothing else as a noun. Herodotus was the first to use the word . . . and he used it as a verb: to find out for oneself. Then you tell.”

—Charles Olson, The Special View of History (1970)


Doeun ‘Duey’ Kol came to Lowell for the first time in 1999 to see the Southeast Asian Water Festival on the north bank of the Merrimack River above Pawtucket Falls. This wide, relatively straight section of the river has been called one of the best stretches for rowing in the country. For years, the community has hosted competitions like the Textile Regatta. Every August, the Southeast Asian Water Festival draws tens of thousands of people to the riverside for music, dancing, food, people watching, and the Khmer long-boat races similar to those held on the Mekong River. Kol was born in a refugee camp in Thailand while her parents waited for an opportunity to move to a safe new home. Their next stop was another camp in the Philippines, and then in 1984 on to Chelsea, Mass., which, like Lowell, had become a place where Cambodian families were resettling in increasing numbers. Her family was sponsored for resettlement in the United States by Boston Catholic Charities. She was three-and-a-half years old when she arrived in America with her parents and younger brother and sister. For the first six months the family lived on welfare payments and shared a three-bedroom apartment with two other Cambodian families.

As a youth she learned traditional Khmer dance and performed with the Reaching Out for Chelsea Adolescents Dance Troupe. Her mother had been a dancer before the Khmer Rouge overran Cambodia. Along the way, Kol met members of the acclaimed Angkor Dance Troupe of Lowell. She remembers her high-school teacher Sylvia Schernbaum urging her and fellow students to “Think big, dream big.” She did just that, winning acceptance to Simmons College in Boston. After graduation she worked for a time as an insurance agent in Waltham, Mass., concentrating on the immigrant and refugee communities in Lowell and Lynn, Mass.

In 2004, she was recruited by George Chigas of the Angkor Dance Troupe to help manage the organization. With a Theodore Edson Parker Foundation grant, Chigas and Samkhann Khoeun of the Cambodian Expressions project of Middlesex Community College brought her on board as a shared program manager. The dance group was based on the top floor of the National Park’s Mogan Cultural Center. Observing the cultural activities being organized by the Park staff, she told Mogan Center director Mehmed Ali: “I want your job. Teach me how to do it.”

When the Park advertised a special events position in 2006, Kol applied and was selected, the first Cambodian-American to be hired for a permanent position. She worked on the Lowell Folk Festival, Lowell Summer Music Series, and other events. She earned a master’s degree in community social psychology at UMass Lowell, and was promoted to Assistant Director of Cultural Programs. A rising star, Koll was recruited in 2012 to work in the office of the Assistant Director of the National Park Service in Washington, D.C., which oversees interpretive and education policies. She already had been helping with the agency’s nationwide Diversity and Inclusion Project. The topic could not be more personal:

     “Those of us who are bi-cultural have to create a separate idea that is not one or the other—we have to manage a blended identity. It’s important to develop year-round relationships with the people whose cultural traditions we promote on special days. We have to get beyond celebration. We of the Park staff must be able to exist in a condition like the state of ‘therapeutic irritation’ that comes with holding a new and different pose in yoga. We should be able to hold ourselves in that place that is uncomfortable and to be okay with that. At the same time, visitors should be comfortable asking difficult, complicated questions on tours, in museums, and at public activities.”

Kol is a strong advocate of multi-track story-telling.

     “We have to ask ourselves, How do you decide what to present? Which stories do you choose to tell? We need the best story-tellers, more people who have lived the stories. With a topic like Immigration, we can be relevant in what we talk about. And what happens to people not interested in displaying their culture in a public demonstration?

“It’s our responsibility to explore and probe, to record more stories in Lowell because this is where we have been asked to preserve part of America’s history and relate it to people,” says Kol. “There’s a TED talk (Technology, Entertainment, Design) online by Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Adichie in which she cautions listeners about ‘the danger of a single story’ and how this can lead to a fundamental lack of understanding of another person or place. The writer says, ‘The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.’”


from Mill Power: Reclaiming Lowell’s Place and Story by Paul Marion

Copyright (c) 2012 by Lowell National Historical Park