Monday, January 31, 2011

ALL OUR BE-LONGINGS, a TalkingImageConnection reading

Join me on Saturday, February 12 from 8:00pm - 10:00pm at the Soap Factory on 514 2nd Street Southeast in Minneapolis. We'll be holding ALL OUR BE-LONGINGS, a TalkingImageConnection reading.

It's free, with hot cider and features the great local writers Sarah Fox, Didi Koka, Alison Morse, Andy Sturdevant, Stephanie Wilbur Ash and I as we invent poems, songs, and stories in response to Rosemary Williams' installation "Belongings" at the Soap Factory.

For more information contact 612.623.9176 or email

TalkingImageConnection brings together writers, contemporary visual art and new audiences in art galleries around the Twin Cities.

See you there!

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!

Bridging the Digital Divide: Is Community Wireless the Answer?

The New America Foundation and the Yale Law School Information Society Project are raising an interesting question this week at a meeting called Bridging the Digital Divide. They are revisiting the question of whether community wireless holds the answer.

Their opening premise is that "Communications technologies have continued to evolve and now increasingly provide opportunities for deploying low-cost broadband. However, conventional commercial business models for providing broadband often create bottlenecks to spreading connectivity."

If you look back, especially over the last five years, little attention or credibility has been given to the community and municipal wireless networks. But I'm writing this entry thanks to the availability of a municipal wireless network in Minneapolis, and I know many others who benefited regularly enough to say it's worth having the alternative. Growing up in rural Michigan, I remember the constant frustration from a lack of access and can still see the effect that lack can have on the quality of life regarding economic, educational and recreational opportunities there.

I can say personally that efforts like the Greater Columbus Freenet of the mid-1990s in Ohio were pivotal in connecting me effectively to a wider world and my reconnection to fellow refugees across the country. Back then, internet access was still mostly restricted to people in higher education and we were running the risk of creating a dangerous gulf between the digital haves and have-nots. The Greater Columbus Freenet served as a way to democratize the Internet, and increased demand and demonstrated the potential these services could provide. It was a dial-up initiative but much of the same community building spirit then should be what drives our work today to keep one another connected and to have equitable access to key services and transformative opportunities.

While the seminar with the New America Foundation covers mostly efforts in Europe and America, I am interested in how similar efforts have and will continue to take hold in countries like Laos. There non-profit organizations worked to establish bike-powered computers to provide internet access in remote villages, among other initiatives.

The most notable example was the Jhai Foundation’s Remote Information Technology Village Project, a concept that received support from Canada's International Development Research Centre (IDRC) and the United Nations Development Programme’s Asia-Pacific Development Information Programme. But I think we can and should do more to support not only the presence of viable community access points but effective education and exchange opportunities there.

The Jhai Foundation is an American non-profit organization, begun in 1997 by Lee Thorn, a Vietnam War veteran who participated in the bombing of Laos, and Bounthanh Phommasathit, a Lao refugee from the American bombing. In the spirit of reconciliation, Jhai has undertaken several community development projects in 13 villages. The Remote IT Village Project was included in The New York Times’ list of top ideas of 2002. But as we move forward in the next decade, what next?

In 1998 there was a book called Does Jane Compute? by Roberta Fuger. It worried that women in America who were not engaged in computing might become second-class citizens. It did not address our worries for refugee and immigrant women who might easily become third or even fourth-class citizens for lack of access.

We need to be concerned when we see the recent results of the 2009 American Community Survey that indicates less than 4% of most Southeast Asian refugees in American over 25 have a college degree. The Vietnamese community has a 6.7% achievement rate, but considering the national average is 10.3% and among Asians overall is 19.8% there's clearly a lot left to do.

With my work with Lao non-profits and other refugee communities in the Midwest, can I say this access would improve our community efforts in economic development and recovery and supporting our elders and youth? It's not the absolute or magic solution, but it is an essential part of the process and we need to look into it and the opportunities it presents.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Friday, January 28, 2011

[Loft] Minnesota Emerging Writers’ Grant Deadline extended to February 11th

The Minnesota Emerging Writers’ Grant provides writers financial support and professional assistance to develop and implement multifaceted plans to help them with their artistic endeavors. Two to four winners will be selected to receive grants of up to $10,000 to underwrite projects of their own design. The deadline has just been extended to February 11, 2011. Don't procrastinate!

For further details:

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Youth Classes at the Loft now Year-Round!

The word just came in from the Loft literary center in Minneapolis that they will now be offering youth classes year-round.

This is an exceptional opportunity for emerging and aspiring youth writers to work with local and nationally acclaimed writers and they're asking people to please pass the word to parents of teens, English teachers, and anyone else about these programs.

Among the upcoming programs of note is:
I Want to Be an Author! A Tour of the Publishing Industry with Jacquelyn Fletcher
Becoming a published author can seem really hard, but the publishing industry is not mysterious once you know what is what. This class for 13-17 year-olds will reveal how to find an agent, what an agent wants to see, what happens after a book is sold, the differences between traditional publishing, self-publishing, and what’s happening online.

Be sure to check it out!

Thursday, January 13, 2011

31 Days in Laomerica: Or, Life in a Lao non-profit. Part 13.

Today they're expecting approximately an inch of snow in Minnesota. That's enough to close down schools and businesses in Texas and many states south of the Mason Dixon Line.

At the office, we held a meeting with our funders for the Southeast Asians Living Chemically Free Program and our new staff as we try to figure out the program for the upcoming year ahead. In the next six months, we'll be hosting several community forums, including two specifically for the youth and three for adult community members and their families.

According to 2003 figures from the World Health Organization, the Lao are the heaviest drinkers in Southeast Asia, consuming an average of 6.91 liters a year. To visualize this, imagine15 pints of milk, or 1.8 gallons.
In 2008 in Laos, government officials were concerned by trends among youth that having a mobile phone meant students felt safer when away from home, but they also were documented as a tool for students to organize activities such as group binge drinking, road racing, drug taking and truancy.

A 2008 survey found that 39 percent of Lao students regularly went to beer shops to drink. Sixty-one percent of people surveyed said drinking beer led to loss of control and involvement in activities they might later regret. According to the survey, 25 percent of people questioned continue their drinking at a nightclub after going to a beer shop. Most surveyed said the age of students most likely to go to a nightclub was 11 to 18. Only 37 percent said people aged 18 to 25 went to a nightclub. The survey also found 43 percent of students believed drinking beer causes fighting, 38 percent said it led to gambling, 26 percent stated it could result in drug abuse and 25 percent believed road racing occurred after drinking.
While we have figures like these for youth in Laos, we do not have formal figures for Lao American youth in Minnesota or full confirmation that similar trends occur in the US, and it would be helpful for us to conduct similar studies.

One of the big discussions is making it clear that we're not expecting or asking for overnight transformations of the community when it comes to alcohol. But everyone is strongly discouraging tobacco and drug use if we can, not just for the individual's health but because of the economic and social tolls they take on the community and families. Talking with many of the elders and youth, many are tired of the drama that gets caused from drunken arguments and similar substance abuse problems.
But the general thrust isn't going to be about pointing out the negative effects, but showing people how to create opportunities for healthier, happier lifestyles and creating room within Lao American gatherings for people to abstain from drinking and smoking. As people extending hospitality to others, how are we empowering tomorrow's generation to live without addictive substances in their lives?

With drugs, the bigger challenges we've seen is adults unaware of the concept of abusing prescription drugs and the presence of club and party drugs like ecstasy. Back in Laos, the community had to deal with problems involving opium, heroin, marijuana and meth, also known as yaa-baa. Unfortunately we don't get many resources to talk about them here in the US. 

In a community of 25,000+ in Minnesota, we have less than a dozen specialists really familiar with the subject who are actively able to work on community education and prevention, or to get people treatment.

On average in our offices we've seen approximately 7 to 10 people a month come in seeking advice for their addictions. We try to find them effective places for referral. It's difficult to say how many people really need to be coming in. 

We're trying to find culturally appropriate options because programs like D.A.R.E. aren't effective, and programs like the 12-step program don't dovetail well within many Lao beliefs. Even when people have tried to adapt Buddhist principles to the 12-step program, it tends to be done from a Zen or Mahayana or Vajrayana school of Buddhism rather than the more common Theravada forms the Lao are familiar with. 
Within Theravada Buddhism, the five precepts are very clear that you should avoid drugs and alcohol. Yet, we often find a contradiction across the country as people drink and smoke openly, even on temple grounds and normalize that behavior in our community.

Even beyond Buddhist ideas, the issue is that most traditional Lao Americans and their families believe it is a question of willpower, discipline and the importance of preserving face.

Our executive director, Sunny, often testifies to our partners that community members complain that the government wouldn't allow cigarettes, cigars and alcohol to be sold if it was harmful to the people. Which we all know isn't a very sophisticated belief, but it's a common one. 

But we're planning ahead, with events planned during the Lao New Year, the Boun Pravet celebration in June, Asian Pacific American Heritage Month and also during Women's History Month and in February. Most of the time we have approximately 30 to 40 people in attendance who are interested in what we're discussing. If we're going to make serious changes, we need to help the community make serious connections to the greater long-term interests of the community on this subject.

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Available as an arts speaker, consultant

Here's our regular reminder:

As many of you know, I am available for consultation as an artist. I advise primarily in literary disciplines, although I take a very limited number of clients in traditional dance, folk arts, film, theater and the visual arts.

These consultation sessions can be used to take a closer look at you and your work, assist you in identifying your professional goals and opportunities, and develop strategies to attain those goals along a realistic timeline.

My regional specialization is the Midwest but I've successfully provided guidance all across the United States. For individual artists, my standard consultations cost $75/hour. If you anticipate needing more than 10 hours or more of consultation time a retainer rate is available. For small informal groups and small non-profit organizations, my standard consultation rate is $100/hour or $300 for one day, although additional charges may apply depending on the complexity of the project. These prices will remain in effect until December 31st, 2011.

The following credentials may assist you when considering whether to retain my services: I hold the distinction of being the first Lao American to receive an NEA Fellowship in Literature in 2009 for poetry. I'm cited for my writing in national and international textbooks. Among my 20 literary, academic and professional awards, I hold an Asian Pacific American Leadership Award in 2009 from the State Council on Asian Pacific Minnesotans, and a 2002 Many Voices Fellowship from the Minnesota Playwrights Center.

I am the author of 6 books and my work appears in over 100 international publications around the world including Australia, Canada, England, Germany, France, Singapore, and across the United States. .

As in previous years, I only take on between 5 to 15 clients at a maximum, following a brief portfolio review. If you have any questions, please feel free to contact me directly at and we can look over your specific needs and how we can best work together.