Lao American Writers Summit 2016 Reflection

It was about a year ago that I stood at the Sahtu Press booth; staring at a group of Lao Americans circled around each other. We wrapped up the two-days of the Lao American Writers Summit. Standing there, Ova asked why did we have to wait 5 years until the next summit? How about meeting next year? From there, the poll was already tallied up from probing the community where they would like to see the next summit. I was the first person to walk up to poll and vote for San Diego to be the next city, in full confidence that I can make it work with the buffer of 5 years. Bidone voted shortly after. So then, the group looked at the poll and saw that San Diego had two votes. Every other city had one. It was then, that I heard the entire room look at me. "Looks like we're having it in San Diego next year!" An applause followed.

A chill ran through my spine up into my back hairs. I literally said, "Oh shit". Was hoping this would be in another 5 years.

There was a bit of silence, my mind ran through the first pass of what I envisioned the summit to look like within a few seconds.

That plane ride back home, I was already scheming; up to no good regarding everything I needed to do.

I waited a few days, perhaps a few weeks or so before I approached 3 people. I knew that I wanted this, and I knew who I wanted with me from San Diego to make this happen. I called upon my cousin Joanne and my friend Carol to be my top 2 Core Team Members that would support this movement to San Diego. We represented the Local Squad. They both had the skills and the community pull that I needed to make it happen. I had a solid group of out of town Core Team Members as well who were experienced in the summit beforehand. They all had brilliant minds and all were powerful leaders in their own projects / organizations. I knew this would all come together beautiful; we just had to make sure we get there promptly. They would advise, promote, and help plan for the event to reach San Diego. My 3rd person was Tommy, who ran a venue that I truly wanted to use for this event. The Centro Cultural de la Raza.

Binly and Nor
Binly and Nor

Fast forward to a year...WE DID IT. Lao American Writers' Summit 2016 completed! With the little time I have, I wanted to reflect on what went down.

The past few days have been incredible. They have been remarkable. They were exhausting. A lot of work was put into the event beforehand so that we run the event as smooth as possible. One thing that took up a whole lot of time was setting up the gallery space, which could have been its own event considering the amount of amazing artist who submitted their work along with the amount of time it took to set up the pieces up. A lot of beer and pizza fueled the local team.

Chantala Paintings
Chantala Paintings

The day before the summit started, I moved a bunch Beer Lao, Water, Tables, Chairs, Stages, and managed the hotel room check ins. A few people helped me that day which I greatly appreciated. We were all on a roll. A few of us went back to venue to set up around 12am.

I slept drunk knowingly that the day would start quite early. The quest to deliver the promise of bringing a powerful event to San Diego needed to be accomplished. I was ready to rock.

Day 1

As soon as the local team arrived, the clock started ticking. The guns blasted and it was a scramble of sorts. Not because we were unorganized, but more so that we needed to be reactive to the schedule to make sure everything was running on time. My hands were moving and feet were shuffling the entire time. The other core team folks and volunteers were doing the same. Everyone played their part. Personally, I knew I couldn't let the event itself marinate. I was focused on making sure the presentations ran accordingly; laptop and PC next to each other. My messages, emails, and social media were blowing up with all the happenings of the summit. It was finally happening! It became a reality. But still, a lot of us were focused on the current and projected tasks.

Identity Workshop
Identity Workshop

Day 1 comprised of Keynote speeches, an Identity Workshop, and two panel discussions. I felt that with every presentation that happened, the participants were truly soaking in. The information and inspiration fired off quickly and everyone was hit with knowledge. I saw the faces a lot of local community members. Many only realized what the event was about, and what it actually was. Lunch was yummy. I'm sure everyone agreed how yummy that lunch was. I ate very little. That usually happens during any event that I do, my appetite shrinks.

The poetry panel was awesome. When Bboys / Bgirls get down in a circle, it's called a cypher. In general, a cypher is an exchange of energy, vibes, and dancing of people throwing down their rounds one by one in a circle. The Poetry panel was unscripted. Bryan, Soul, and I did not plan what we wanted to present. This was done on purpose because we knew what we all had to say. We read poems, discussed topics, and worked off each other based off what the last person said. It was a cypher of poets, and one that I will remember forever.

Having Lunch. Photo by Lao Ocean
Having Lunch. Photo by Lao Ocean

So many beautiful faces shined in the venue. Smiles presented themselves everywhere. I think for many people at the summit, it was their first time interacting with other Lao Americans who were putting in work in different industries. I want to remind people that the purpose of the summit is to bring visibility to Lao American-ness. This would be in the form of the arts, education, and community issues. A lot of people immersed themselves in these topics while taking it with full positivity. A surreal feeling eclipsed all my worries. This was really happening, in the city that raised me.

Cooking With Nana volunteered to help serve lunch. Photo by Lao Ocean
Cooking With Nana volunteered to help serve lunch. Photo by Lao Ocean

By the time the last panel ended, everyone was exhausted. It was clear that a lot of the local team was spread thin; many were not able to experience Day 1 of the summit due to the amount of behind the scenes task involved. Many lessons were learned already. There were things we weren't prepared for even though we tried with dedication to prepare for. It's the nature of the beast, and we had a Nyak of an event to triumph over. We had a quick little breather before the Gallery Reception. Even then, folks were running around prepping for that. The rest of the night was pretty smooth. The Gallery Reception had a good number of people show up. From drinks, snacks, film screenings, and art watching, I'd say the night was grand. Of course, I was happy to take out a wild bunch of Lao people to downtown to party a bit.

Day 2

It started with a blast of surprise and excitement. My good friend Joseph brought a representative from the San Diego City Council to honor and commemorate the Lao American Writers Summit. We were celebrated as a community for building and bringing all the magic to San Diego. I am proud that the community came together for this, and I'm glad we were recognized for this. Our experience, through the history of our times, was recognized in San Diego. Then I was surprised again because I received an award by the city as well. I was honored by their presentation of the certificate, but I also felt my whole team deserved this.

With that, I would like to send a BIG BIG BIG Thank You to California State Assemblywoman of the 80th District, Lorena Gonzalez, along with the California Legislature for recognizing the Lao American Writers Summit and its impact on not only the San Diego community but the community across America. Your two certificates giving to the community and me are a universal honor and one I will forever be thankful for.

Social Media Panel with EraNetik, Laos in the House, Cooking With Nana and BGZTV. Photo by Lao Ocean.
Social Media Panel with EraNetik, Laos in the House, Cooking With Nana and BGZTV. Photo by Lao Ocean.

So then we get back into the day. As the presentations started, so did the scrambling again! We still had a whole day to present to the participants. A lot of creating, thinking, and building needed to happen. The first panel of the day was run by Catzie. It was the Social Media panel. A lot of interest and laughter. Then a film panel followed shortly ran by Kulap. Things felt a little smoother. We were more prepared for lunch this time around. The amount of people that showed up on Day 1 and Day 2 was roughly the same, but with more folks arriving on Day 2. I wasn't able to eat lunch. I wasn't able to eat much that day now that I think about it.

The second half of Day 2 comprised of interactive workshops. We had a Dance / Music Workshop, Theater Improv Workshop, Research Writing / Personal Statement Workshop, and an Art Workshop. Two sessions, two workshops. While watching everyone involved, it appeared that many people engaged with such vigor. This summit's foundation is in writing. Writing is the medium that connected all the disciplines, but the caveat is that Lao folks are so multi-faceted in what we do. These workshops and panels depicted this aspect.

At the closing of Day 2, I wanted to give the community a chance to speak their piece. A wide spectrum of Lao Americans stepped forward to voice their remarks, and all were as inspirational as they were powerful. All different age ranges. That's what it's about.

We then transitioned into recognizing the entire team behind the event...

I cried at that moment. It was inevitable. I didn't want to, but who ever wants to? It couldn't be stopped. It happened as I gave my personal gifts to Carol and Joanne. They were special to me, they kept me sane, they made me happy with their presence as we planned this entire year of the impossible task to bring a national Lao American event to San Diego. Organizing wasn't so bad when they were around and we got through this together.

Many were unsure it would happen, many were doubting how the turn out would be, some admitted it was originally almost impossible to have it in California. With the help of a dedicated group of Lao American leaders that comprised of the Core Team and the resiliency of the volunteers throughout the event, we made it happen; in stunning fashion. Imagine a team of stellar minds from the across the states. I'm proud to say, that was the team. We all sacrificed so much to make it work.

And that closing performance night that followed the Day 2 event? Well...I will tell you now, you missed out if you were not there! ;]

As I reflect on the entire event, I am thankful that San Diego hosted this summit in my lifetime. We are commonly taught to leave our homes and venture outside of our comfort zone to learn about the universe outside of our bubble. We are taught to leave home, move on with life, and do what we love. Many times, people will leave home feeling jaded, not wanting to return because it may be better to leave the troubles of home behind. It is true that we must travel to gain experiences, and our hometown may be a toxic environment. I always hear about people who want to leave the hood and never return. It must be the Lao in me, but I always loved where I came from. Everything I learned through my travels of the world, or living in a different city, I always wanted to bring it back home. I believe San Diego to be my village just like how Huay Xai will always be even though I never truly lived there. It was always about bringing it back, giving back, and watching the flower petals of the Lao American Community unfold with the light of our will. We are prideful in what we do, and we all wanted to be with each other to make it happen together. For that, I am honored to see the Lao American Writers Summit be the success that it is. It's because of the PEOPLE involved. We are all elements to this world from Mekong Memories to American Journeys.

The challenge of bringing Lao’d people into one room for two long days outside of religious events or new years was met with a laugh of Lao’d people.

Cuz we Sa Baiiiiiiiiiiiiii Sa Baiiiiiiiiiiiiii

We Sa Bai'ed our way through it all. That's the power in our community.

With that, I thank you all for being part of this. I thank you all for believing in yourselves, our community, and our crafts. I thank you for fighting the good fight, the one that was never easy. I thank you for giving our youth a chance to realize that they have the power to do better than the people before them, but with a solid set of morals and purpose behind it. Thank You All.

I will see you at the next summit. Perhaps, as a fly on the wall smiling through it all. In the mean time, the San Diego Sun and Beaches call me to return to its shores.


If you would like to purchase my book, you can do so at the link below. My next goal before writing my second book? Hitting 500 sales. 60 left...let's do it!

Buy Dance Among Elephants

Photos from the event, courtesy of Dennis Sikhanthat (Lao Ocean), Blake Lowe, and David Khatiyavong. Cover photo for this blog was taken by Lao Ocean.

Thank Yous and Acknowledgements

A wonderful event. This final form of the Community Tree represents that beautifully. I would like to Thank You All for being powerfully present and making the conscious effort to strengthen the Lao American Community. We made a difference and created so much inspiration for the youth, elders, and everyone in between. I bet a lot of ideas are brewing to future projects with everyone that networked with each other. That's what it's about!

I am a lousy tagger and name dropper, I apologize in advance for missing anyone.

A special Thank You to two powerful women who were part of the core team, Joanne Thomasen & Carol Manisouk, who stuck through it all with me. All the late nights of planning, early mornings to set up at events to promote, meetings upon meetings, and holding it down at the event to make sure everything can run the way it could. Food and Volunteer Management were huge uphill battles that they did great with. We had a little less than a year to plan, and I trusted the both of them to execute to the finest of their abilities. I wouldn't have it any other way. Much Love to my core team Bryan Thao Worra, Nor Sanavongsay, Chanida Phaengdara Potter, Catzie Vilayphonh, Leslie Chanthaphasouk, Channapha Khamvongsa, Sayon Syprasoeuth, Bee Salima, and Saymoukda Duangphouxay Vongsay for all their help in advising, structuring their workshops / panels, design work, promotions, drafting, and other responsibilities. A lot of innovative minds! Leaders in their fields.

Big Shout Outs to my Volunteers, and I apologize for not tagging everyone, there were so many. But a good number of folks gave up their time to be part of the summit to and they represented to the fullest. Amazing work being able to handle the food serving / prep, registration, cleaning, setting up / down the chairs & tables, decorations, supply runs, drink runs, social media, all the in-betweens. Sourita Sirí, Angela Thomasen, Chantilly Soukamneuth, Nida Phomm, Kerry Fongthavisay, Emily Phonhsongkham, Alice Xayavong, Drew Dang, CJ Thomasen, Blake Lowe, Anthony Montegna, Joseph Allen Ruanto-Ramirez, Sunny Litthachack, and all the on-site volunteers to spent part of their time at the summit offering their services. Again, truly sorry for not tagging everyone, but the help was definitely appreciated! Also, the folks in the kitchen that were helping behind the scenes, It was a huge task and I was running in and out of the kitchen noticing a group of dedicated people back there. I can't name you all, Kham Sanavongsay help me out lol.

Keynote speakers  Bryan Thao Worra &   Channapha Khamvongsa

Keynote speakers  Bryan Thao Worra & Channapha Khamvongsa

All the Panelist and Workshop Facilitators who brought forth the inspiration, knowledge, lessons, and techniques to better the arts and education in our community. Ova Saopeng, Chantala Kommanivanh, Rita Phetmixay, Kennedy Eranetik Phounsiri, Vorada Savengseuksa, Ellen Syvoravong, Xai Souphom, Phon Khampradith, Nome Thongphachanh, KuKu Aukerman, Timothy Ralph Singratsomboune, Steve Arounsack, AliSak Tuy Sanavongsay, Bradly M Filion, Olivia Sengsi, and the others I could not tag.

Bryan Thao Worra & Soul Vang, for us 3. Writers of the Mekong Storm. Reading poetry, unscripted Panel and we were able to really have a powerful discussion and reading of our poetry. It was a dance of words, a cypher of poets.

Tommy Ramirez for being the forefront supporter and providing us the Centro Cultural de la Raza. This place is a captivating space where we were all able to utilize to its fullest.

Dara Souvanna Phouma Stieglitz for being one of the biggest supporters in the community. Helping out financially and being there on-site wanted to spend time actually volunteering.

Kulap Vilaysack for being another huge sponsor, amazing panelist, and my partner for MCing the night.

All the artist who shared their work and were chosen to be part of the LAWS 2016 Gallery: Intersectionalities

Joseph Allen Ruanto-Ramirez for the crazy surprise of having the City of San Diego recognize this event and its importance in community empowering.

The orgs, groups, people, and entities that also made the two-day experience fulfilling, by the way of amazing food, decorations, to providing the cultural elements:

  • Sahtu Press, Inc.
  • Cooking with Nana
  • SD Lao Heritage
  • Kinnaly Seattle
  • Little Laos on the Prairie
  • Laos In The House
  • Harborside Thai, Lao, & Sushi
  • Mia's Kitchen
  • Andrew Manisouk
  • Muang Luang Imports
  • H.C. Foods Company

The Photographers and Filming Folks: Dennis DrWtpho, Blake Lowe, Inpone Vongphakdy, My Uncle David, Phetsamone Phanousith, Joe Chanty, and many more who were there.

Lay Manyvan from Lao Stars for printing the event's awesome shirts.

Lao Community Cultural Center of San Diego, Lao American Coalition, and Lao Lue Association of San Diego for their financial support and physical presence at the event and closing performance. Sandy Spackman for her Welcome Letter. All the San Diego Community Leaders, Educators, and Elders that came out.

Kennedy Eranetik Phounsiri, Rainier Ronquillo, and Dyno Rock for rocking with me during my performance. Dancing in front of a lively crowd. The awesome performers as well: Linsun Rising, One Bouriyaphon, Lina Luangrath, Colin, and the other folks that I tagged a little lower.

My Dad Voraphet Phounsiri and his good buddy for providing the speakers, mics, and the awesome music that got people moving. Also for the printing of the program and LAWS Banner.

My crewmates and friends who came clutch in helping me when they did not have to prior to the event. Jacob Kang for designing the Program which was a difficult task to do. Jae Alyson & Aizel Agustino Calanog for their support in transporting heavy items and setting up all the stages / chairs super late at night before the Friday event.

My parents Sonenary Souksavath and Jake Souksavath for their moral support.

All the sponsors! 10k raised by YOU, the community and supporters of the Lao American Community.

This event was made possible by the generosity and kindness of the following individuals and companies:

Savanh Level ($1500)

  • Nor & Kham Sanavongsay
  • Kulap Vilaysack

Tevada Level ($400)

  • Bounheng Inversin
  • Chanida Phaengdara Potter
  • Daraphon Stieglitz
  • Channapha Khamvongsa
  • Cooking With Nana
  • Mia's Kitchen
  • Ketmani Kouanchao
  • Dr. Khampha & Lao American Community of Fresno

Nyak Level ($200-300)

  • Moi & the Lao Community Cultural Center of San Diego
  • David Claycomb
  • Nonphachan Rithmyxay
  • Adisack Nhouyvanisvong
  • Soutkita Reagan
  • Xai Souphom
  • James Thammarath
  • William Khampradith
  • Steve and Touti Arounsack
  • Ketsana and H.C. Foods Company
  • Sinxay Publishing

Ajahn Level ($100-$150)

  • Kohk and Sahk
  • Amphon Phiaxay
  • Dale Thongmahavong
  • Leslie Chanthaphasouk
  • Khamp Thongrivong
  • Anchalee Panigabutra-Roberts
  • Phet & Todd Haverkos
  • Vilaphone Thornton
  • Inthanong Basto
  • Sery Bounphasaysonh
  • Souvankham Thammavongsa
  • Saymoukda Vongsay
  • Wayne Wright
  • Sue Kim
  • Vanphouthon Souvannasane
  • Annie Souvannavong
  • Krysada Phounsiri
  • Muang Luang Imports (Sonenary & Pang Souksavath)
  • Ben & Wanda Hart

Xieng Level ($50)

  • Khamkone Phommathep
  • Herren and Logan Edra
  • Lisa and Lone Luangsomkham
  • Sarah Kousonh
  • Christy Innouvong
  • Johnathan Phoummany
  • Angela Thomasen
  • Sourita Phounsiri
  • Davorn Sisavath
  • Akarath Soukhaphon
  • Phayvanah Halsackda
  • Sousada Chidthachack
  • Yommala Voravong
  • Soul Vang
  • Sourixat Thavisouk
  • Amy Kongkeo
  • Khamphom Thepphavong
  • Catzie Vilayphonh
  • T.O.P. Nam Sausages

Novice Level ($25)

  • Odao Lovanh
  • Ina RayLao
  • Debora Kodish
  • Francis Tongpalad
  • Fong Tran
  • Austin Southammavong
  • Loretta Wong
  • Océane Droulers
  • Belinda Bounthanalack
  • Anasone Silivongxay
  • Belen Becerra
  • Teena Bounpraseuth
  • Justin Lancy
  • Angela Yuriko Smith
  • Nadine Mondestin
  • Chantala Kommanivanh
  • Saengthong Douangdara

The Partners

  • Sahtu Press
  • Centro Cultural de la Raza
  • Cooking With Nana
  • Little Laos on the Prairie
  • Laos in the House
  • Kinnaly Seattle
  • Lao Heritage Foundation
  • Legacies of War

All the new friends I made and the ones I ran into again!

Everyone else I forgot to mention. Everyone that went to the event and saw what can be possible! All the participants. You all made the event what it was. I was truly happy to see it all come alive in San Diego. May we all continue this momentum and build with each other.

Kop Jai Lai Lai. This was worth it. No regrets.

Snap Pilots