I often get asked how we can strengthen Lao American youth programming. In part this is because in Minnesota, I helped to guide the Lao Assistance Center's youth leadership program. Did it work? By the end, it led to us receiving an award from the University of Minnesota's Human Rights Center in 2011 because we addressed racism through the use of student-produced video.
Lao Minnesotans also engaged our youth in vital community programs such as the National Lao American Writers Summit and the Legacies of War: Refuge Nation Twin Cities interdisciplinary exhibit at Intermedia Arts.
Our youth had a chance to meet and learn directly from Oscar-nominated Emmy winners, recipients of the Alfred C. Carey Prize in Spoken Word, NEA fellows, and many other award-winners who continue to serve as mentors to many of them. I'm delighted to see so many going on to amazing things, and wish we had the resources to engage even more of them in these projects.
My old friend David Zander reminds me that you can't "boil the ocean with a tea kettle." And I know we can't serve everyone. But my philosophy is: Of those we serve, serve them well. My particular approach is to find ways to combine social justice with service-learning, with a touch of the lessons I learned from my years with the Waldorf education system.
My model for youth programs isn't compatible with every community because I'm not training our youth to be just another pliant drone or cog in a system. I'm training them to be independent thinkers who are audacious, effective and community oriented. If you just want to coast like a potato through life, then my programs won't do you any good.
I prefer to work with communities to set up art programs that understand that we are working to give kids a greater communications platform to express themselves literally, abstractly and emotionally. We often forget and take this for granted. Inattention to empowering our youth is a corrosive attitude that will ultimately undermine all of the success a particular community might think it's gained.
If all a child knows to say when they're being bullied or pushed against the wall is "F*ck you!" or reach for a gun, you're going to be able to predict the final arc of their lives pretty fast.
BUT: If that same child is taught how to channel that into poetry, into writing a story, painting a picture, making a song, or just doing a dance, then we're giving them more choices to choose from, more paths in life they can take. Not every child will become an artist, but every child should grow up to have the chance for art to be a part of their lives.
A good youth program is giving our children ways to apply what they learn in school and take it back to their community. It's also giving them skills they don't normally get in terms of leadership development and skill development. It embraces the best of Lao values, but doesn't accept a blind, wholesale adoption of our values. Where our traditional approaches hold us back from meaningful success, we must shed those and move forward to embrace ways that connect us to the best of our heritage.
I know. It can be a hard sell to parents at first: "I've got a poet for you." If I told you, on the other hand, I've got someone who can speak well in front of others persuasively, can express themselves clearly on paper, who knows how to use computers, how to organize logistics and work with limited budgets and resources to advocate for their community? Oh, the response is: "Yes! I want to see that girl."
Then I show them the poet. The artist.
The arts and leadership are a vital combination for the Lao community to grow because merely attending school is not effective. Too many have lost sight of the thrill and opportunities school provides. They do not remember the old adage 'there is no knowledge that is not power.' They don't see where their experience intersects with the classroom.
That's where our youth programs have to grow the next generation of community leaders.
It isn't magic. It's a process and it's a commitment. A community can't be lazy about it. But with the right spirit they change not just families, but communities, even worlds.