As the Lao Assistance Center moves closer to celebrating 30 years in the community, many of us are reflecting on our journey and what we hope and dream for. One of my biggest hopes has been for all of our community to be civically engaged. This is important for many reasons, and all of us need to see it is part of a successful life in America. It has been important for my staff and board and our volunteers to engage our elders in the discussions that shape America, as much as for our youth.
Almost 25,000 Lao live in Minnesota. Most of us came as refugees with almost nothing except our inner spirit and determination. Those of us who escaped left entire lives behind, uncertain how to rebuild. 35 years later, many of those who brought us to safety in America are our elders. We have almost 1,000 living in Minneapolis, sadly, many in a state of poverty because they could not master English and they were told they did not have the education to qualify for good jobs. Many of our politicians do not take the time to ask why or to understand the journey that brought our elders here, what they left behind or how our histories are connected to Minnesota and to America.
American democracy is a wonderful idea that you can become anything that you want to be, that you can speak your mind freely and you can have a choice in who leads you, what policies are created and how much education you can get. You can work for someone, or you can work for yourself. You can believe what you want. This resonates with Lao traditional values, but our elders have not often been able to share this with the community.
Our youth deserve to see our elders given a chance to make their voices heard, and we need to do what we can to make sure our elders have opportunities to share their dreams, their experiences, their concerns with our leaders to help make the best decisions not just for Lao refugees but for all Minnesotans and for all Americans.
Lao culture embraces many traditions and cultures. Over 40 different people including Tai Dam, Hmong, Khmu and ethnic Lao. We see strength in diversity and we know how to find common purpose. But it takes work, and we can never take it for granted. Every generation is faced with new challenges and new opportunities and we should learn from both our youth and our elders if we want something meaningful to pass on to the future.
Many Lao elders, both US citizens and those who are not, are concerned that the new budget proposals and health care reforms will not take refugees into consideration, particularly those with limited English. When it comes to health, this can be a life and death situation. Our elders only want a fair society. They believe in hard work, but they also believe in community, helping others and the importance of truth. They value independence but they also know we do not form a society alone. We need to make policies that give us all the opportunity to succeed. These ideas should be heard by our politicians.
Lifelong civic engagement makes American democracy succeed. There is more to civic engagement than voting. It means taking part and learning about the decisions being made and adding your voice to allow our chosen decision makers to make the most fully informed decision possible. Sometimes we disagree with that decision, but we still come together to form a nation. Sometimes it’s not easy for our elders voices to be heard, so we need to do what we can to assist their access to our community and our leaders.
Sunny Sinh Chanthanouvong is the Executive Director of Lao Assistance Center of Minnesota. He can be reached at 612-374-4967 or [email protected]