Women Shaping Their Communities: An Interview With Nary Kith

Nary and I started working together about four years ago when we were both Clinical Care Managers on the Philadelphia managed care system’s crisis line. In our down time Nary would talk about her goal of opening her own non-profit designed to serve the Asian American, immigrant, and refugees communities in Philadelphia. Nary realized there was a gap in services specifically for Asian Americans, immigrants, and refugees. Organizations that served these groups were limited in their scope, focus, and programs. The existing organizations offered only a few types of services such as traditional case management, health, and nutrition advice. Programs that focused on skill building, education, and training, which could lead to opportunities towards self-sufficiency, were lacking.

Today, Nary is the Executive Director and co-founder of Kiths Integrated and Targeted Human Services (KITHS). KITHS, founded by Nary and her sister in spring 2017, was created to provide opportunities and promote self-sufficiency within the Asian American, immigrant, and refugee communities in Philadelphia. They offer opportunities for skill building, resource coordination, and case management services to fulfill the individual’s identified needs. KITHS ultimate goal is to help individuals satisfy their needs, starting with the most pressing, while offering them the tools needed to become independent and productive members of the community.

Nary Kith

Nary has worked extensively in community mental health and is currently the Director of a Children’s Mobile Crisis Team for PATH (a behavioral health organization in Philadelphia). She started KITHS while working as a Compliance Analyst and now runs it in addition to her current full time position. While working full time she earned a PhD in Human Services with a concentration in Social and Community Services. Her doctoral dissertation defense was on clinical supervision of therapists working with refugees. Nary’s dissertation tapped into her training as a marriage and family therapist while allowing her to explore her own personal experience as a refugee.

Nary’s work to support the most vulnerable in her community didn’t start when she created KITHS, or even when she started working in community mental health. She describes her favorite project as a campaign to educate people about the AIDS virus that she worked on when she was 14 years old. She was part of a group who met weekly and role-played ways to teach community members about risk factors and symptoms of AIDS. Her group created a play and performed at various venues in their community.  She said this was one of her favorite projects because it gave her the opportunity to engage with peers who even at 14 years old knew they wanted to go into helping professions.  Nary knew that she could be an advocate and wanted to be part of a change in the world.

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Nary is exactly the kind of woman we want to draw attention to: hard working, determined, and focused on improving her community. She is an example of how to see a problem and make yourself part of the solution. I had to get this woman’s take on feminism:

Nary was in high school, maybe 16 years old, when she first started realizing that men received better wages and opportunities than women despite some women having better credentials and more experience. She realized that women had to work twice as hard, especially women of colour, to get the same recognition as men. Despite these revelations, she hadn’t yet identified her perspective as feminism. The feminist movement has a long history of supporting white women without taking into consideration women of colour or women of various cultural backgrounds. For Nary, this was a barrier to her adopting the label of feminist. Nary now identifies as a feminist so I asked what feminism means to her.

I could never really explain what feminism meant without having to defend myself. For example: I was often criticized for being angry or hating men if I informed others that I believed in feminist ideologies. So, I explained feminism is about women’s equality; that it is about the desire to establish equal opportunities across genders and that women should have the same rights and opportunities as men.

I asked Nary to talk about the challenges of labeling a policy or agenda as a “women’s issue.” She said that when we do this it gives the issue a negative connotation. People often believe that being for something requires that you be against something else. We’ve seen this with the Black Lives Matter movement. There is a misconception that if you agree with the Black Lives Matter movement then you must be against police. Feminism has struggled with that as well—being pro-women is not being anti-men.

As we know, “women’s issues” are no longer confined to reproductive rights and equal pay. I asked Nary what she thought was one of the most important issues of the day. While she recognized that it’s hard to pick just one, for Nary, immigration and refugee issues are at the top of the list. The vetting process to immigrate to the US, seek asylum, or get refugee status is invasive and extensive. The migration experience is traumatizing and the system offers limited support. The fear of deportation is a serious concern for many immigrants and refugees. Culture shock is a serious obstacle to quick assimilation, which is necessary in order to survive. Philadelphia, like nearly all other cities, has almost no capacity to address the mental health needs of those arriving.

Nary Kith came to the United States as a child refugee from Cambodia. Her parents are survivors of the Khmer Rouge war. Her world view has been shaped by her parents’ trauma. She recognizes that some of this trauma has been passed on to her--as she says, “intergenerational trauma is real.”  For Nary, being a refugee and a child of war survivors has not been a deficit or barrier; it has been a motivating factor in her personal and professional life. If Nary’s story and work tell us anything it is that each of us has something that defines us, motivates us, and encourages us. Nary advises women to use that something to live our best selves. That is what she is doing (quite successfully) and hopes to pass on to her children.

Nary’s advice to women is advice many of us have heard before but that cannot be said enough: Women can do anything they set their minds to, no matter how difficult it may seem. “We are not inferior (or superior) to men. We are not emotional when we advocate for equality. We are not on our periods when we are angry. We are more than what society says about us!”

As I am writing this, Nary is wrapping up from KITHS’s first annual school supply drive. She and her sister collected school supplies and handed them out to 150 children in their community today. They didn’t do this because they get some sort of foundation grant or have political power or celebrity status. They are two women in their community who saw a need and met it. Anyone can do this. You can do this. We hope you do.


Article by Claire E. Ryder

Director of Refugee and Immigration Affairs

Women's March PA


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