It’s been a big summer for Southeast Asian America! Personally, I’m still on a creative high from the Lao American Writers Summit in Seattle back in June, and I am excited to hear about the amazing work that comes from some other Southeast Asian American-focused conferences this season. Namely, I’ve had my eye on the Southeast Asian American Studies Conference in Lowell, Massachusetts and the Laotian American National Alliance (LANA) Conference in Elgin, Illinois. Both of these conferences brought together Southeast Asian Americans who want to move and shake our communities forward. And I was devastated that I wasn’t able to make it to either of them.
Lucky for me though, I was able to sit down and chat with LANA’s Executive Board Chair Dara Souvanna Phouma Stieglitz, as she traveled from the Jersey Shore to Elgin, IL for the LANA Conference. Dara is a passionate Lao American community builder, and you can watch me Laotian American National Alliance interview her on the LLOTP site. Thanks to the wonder of email, I was also able to connect with the Executive Director of LANA Anasone Silivongxay and learn more about LANA from her. Both of these Lao American leaders gave me great insight into the work that they plan to do.
This was LANA’s 8th annual conference. Can you tell us what the purpose of LANA’s conferences are?
Dara: The LANA Conference aims to be a gathering of like-minded individuals who believe in advocating for each other and for the greater community. This comes in the form of public policies that honor human dignity and growth through civic engagement, education and human rights as defined by the United Nations Human Rights Commission.
The theme was “Together We Rise,” can you explain what that means?
Anasone: Only in unity and solidarity can our community rise. We, as a Lao community can go further and faster if we unite with a common goal – which is the success of all of us. No organization can be successful if its community members are not vested or interested in helping to bring about change. Together We Rise is our battle cry for the Lao community to get up, stand up, speak up and rise up.
Dara: We also want to recognize a strong corps of active volunteers who have been working on streamlining LANA’s infrastructure into a stronger platform over the next 4 years as we get ready for Vote 2018, Vote 2020, and Census 2020. They will help us rise together.
What does LANA exactly do?
Anasone: The Mission of the Laotian American National Alliance is to advocate for the social, economic and educational advancement of Laotian Americans. We model our organization after SEARAC, who helped our founding members create LANA specifically to advocate for Laotian Americans. We are the voice for our community at the national level. Every time we sign our name Laotian American National Alliance to petitions that advocate for improvements in national immigration policy, accessibility to affordable care, education reforms, gender rights, and equal and fair treatment of refugees and immigrants, we are sending a message to DC and other Asian national organization that WE the Laotian community are here. See us. Hear us. Help us.
Dara: LANA has grown to be a central point of contact for receiving and relaying information for Laotian Americans across the US, especially around civic and educational advocacy. LANA also represents Laotian American interests at Congress and the White House. We are growing our connections to local Laotian American non-profit organizations in good standing with Network for Good so that we can share and gather data that benefit our communities, our children and their families.
LANA has been active for many decades now as one of the oldest Lao-based organizations in the US. What do you feel has been a major accomplishment that LANA is most proud of?
Anasone: Being recognized by the White House as the only organization at the National Level who advocates for the rights of Laotian Americans is a significant accomplishment. Just imagine if the White House or any national organization calls or emails and asks, “Who stands up for the rights of Laotian Americans? Who do we contact if we want to know about the Lao community, culture or people?” What if there was no response? Because we exist, we can respond and say, “Yes, we are here. Let us tell you about our community.”
What do you think is our community’s most pressing issues are and how are you addressing it?
Dara: Education. Census 2010 showed that we have the highest high school dropout rates in the Southeast American population. Other studies since then have continued to show similar numbers. When we study the numbers, we are seeing a pattern that is prevalent in other communities of color in terms of financial needs, health issues, and lack of personal successes as defined by the individual themselves.
Anasone: The best way for us to address the issues of our community is by educating our community by sharing and giving access to information about the issues. We address these issues by advocating, partnering and with other national organizations through meetings, petitions, seminars and discussions on how to help our community. We address these pressing issues by holding a national conference and bringing specialist and experts in these fields so that our community members can ask questions, get help and educate themselves more on what they can do to impact their situations.
What keeps you engaged in LANA’s work?
Anasone: I have been involved with LANA since 2009. What keeps me engaged in this work is my love of the community. It’s that simple. If we don’t help our community, then who will? If we don’t care enough to do something then who will? We can’t wait for someone else to help our community. We have to be the one to take that first step to show up, and not just tell other people we care. If we care enough about our community, then we must be willing to do the work without expecting to be paid back.
Dara: Congressman Faleomavaega. I keep engaged in his memory, and for my family.
I keep engaged for both of my grandfathers who worked for the community. Both made policies to uplift the people through education, through awareness of civic engagement.
I keep engaged for my grandmothers, my mothers, my aunts – all who took on roles that few others were willing to take. They were thrusted into the spotlight to lead. I keep engaged for all the people in my life. We all wish to be happy. I keep engaged because of the way that laws allow businesses to be unkind to people – to people of color, to people who look like me. I keep engaged in doing this work because of the days when I get ignored, when I get snide remarks spoken towards me, when I get undermined at work, when I was overlooked for my promotion, when I get verbally harassed for being an Asian woman, when I hear our men are referred to as cheap labor, when my loved ones get snubbed for “being different.” I keep engaged because situations like these happen every day, and engaging with public policies have helped bring awareness to the unkindness that we humans put upon each other. Public policies are also helping us change these things and promote kindness in both words and actions.
The Lao American community is very different across the country. How do you engage with different Lao American communities.
Anasone: We know that our Lao community is diverse and their needs are different from one part of the country to another. That is why we have our conferences at different regions every year. Also, being cognizant of these differences, we have board members from all the different parts of the country because they will be able to tell us what that community is like and what their needs are.
What’s in store for LANA’s future?
We know we all want the same thing: for our future generations to be well taken care of.
We are growing our alliances with nonprofits in good standing. We are growing our partnerships with businesses and corporations. We are fundraising for at least two grant writers who will help us receive funds for an executive director, at least two staff members, five interns, an office, and even funds to participate in other national initiatives that advocate for civic engagement, education, and human rights. These funds are also meant to be shared with our local communities to build up their strength in their local civic engagement, such as programs to build skill sets in leadership, community engagement, and education. We will also promote cultural and historical preservation through permanent exhibits in local historical societies.
Where do you see LANA going?
Dara: LANA is staying in Washington DC, and will continue to represent Laotian Americans nationwide. We are nurturing the roots of our local communities with public policy information and resources while getting answers to the two questions LANA has most often been asked by national institutions: What does your community need? What does your community want?
With today’s administration, those questions have stopped overnight. History has shown to us at LANA that when the Republicans take control, we have little to no access to representatives. We have little to no say in public policies. And currently most policies taking place are hurting our community members from elders to children. We hear little because people are unaware how to share their stories. When a body goes into shock, it goes into survival, so sharing our traumatic experiences most often come after the fact. Also our community still shame and demean our own family members and friends for events that occur to them. LANA is in the process of streamlining ways to collect stories and refer individuals to resources.
For information on the LANA conference, go to lanaconference.org. For information on LANA’s advocacy work, go to www.lana-usa.org.
-Timothy Singratsomboune, email@example.com