Monday, January 31, 2011

31 Days in Laomerica: Part 14.

Some of the big meetings this month was with the students of the Lao Student Association of the University of Minnesota. I always appreciate them coming in to visit with us because there aren't very many of these organizations in the country, even with 230,000+ Lao.

Among the deep concerns in Minnesota in both the legislature and among community foundations this year are proposed cuts to higher education and support for after-school programs to support students and prevent them from dropping out.

We've discussed the figures many times that less than 7% of the Lao in the country have a bachelor's degree, and in Minnesota figures that suggest nearly 12,000 of the 25,000 Lao have less than a high school diploma.

Still, even at a greatly underestimated average of $20,000 a year, Lao Minnesotans represent at least $500,000,000 in economic activity. It's probably much higher, but we've never been provided the resources to study this in great depth.

I'm frequently concerned because as a community, it's safe to say we see less than even 1% of this circulating in our non-profits, temples and cultural activities. We certainly do NOT see anywhere close to $5 million circulating from our charitable efforts.

So where does it go?

And that's all a circular way of getting to the point of the meeting with the Lao Student Association, whose members are trying to raise $2,345 to hold a Lao New Year Festival on April 23rd at the University of Minnesota's Saint Paul Student Center.

They're in a good position, needing approximately $985 to meet their budget to feed and entertain approximately 500 people.

Having run enough projects like this over the last 20 years, I'd love to see them raise more for what they're trying to do.

It's a modest budget, with most of it split between food and the space and equipment rentals. Their plan is to use a Lao-owned business to cater the food, Reun Thai from Osseo.

Supporting efforts like this matters.

Too often there are those who simply take it as a given, that it is a historic inevitability that these events will take place. But that's just not so. Given every other thing that can take up our schedules or distract us, it takes a particular choice and commitment to organize a student New Year celebration.

I hate seeing them struggle for resources, especially less than a thousand dollars.

As a community, we need to step up.

Many hands make light work, as they say, and like they say we need to put our money where our mouths are, especially those who keep calling on the youth to help preserve the culture.

I don't want to see them emerging from this experience saying: "When we ask for help from our own people, they turn their backs."

Lao student New Years are always fascinating to me because it allows us to see what we've instilled in the youth as essential stories and traditions and artistic expressions to transmit to themselves and to others.

Do they retell the classic folktales or present sketches of our journey from Laos? Do they present a fashion show or a slideshow of their families over the last 35 years in America? Do they use the New Years to discuss the past or to explore what our future can be?

And for me, as I look at the history of our culture over the last 600 years, I see one of diversity and hospitality, one that has welcomed many others in the pursuit of harmony and the truth.

So, I often look at the student new years to see how they welcome others, especially non-Lao to show them the best of what we've tried to pass down for generations.

Like a good jazz performance, I don't expect these moments to be perfect. I think they're more interesting for how our emerging youth come together and learn from it, to roll with the uncertainties and everyday mishaps and not be paralyzed by chance and the whims of fortune.

Above all else, they're just a great bunch of people who were there for us when we needed them at so many events, such as the Lao Writers Summit and Legacies of War: Refugee Nation and many other projects to build our community. If you're interested in helping them, drop me a note at and let's help them make this an amazing year!

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