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Lao American Writers Summit and making a case for the arts

Seven years ago Catzie Vilayphonh, Bryan Thao Worra and I co-founded the Lao American Writers Summit. Lead by Bryan we were able to raise funds and support from foundations, state agencies, individuals, and businesses. LAWS could not have happened without that initial support.

In order to understand the significance of LAWS, you have to first understand the circumstances of Laotian communities.

We came here as refugees. Survivors of the Secret War in Laos – a proxy conflict of the Vietnam War. Anti-communist Laotians fought on the side of the CIA. Thousands of Laotians were sent to re-education/labor camps, the lucky ones only saw their friends executed. My father, uncles, and grandfather escaped labor camps. After the fall of Long Chieng, an exodus of Laotians fled Laos, sought safety at refugee camps in neighboring countries.

Since the late 70s, there are approximately 240,000 Laotian Americans nationally with roughly 12,000 calling Minnesota home. Unlike many of our APIA artist communities, Laotian artists more or less work in isolation as they are likely the only Laotian artist in their local communities. This is because our community is geographically dispersed. The largest Laotian American community in Minnesota is in Brooklyn Park (13%) followed by Rochester and Worthington. This “lone Lao artist” thing echoes nationally. Because of the isolation, the organizers of LAWS wanted to create spaces for Laotian artists (primarily literary) to gather, share resources, and build capacity to empower ourselves and one another. The first convening was held in 2010 at Open Book’s Target Performance Hall in Minneapolis where we invited 20+ Laotian artists to present and basically…bond.

Despite a rich history of arts and cultural production in Laos, the arts in America, especially non-traditional art forms, are largely unsupported and misunderstood by the larger community. A major disconnect considering the fact that many Laotian artists’ works are informed by their refugee identity and their need to excavate stories – creative documentarians.

That first LAWS empowered me. It felt validating for me personally. I became more confident, serious, and diligent towards my craft. Planning LAWS, I developed professional skills (project management, outreach, research, grant writing, all that shit) that’s pushed me to where I am today as an artist. And I am thankful for the national family of Laotian artists that continue to grow.

This year we are holding the 4th LAWS in Seattle. The Seattle team has been working incredibly hard to ensure that the summit is accessible to youth and community members to participate in workshops and attend performances free of cost. And…also to pay for my flight (I’m one of the keynotes).

I hope you will consider giving. You will be giving LAWS and the Laotian community more than money. Your contribution lets us know that you support Laotian artists’ voices and the stories that we have to tell. It tells us that you believe in the spaces that we’ve created for ourselves.

Saymoukda Duangphouxay Vongsay aka Refugenius

Fore registration and more at www.laowriters.org

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