Asian American and Pacific IslandersFeaturesHealth & Wellness

Dr. Bec Sokha Keo: A Resistor of Oppression and Advocate for Community

Senior researcher applies community-based values to empower marginalized communities affected by HIV.

Dr. Bec Sokha Keo (Photo by Alex Rosa)

Dr. Bec Sokha Keo (pronouns: they and elle) is all about a solid value system. During the Cambodian genocide of the late 1970s Keo’s family faced persecution for being educated. Thanks to communities such as Black Americans who urged for the admission of Southeast Asian refugees to the U.S., Keo’s grandparents, parents, elders, and friends were able to reconnect and rebuild their lives in Houston. While their family and friends embarked on a healing journey together (which happened to be in the context of a Cambodian-Baptist Church), their paths in the land of “American Dreams” presented social and structural barriers such as antiAsian racism, English dominance, White Supremacy, and classism. Despite this, Keo witnessed their family’s commitment to remaining connected to Khmer ancestors, drawing from the wisdom of cultural teachings, and healing together in community. Now thriving post-genocide, it is in Keo’s genes to be a resistor of the same systems, but in today’s context. 

Cover 2024 | Photography by Alex Rosa. Mural art by “Calligraffiti” artist eL Seed Leaves Mark. Shot at University of Houston campus.

Growing up, Keo could see how their parents selflessly gave themselves to the community around them. Their dad led the music ministry at the church, while their mother would prepare traditional Khmer food and feed people from the church every week, not to mention ensuring there was space to build their familial structure and understanding of the need to fight for the underdog. 

With all the power and promise that came out of the their household, Keo’s values have also been shaped by their personal lean into a sense of community rooted in shared values, cross-movement solidarity, and principled action.

As a Senior Researcher at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work SUSTAIN COMPASS Coordinating Center, Keo applies their community-based values and approaches to partner with and empower communities to find solutions developed by and for community. The main focus of their scholarship and community practice is on structural factors affecting the most minoritized and oppressed people. Unapologetically, their work centers Black and Brown communities living with and most systematically impacted by HIV. “When we zoom out and consider organizations and services for BIPOC LGBTQIA+ people, many offerings are founded in white supremacy, racism, and patriarchy or male dominance. Many organizations, services, and research or knowledge production sources are exclusionary simply because of the origin story,” they say. Because of this, you will often find Keo developing their research with people who have lived experiences as co-researchers, an approach they learned from a fellow trans and PoC social work researcher, Trey Jenkins. 

This stems from Keo’s deep belief that innovation in research and structural interventions begins with community and a racial justice framework. Even as an Asian American, their lens on liberation starts with Black, queer, and transgender freedoms. Through this, Keo partners with organizations, thought leaders, community advocates, and community members across the South to develop and implement programs that let the community lead. 

“Trust in the wisdom of Southerners living with and most systemically impacted by HIV is key to innovative strategies and interventions.” —Dr. Bec Sokha Keo

Dr. Bec Sokha Keo, Championing Equity in HIV Research and Advocacy. (Photo by Alex Rosa Mural art by “Calligraffiti” artist eL Seed Leaves Mark. Shot at University of Houston campus.)

“The HIV epidemic in the US South must be understood as an outcome of the systems of power and control,” they say. “These are settler-colonialism, anti-immigration values, patriarchy, and Standard American English to name a few. Trusting the wisdom of Southerners living with and most systemically impacted by HIV is key to innovative strategies and interventions.” 

Keo’s work at SUSTAIN alongside Emory University Rollins School of Public Health, Southern AIDS Coalition and Wake Forest University School of Divinity has helped to train over 10,500 people and work with 350 community partners. These organizations have served over 300,000 people across the US South. This work represents a continued awakening for Keo as they push for equity in research and community movements that value the wisdom of people with lived experiences, as well as getting people paid for their labor, and expanding the leadership and capacity of people with intersectional lived experiences. 

As Asian American and Pacific Islander HIV/AIDS Awareness Day approaches on May 19, Keo considers their roots, values, lived experience, and community wisdom they have garnered and perfected over their time working and living in the communities they serve. “The impact of HIV on AAPI communities is often unspoken, unseen, and unaddressed. This is due to misinformation, stigma, and a lack of culturally resonant resources, services, and groups. Looking to the power of long-lasting movement work of the Black and Palestinian liberation they reflect,” says Keo, ”we need to engage more in cross-movement solidarity and principled action.”

Still, Keo shows up to work ready to dismantle any systems contributing to oppression and disenfranchisement. Their progression in this work will be due to their ability to explore, dissect, and develop complex relationships into opportunities for the collective win. This—to everyone’s benefit—will always start from their solid value system. 




Ian Haddock

Ian L. Haddock aspires to be a conduit of joy in all things activism and art. He is a published author and writer and leads a team of nontraditional activists at The Normal Anomaly Initiative, Inc.
Back to top button