Little Laos on the Prairie Editor Chanida Phaengdara Potter: Finding a Voice, Taking a Stand

Photo by Savannah Rattanavong

Photo by Savannah Rattanavong

Now more than ever, the Lao-American diaspora has resources and a community to fall back on. We are able to share our stories to connect and take ownership of our complex livelihoods. Thanks to folks like Chanida Phaengdara Potter, editor-in-chief of Little Laos on the Prairie (LLOTP) and one of the founders of the Southeast Asian Diaspora Development (SEAD) Project, finding a voice and your roots is easily accessible. Read on to hear about her journey, her life's mission to carve out a space for Lao-Americans, and how she came to appreciate her culture.

Who is Chanida Phaengdara Potter?

I'm a refugee immigrant 1.5er, born in a Vieng Xai re-education camp to a young teacher from Phon Hong and a young royal Lao lieutenant from Vientiane. I boarded a UN (United Nations) plane as an asylum-seeker with my family as a toddler. Minneapolis has been my home for the last 31 years. For the past 10 years, I've worked in the nonprofit and NGO (non-governmental organization) world in community development, advocacy and communications; being heavily involved with my Lao, Southeast Asian and general Asian-American communities on organizing and amplifying our social justice issues. My real day job that I enjoy the most is being a mother to a 4-year-old daughter and a 10-week-old son.

Obviously being Lao means a lot to you, but how did this go from simply being an identity to becoming your life’s work? Did you ever foresee yourself doing this kind of work?

This Was Our Story. Our Struggle. I Had To Amplify It Because Others Denied It.

The politics of identity is something I talk about a lot through LLOTP and other spaces. The Lao experience wasn't visible in mainstream America. The only one we knew who held our identity was Kahn in "King of the Hill." A made-up caricature of our people. The only thing that we could relate to Kahn was his long-ass last name. There wasn't just one single moment where I thought this would be my life's work. It was a series of "woke" moments throughout my childhood to undergrad days of simply being exhausted of the oppression of my parents in the workplace to people in my community dying from lack of resources to not seeing people like me anywhere in pop culture other than the lens of a Thai-invested world. I realized it was too emotionally damaging to think that our existence didn't matter and that we had to co-opt it through our other safer and more comfortable masks because it was the only way to survive in America, right? This was our story. Our struggle. I had to amplify it because others denied it.

How did Little Laos on the Prairie and the SEAD Project come about?

Little Laos on the Prairie formed with a former college friend (Danny Khotsombath) who just wanted to blog about our daily life experiences and struggles as Lao-Minnesotans. We didn't know that something that was a hobby [would turn] into a platform that increasingly became more important and relevant to the diaspora at large. Switch to now, almost seven years later, I thought about how a shared Southeast Asian narrative didn't exist. We had similar culturally rich and politically violent histories—yet we didn't talk about it together in a way that contributed to healing. So how do you do this? Language and storytelling are means for this.

How has Little Laos on the Prairie and the SEAD Project changed or developed since their inception?

LLOTP was the first baby. SEAD became the second baby—a culmination of a bigger passion project. Through LLOTP and co-creating with other Southeast Asians (SEA) who held similar experiences and journeys because of our shared history from Indochina to Vietnam War era to today's lowest educational and economic outcomes. It led me to think about the SEA identity and representation in the diaspora. Our narratives were similar, yet unique to us. No one else in the larger mainstream API (Asian Pacific Islander) communities could claim that.

With any startup, it has its challenges, but it's developing into this possibility that “Hey, this idea isn't just about preservation of our history and stories.” It's beyond that. It's about building a narrative and a movement that we're reclaiming for us, led by us.

What were the challenges in making these aspirations an actuality and where do you want to see these organizations go?

Fortunately, my previous community work equipped me and led me into this path. When ideation moves to fruition, it's because of relationships that were cultivated and nurtured. That's what built the trust and push for people to believe in the same shared vision. LLOTP will celebrate its sixth birthday this year. It's now officially moved as a program under SEAD, which is currently a legally-recognized 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.

I only see growth from here. I see a re-imagination of recognition and acknowledgement of SEA narratives that are not only necessary, but long overdue when it comes to visibility of who we are and what we're dealing with.

Was it difficult establishing a base for SEAD in Laos? How is it maintained over there?

Again, it's all about relationships and mobilizing. Establishing any base is difficult in the international arena. It requires constantly being present in the community locally and globally. I'm engaged at all levels and with various stakeholders on issues of development. Currently, SEAD doesn't have the capacity to run full operations in Laos, but that's the future goal with the small steps we're doing in working directly with those in the diaspora who've returned to live and work in Laos, as well as the active expat community. They are my greatest connectors.

What sort of change(s) do you hope to see within the Lao community in regards to how we relate and tell our stories, or how people outside our community perceive us?

We Are Natural Storytellers In Our Blood...Storytelling Saves The World.

We have to be continuously reminded that we come from centuries of a deeply rich literary and oral history. We are natural storytellers in our blood. It's nothing new we haven't done before, except that war, trauma and fear impacts how we get to relate and tell our stories—if we do get to tell them at all. Storytelling saves the world. People use it in their everyday life without knowing it. Every human connection is tied to it. But the reality is, we're dying. Our elders are dying first. I hope we can ask ourselves, "What do we want to leave for the next generation?" As for how people outside perceive us? I couldn't care less. If they ever get a chance to hear our story enough to the point where they point out Laos on a map, then I consider that a win. 

How do your identities intersect and how do you translate that to a broader narrative in which other people can understand or empathize with? Do you feel the need to educate “outsiders” or do you mainly work for the Lao-American community?

I don't work "for," I work "with" the Lao diaspora community. At the root of everything I do, it's all about visibility and voice for me. That's at the heart of what I do and why I wear my community on my sleeve. A tiny funny story: I was once asked by a recruiter in Vientiane if I was American or Lao. He made it a point to tell me he thought I was American and not Lao at all. Keep in mind this was a White European man who interviewed me for an organization that he led in Laos, questioning my Laoness. He then brought in two local Lao staff to speak with me in Lao language to test my fluency. This kind of discriminatory aggression was complete colonialist thinking and used as a tool to dehumanize and keep us further on the bottom of the food chain.

I share this experience because it gave me time to reflect about why I had LLOTP and all the more reason why I needed to keep LLOTP alive and well. I write and amplify stories through LLOTP because it's not a platform for educating the general public about Lao America at all. From time to time we might publish an informative piece. But feeding and maintaining White curiosity is perpetuating that same systemic oppression. They can go elsewhere to Google it if they really want to. Because there's plenty of other resources out there. At the very least, LLOTP is a peek inside Lao America. And for the seasoned reader who actually lives and breathes around Lao people and culture, they will actually enjoy and understand LLOTP's work without me having to be on constant repeat.

What do you think people would find most surprising about the Lao diaspora and the movement to connect this scattered community?

What's fascinating about the Lao diaspora is we could be in Argentina to Canada to Germany and still possess a sense of imagined community because of related experiences and similar journeys post exodus. For some of us who are now writers and creatives, we have to be reminded that there was once a time we were also dehumanized, displaced and isolated, and we have a responsibility to share that narrative so the world remembers we were just like our fellow refugee immigrants of today who face unwelcoming shores: Syrians, Rohingya, Karen, etc. 

Are there any particular projects or goals that you are working on right now?

I'm preparing for 2020.

What would you say you appreciate or love most about Laos and/or the people from it?

"Bor pen yung" and "sabai sabai." These are the two sayings that represent us as a people and culture that I appreciate and loathe at the same time. 

What advice would you give for those wanting to learn more about and do more for their communities?

Start somewhere, anywhere. It's the experiences that shape your interests. Find what keeps you up at night and keeps you excited through the day. That's your passion right there—own it. Once you own it, you'll be more effective and impactful in more ways than you thought possible. That in itself is how you contribute to community development more meaningfully.

Savannah Rattanavong