Sunday, March 20, 2011

Community development: The need for strategic, inclusive approaches

Over the coming years ahead, one of my emerging aims has to been to build a fundamental base and framework for a re-imagined ‘Lao American Renaissance’ that employs principles of the UNESCO Creative Cities Network, social justice and lifelong service learning. This is asking for culture shift, but I think it's one that will let our community remain progressive and forward thinking.

The transition from a monarchy to a democracy and from several outdated education and social control models has taken time. I think it's honest to say, our efforts to date alienated a far greater percentage of the community than we needed to during the last 30+ years. There's a very visible polarization between our successes and our have-nots that's unhealthy. A new mode of thinking, new approaches are necessary to revitalize an inclusive sense of ourselves.

This doesn't mean casting aside positive, constructive values, but it may mean expressing them with greater clarity and an acknowledgement when our actions are out of alignment with our values.

At it's simplest: There are many ways to be Lao, particularly Lao American. Many ways to express our participation within our community.

But at the same time, it's not 'anything goes' or else there'd be no point in identifying the approach to life as a Lao lifestyle. In the end, how do we bring out the best within ourselves?

Each person will spend their own lifetime learning to decide and to define what that can and should embody for them. Lao society in the past has benefited from viewing strict conformity and social control as repugnant, compared to many other cultures. Individual self-determination has been paramount.

This doesn't mean people don't still try, and we're still seeing the social traumas caused by this. But we need to move away from it, because lockstep rigidity has almost never yielded anything consistently fruitful to justify that approach. Lao historically thrive best within fluid, flexible environments. And I'd personally prefer to see that preserved.

There are Lao equivalents of Tiger Moms and Tiger Dads, but longitudinally, at a personal and collective level, I don't think we're seeing many of their kids achieving levels of happiness that vindicate those methods.

The most constructive approach would engage historically underused assets strategically to create and establish meaningful economic, educational and artistic institutions. These institutions would, when well-developed, form anchors for a sustainable and contributory community. In the long-range, I hope for the 21st century to be regarded as a golden age of Lao American philosophical, intellectual and cultural development, centered from Minneapolis and other cities around the country.

By 2020, I hope we've taken steps to reduce educational and economic disparities and reduce the extreme educational, economic, and social polarization of the Lao community. It's particularly important to engage Lao American women within this process and to successfully bring the voices of elder and youth into the traditional intergenerational constructiveness that is a hallmark of early Lao culture.

We also need to encourage a new generation of ethical, ambitious, and effective entrepreneurs who have a philanthropic mindset to establish and maintain meaningful institutions that encourage progressive thought and action.

Effective efforts will hold regular formal and informal community dialogues stemming from this expanded knowledge our unique history, commonality, and solidarity. Our activities need to be committed to presenting diverse voices reflecting a wide range of experiences and perspectives from men and women, young and old, different faith traditions, the GLBT community, veterans, and social and economic classes.

Often, communities are driven by encouragement to speak with one voice, but a diversity of opinions and plurality are far more deeply essential elements to community building. True, positive dialogue must empower many routes to success. Our projects need to be developed to help bring that diversity forward, and we should be mindful of that when considering what we might do over the next five to ten years ahead and beyond.

The Lao could represent over $8,000,000 in economic activity in Minnesota, but this is not reflected in the institutions we have at the moment. It's disproportional, that after 35 years since the first Lao resettled in the Minnesota, Lao refugees have less than 30 economically viable businesses, community centers, and cultural institutions. Most are located outside of Minneapolis, an average of 15 to 30 minutes away from basic services such as culturally appropriate grocery stores, faith-based institutions, tutoring resources, and places of employment.

We might attribute this to the fact that many lack the confidence, resilience to effectively rebuild our lives in the aftermath of the war, particularly as a collective community. Following many discussions over the years, it's clear we have a severe community-identified deficit of knowledge, institutions, and successful linkage and interpretation of cultural values and attitudes to generate long-term success.

So what steps are necessary to address this?

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