Skilton-Sylvester Publishes Chapter on Cambodians in Philadelphia

By Purnell T. Cropper | March 2, 2010

Dr. Ellen Skilton-Sylvester, Professor of Education and Director of Global Connections, co-wrote a chapter in the new book Global Philadelphia: Immigrant Communities Old and New, which comes out March 10 from Temple University Press. The book examines how Philadelphia has affected its immigrants’ lives, and how these immigrants, in turn, have shaped Philadelphia. It provides a detailed historical, ethnographic, and sociological look at Philadelphia’s immigrant communities and examines the social and economic dynamics of various ethnic populations. Significantly, the contributors make comparisons to and connections between the traditional immigrant groups—Germans, Italians, the Irish, Jews, Puerto Ricans, and Chinese—and newer arrivals, such as Cambodians, Haitians, Indians, Mexicans, and African immigrants of various nationalities.

The chapter that Skilton-Sylvester co-wrote with Adjunct Instructor of Education Keo Chea-Young, a doctoral candidate at the University of Pennsylvania, is called “The Other Asians in the Other Philadelphia: Understanding Cambodian Experiences in Neighborhoods, Classrooms and Workplaces.”

Skilton-Sylvester and Chea-Young will be on a panel with other contributors to the book at the Historical Society of Philadelphia (1300 Locust Street) on Wednesday, April 14, at 6 p.m. This event is free and open to the public. To find out more, go to the events calendar for the Historical Society at or register for the event at

Skilton-Sylvester and Chea-Young’s chapter describes the richness of Philadelphia’s Cambodian communities in the context of the 21st century global economy, focusing on the geographically dispersed nature of these communities in the city, the often challenging educational experiences of Cambodian children and adults in public schools and adult education contexts, and the participation of Cambodians in informal social and economic networks to illustrate both marginality and resilience. An excerpt from the beginning of their chapter begins:

Images of Philadelphia typically include glistening skyscrapers or restored colonial architecture, discussions of the robustness of center city’s business district or the drafting of the U.S. Constitution. Similarly, Asian Americans are typically discussed in relation to educational and economic success on the one hand or in terms of traditional values that have provided the foundation for achieving in a new land. Ong has suggested that immigrant and refugee discourses that have at times focused on long-standing cultural traditions or the strife that groups have encountered before arriving in the United States have been replaced by discourses that focus on any newcomer’s chances of becoming “individually responsible subjects of a neoliberal market society” (2003: 89). Both in terms of the challenging economic realities faced by many Cambodians in the United States and in terms of the limited economic value of the Khmer language in the global marketplace (Heller 1999; Lo Bianco 1999; Tse 2001), it is easy to see how the global economy has made some aspects of Philadelphia more visible than others and some Asian Americans more hidden than others. In Global Philadelphia, when it is defined in terms of the marketplace, Cambodians and the neighborhoods in which they live are often obscured from view (p. 270).