Inside Track: HR leader shaped by discovery of past

Trip to Cambodia led Jane Newton to learn about the genocide of her father’s family in the 1970s.
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Jane Newton. Courtesy 616 Media

Jane Newton didn’t know the family history that died with her father until a trip to Cambodia in 2019 unearthed buried truths.

Newton, associate vice president of people services at Zeeland-based Creative Dining Services, had a job offer from her current employer on the table just a day after receiving an opportunity to travel to Cambodia with a group of pastors and learn more about her cultural roots in May 2019.

She accepted the role at Creative Dining Services on the condition she would be able to take the two-week trip to Cambodia and start the new job after her return to the U.S.

At the time, Newton knew nothing about her Cambodian family history, except that her father had no living relatives. He died 20 years ago from non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, taking to his grave the knowledge that his parents and siblings were killed in the Khmer Rouge genocide that took place from 1975-79.

It wasn’t until Newton got to Phnom Penh and toured the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and the killing fields at Choeung Ek Genocidal Center that she realized what had happened to her father’s side of the family: They fell victim to the horrible atrocities perpetrated by Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge Communist regime that wiped out an entire generation — 3 million of Cambodia’s then-8 million citizens.

The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum is a former high school that was turned into a prison by the Khmer Rouge, where up to 20,000 men, women and children were imprisoned, tortured and executed. Only 12 people survived. A secret network of 200 other such prisons existed where similar atrocities happened, as well.

On her first day in Cambodia, Newton went on an audio tour of Tuol Sleng and walked through the rooms where the torture happened, as well as rooms in another building that have photo displays of all the people who were imprisoned and killed. She learned educated citizens were targeted first — and as an instructor at an engineering school, her grandfather and his family likely would have been among the first victims.

“Educated people were a threat to the Khmer Rouge regime — even wearing glasses was a sign of being educated and would get you killed. To this day, you won’t find many wearing glasses if they lived through this time,” Newton said.

“Like other Cambodians trying to see if any of their family survived, I will never forget looking at all the faces of prisoners, wondering if my family was imprisoned and tortured at this site or (at) one of the almost 200 other prisons.”

JANE NEWTON

Company: Creative Dining Services
Position: Associate vice president of people services
Age: 39
Birthplace: Grand Rapids
Residence: Ada
Family: Stay-at-home husband and two daughters
Community involvement: True North Community Services board member, Living Water CRC diaconal ministry team, Junior League of Grand Rapids sustaining member
Biggest career break: Becoming the head of human resources for Creative Dining Services with a seat at the table
Currently reading: “Crying in H Mart: A Memoir,” by Michelle Zauner

On her second day in Phnom Penh, Newton visited the Choeung Ek Genocidal Center, which is located at one of over 300 “killing fields,” or mass grave sites, found across Cambodia. Almost 9,000 victims were excavated from 129 graves at that site alone. One of the trees outside the building, referred to as the “Magic Tree,” was where the Khmer Rouge hung a speaker from the tree with loud music playing from it to drown out the screams so the neighbors couldn’t hear what was happening. That same music is part of the audio tour.

Newton still asks herself why she never learned in school about a genocide on this scale that took place 30 years after the murder of 6 million Jews in World War II.

“This is like the Holocaust in the 1940s, but this genocide by the Khmer Rouge happened in the 1970s, and it’s not talked about or anything I learned about in school,” she said. “It deserves attention as a testament of inhumanity, to prevent evil like this from happening again.”

Newton’s father was training to be a helicopter pilot for the Cambodian military in Alabama. He went back to Cambodia. Three days before Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge took over Phnom Penh, he and other student pilots were able to board planes in the night and flee to Thailand.

Sometime later, Newton’s father connected with a colonel in Alabama he knew from his training, who agreed to sponsor him as a refugee to the U.S.

After returning from Cambodia with so many questions, Newton found out these details by tracking down one of her father’s former military buddies and interviewing him via Facebook video messenger.

She knows from her mom — who is an immigrant from South Korea — that her parents met in Alabama at a house party hosted by a friend from Vietnam. They followed her father’s military buddy when he moved to Grand Rapids. Newton, her sister and brother were all then born and raised in Grand Rapids.

Because her parents didn’t share a language, Newton grew up speaking English in the home, which was not the case for the other Korean kids she knew from the church they attended. She identifies as a “third-culture kid,” which Merriam-Webster defines as the mixed identity that a child assumes, influenced by their parents’ culture and the culture in which they are raised. It’s a confusing headspace, to say the least, Newton said.

Added to this reality was the complexity of growing up not knowing anything about 50% of her cultural background in a West Michigan community where she knew few other Asian families. 

“I didn’t go to Cambodia to discover my identity,” she said, “but I’m realizing I grew up 99% Korean American and 1% Cambodian American, and now I have this other 49% of me to discover.”

She still is learning, but in the meantime, she has used what she already knows, sharing her story as part of the conversations about diversity in the workplace that are taking place at Creative Dining Services.

During the pandemic, she helped the hospitality management company — which has over 1,300 employees and operates in 14 states — to formally launch diversity, equity and inclusion training and a DEI strategy called “A Seat for Everyone at the Table.”

“In that training, we had introductory definitions of what DE&I is, recognizing that there are so many different dimensions of diversity, and we are all diverse because of that,” she said.

“For example, (if) my sister and I (were) twins, and our environment and everything was the same, but me naturally being the firstborn by 30 seconds, versus her as a second born, that is a dimension that (would) influence our lived experiences. And so, it’s recognizing that each person that we interact with has that different lived experience, and how do we get to know that and recognize the importance of having that representation of different lived experiences around the table where decisions are made when we’re designing programs, so that way we are not building or doing something that inherently creates barriers for others.”

Newton said it’s been rewarding to see the progress and understanding the trainings have helped facilitate. The company also has contracted Global Bridgebuilders to go through a diversity action council process that she hopes will help foster “important and necessary” changes in the organization.

She said she also is more aware now — two decades after her father died, taking his past with him — that people might be carrying the after-effects of traumatic experiences you just don’t know about, and it’s important to be kind.

Newton herself took about a month off work last fall to address her mental health after the burnout that piled on during the pandemic. Now, she wants to help others realize it’s OK not to have it all together, and she wants to create a safe space for dialogue.

“I intend to, at our annual managers meeting in our ‘Busting Burnout’ breakout session, really help normalize discussions about mental health in the workplace,” she said, “recognizing it can affect everyone. Sometimes you don’t know what to do, and it’s OK to ask for help. We are an organization that wants to support you.”

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