By Vimala D. Phongsavanh, Organizing Director of Congressional Progressive Caucus Center
When a crisis as enormous as a global pandemic emerges, it hits underrepresented and underserved communities like the Laotian American communities the hardest. We currently see the gaps in our country’s broken systems that weren’t built to serve those of us who need it the most. Since our arrival as refugees to the country in the late 1970s, Laotian American communities have seen firsthand how this country can break your heart, but resilience in the face of tragedy has been built in us, and we continue forward.
The pathway to becoming a Laotian American started with America’s Secret War in Laos, which resulted in Laos being the most heavily bombed country per capita in the history of the world. Many of us were forced to flee for our lives and were welcomed to the U.S. by failing refugee resettlement programs, which marshalled many of us into low wage jobs with no health insurance, sick leave, or other benefits. The next generation of Laotian Americans entered into failing public school systems, causing us to be sucked into the pipeline of the criminal punishment system and spit out into detention and deportation. The refugee experience for Laotian Americans haven’t been an easy one, but we stay hopeful.
Hope was the only thing that many of us carried with us when we came here. As we observe Asian Pacific American Heritage Month (APAHM), it is my hope that we don’t forget the unique struggles of Laotian American communities and how we have shaped American history. I hope that our needs, stories, and contributions are recognized, and that we are not erased from the Asian American narrative. I hope one day that we can celebrate the first Laotian American to walk through to the halls of Congress, someone who loves padaek and larb just like you and me. However, in this moment, we are just trying to survive.
With a depression on the horizon, our communities are hurting more than ever before. We are seeing mass unemployment and loss of health coverage; small businesses that are in freefall and closing; families unable to pay the rent; families facing detention and deportation, many without representation. With a combined poverty and low-income rate of 41% (SEARAC, 2020) and a per capita income of $17,951 (SEARAC, 2020), many members of our communities are working on the front lines, risking their lives for the rest of us—not only without reward, but without basic dignities like paid sick leave and access to health insurance. We have heard one too many stories of unjust labor practices and deaths in meat packing and distribution companies. While the current Asian American narrative has been about the rise of xenophobia and hate crimes in the age of COVID-19, Laotian Americans are dying in the meat packing and distribution companies that have been deemed essential to meet America’s needs. The work of Laotian Americans is deemed essential, but our lives are not. We need to talk about that, too.
As a result of a broken democracy and underrepresentation in positions of power and influence, Laotian Americans have been severely underserved and under resourced for far too long. Forty-five years after some of the first Laotian Americans arrived in the country, we are still fighting for the same basic resources that we were fighting for when we first arrived. How much progress have we made as an Asian American movement if Asian Americans have the widest intra-race wealth gap in the U.S., with Laotian Americans at the bottom? As we journey through this unique moment for our movement, it is important for Asian American leaders and organizations to reflect on how we practice equity and value all Asian Americans in our movement. It is important to acknowledge the ways in which the Asian American movement has not served or bolstered the most marginalized in Laotian American communities.
If you take a quick scan of many Asian American organizations, you will see that the board, leadership, staff, and consultants do not include Laotian Americans at the decision-making table, or even on the payroll. Our absence from Asian American movements and organizational leadership is one of the primary reasons it has been so easy to erase us. Many times, I’ve witnessed in the Asian American ecosystem that it doesn’t matter how talented you are, opportunities are given to those with connections and privilege. The same people continue to sit at the same decision-making tables, and somehow, they expect different results (or maybe they don’t!). The bar must be raised; we must hold each other accountable, and the status quo of the current Asian American ecosystem must be challenged.
It is important for Asian American leaders to take a hard look at how representative their organizations are and how, or if they are centering their work around of the most marginalized in the communities they fight for. We cannot continue to let those with influence use the data about our most marginalized communities to procure funding and resources for their organizations, while they ignore their responsibility to invest in us once they receive those resources. When we do the hard, but right thing, and we center our work around our most marginalized communities, we all win.
Despite all of the challenges and barriers Laotian Americans have faced when navigating a new country, we continue to hope. We are a young and vibrant community, full of infinite potential and beautiful traditions. We have so much to give, create, and contribute, but we need those with power, privilege, and influence to fight for and with us to amplify that potential.
It is also on us as Laotian Americans to continue to believe, to hope, and to build our community from the ground up, just like we always have. Let’s organize harder than we ever had. Let’s hold those in power accountable so that we can create a movement more reflective of our communities and more invested in our communities. I believe in us. I believe in our ability to do extraordinary things despite the odds being stacked against us—it wouldn’t be the first time. The time for action is now.