Reprinting my op-ed that appeared in the Twin Cities Daily Planet: "Will Lao Minnesotans vote No-No?" Little Laos on the Prairie also recently published an opinion: "Why Little Laos is Voting ‘No’ this ‘No’vember" and the Lao Assistance Center's open letter to the community from executive director Sunny Chanthanouvong. Be sure to check those out. Hopefully other Lao Americans have been chiming in across the rest of the country on issues that matter to them, too.
Here's my take.
Will Lao Minnesotans Vote No-No?
Election day is around the corner, but where are Lao Minnesotan voices?
I was naturalized on Flag Day in 1976, the American Bicentennial. Since then, I've always taken my citizenship seriously. My family has always reminded me that many men and women fought and died to preserve our democratic freedoms in America, and to assist others who are trying to live free of fear and tyranny abroad.
For Lao Americans who came to the US as refugees, our heritage obliges us to remember and vindicate those sacrifices through good citizenship. And part of good citizenship is participating, not just once a year voting, but regularly communicating with your representatives, and taking a stand on what matters to you.
I think it's well known: I don't speak for all Lao Americans. But I am a Lao American voice.
And I have been hoping, through this forum and others, that we would see a growth in Lao Americans taking a public stand and demonstrate courage to express their convictions. Because that's what makes a democracy function, and a nation great.
I'm surprised how quiet Lao Minnesotans have been in the media about both the Marriage Amendment and the Voter ID laws.
Especially since some of the strongest Lao American GLBT writers and editors in the country live in Minnesota. And Minnesota is home to many nationally-recognized artists, educators and community builders. These are former refugee families who, more than most, should be making it clear that laws that restrict diversity, that make it harder to participate in democracy have no place in Minnesota culture.
I've been waiting to see our Lao Minnesotan civic leaders, our organizations, families and students go beyond the "get out and vote" efforts and to actually take positions that they would defend. To express ourselves, as is our right, without fear of intimidation or retaliation. We must speak, or we will be spoken for.
Or worse, as is more likely the case, we will not even be considered at all, as we saw with the stunning exclusion of Lao Americans in the recent report from the National Asian American Survey entitled “Public Opinion Of a Growing Electorate: Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in 2012”.
Although they're taking steps to correct it now, in that report, the researchers claim Lao American voices were wanted, but none of the professional survey companies could conduct the survey in Lao, even though 70% of Lao Americans speak English well. And how many years did it take for the Twin Cities World Refugee Day website to include a mention of the Lao, even though we've been here for over 30 years as your friends and neighbors?
I don't think my heart was ever as broken as the day I took Lao Minnesotan youth to the State Capitol to visit their representatives a few years ago. Despite all of the encouragement, almost no one had the courage to talk, to even say hi, let alone ask a politician to support something as non-controversial as improving education in Minnesota's schools.
Considering the latest Council on Asian Pacific Minnesotans' report that Lao Minnesotan children have reading score of 56.9% and a math score of 39.7%, even for children born and raised here all of their lives, I think that would have been a pretty darn reasonable request.
And deep down, I found myself hating, hating whatever it was that filled these young children with fear, that taught them to remain silent, to not 'rock the boat', to never speak their hearts. The late Sentaor Paul Wellstone famously said, "We all do better when we all do better." And that comes from expressing ourselves, even in public.
I'm not asking for us to all agree on all of the issues all of the time. Quite the contrary, I want plurality. I want to see opinions that challenge our assumptions, that give us a clear view of all our options, and where we might go with those ideas, great and small. But that doesn't work if we don't speak up. And sometimes, that means saying "No" to bad ideas. Or even "No and No."
The author W. Somerset Maugham had it right when he pointed out "If a nation values anything more than freedom, it will lose its freedom; and the irony of it is that if it is comfort or money that it values more, it will lose that too."