Visiting “Little Laos on the Prairie”

Chanida Phaengdara Potter

Chanida Phaengdara Potter is today’s Laura Ingalls Wilder. But instead of taking pen to paper to write a book about life in a log cabin, Potter, a modern-day pioneer, taps a keyboard to blog about life as a Lao American in Minnesota.

The “e-journal” started two years ago when Potter and friend Danny Khotsombath created Little Laos on the Prairie, highlighting the vibrant regional voice of the Lao American community.

A program assistant with The Advocates, Potter previously chaired the National Lao American Writers Summit and worked with Legacies of War in Vientiane, Laos as an observer delegate during the United Nation’s First Meeting of State Parties to the Convention on Cluster Munitions.

Below is the interview of Potter conducted by Ketmani Kouanchao and appearing in the March 22 Twin Cities Daily Planet:

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When you’re looking for the online voice of the Lao American community, you don’t often see many of us regularly writing, considering there are over 200,000 Lao in the United States.

One exception to that is the blog Little Laos on the Prairie, whose entries often appear here on the Twin Cities Daily Planet. Established by Lao Minnesotans Chanida Phaengdara Potter and Danny Khotsombath, they’ve been steadily breaking new ground, particularly focusing on the Lao Minnesotan community to help readers see how a vibrant regional voice can emerge. I think that’s important because Lao culture flourishes with the diversity of our voices.

I recently had a chance to interview Chanida Phaengdara Potter to get her perspective on building community in diaspora, the challenges of school, work, and where she sees our community going in the future.

Chanida received her B.A. in International Relations and Communications from the University of Minnesota in 2007. She’s currently studying for her Master’s in Public Administration at Hamline University. She has worked and volunteered for many Minnesota non-profit organizations including the Lao Assistance Center, Asian Media Access, Habitat for Humanity, and The Advocates for Human Rights over the years. She serves on the advisory board for Wilder Research and Health Equity Working Committee. Her background is in public affairs, sustainable development and community outreach.

She was a chair of the National Lao American Writers Summit in 2010, helping to organize and mobilize Lao youth to meet and connect with award-winning and emerging Lao writers from across the country. That same year, she worked with Legacies of War in Vientiane, Laos as an observer delegate on advocacy during the United Nation’s First Meeting of State Parties to the Convention on Cluster Munitions. Chanida was a key figure in efforts to bring the Legacies of War: Refugee Nation Twin Cities exhibition to Minnesota, and follow-up efforts such as the Lao Voices Mini-Festival in 2012.

Living these days in Crystal with her family, it looks like she has many more exciting projects ahead.

1) What inspired you to start the blog Little Laos on the Prairie? What’s been your most popular subject there?

Little Laos on the Prairie organically grew after my long-time friend Danny Khotsombath and I decided that we needed the space to write and tell about our experiences as Lao Americans growing up in Minnesota. It’s been almost two years in and we have lots of blog followers and over 200 Facebook fans– a diverse bunch from artists to professors. We have no particular subject that’s popular, but people always love food, humorous stories and community highlights. We wanted to tell people: “Hey, here’s why Lao Minnesotans are awesome. Remember us.”

2) Who were some of your role models for you when you were growing up?

Aside from the auto response that my parents are my heroes (which they are, of course), my role models includes the long list of community activists and artists that have inspired me and shaped my focus towards community work. On the literary side, my first love was Nancy Drew books. I loved reading and watching suspense, mystery and classic noir.

3) What’s a project you’d really like to see in happen in Minnesota if you could?  What’s the most ambitious project you would really do if you had the budget and resources?

I’d love to see investment in a Little Lao Town somewhere in Northside Minneapolis, where the majority of the first Lao immigrants started in the late 80s. I think it’s sad to see the post-housing crisis literally wipe out some of these neighborhoods into ghost towns. I enjoy doing sustainable development work, so I’d love to see an area where I can bring my daughter to Lao classical dance classes, buy my Lao textiles and rent out Lao films and books. I think it’s possible only if we see the economic potential in our own community.

4) Can you tell us a little about your family, and how you all made your journey to the US?

In a nutshell, my parents’ first choice was America in 1987. Dad was a former senior lieutenant for the Royal Lao Army and our family of seven was put in ‘seminar’ labor camps. It’s a funny story because my mom was in so much pregnancy pain and was close to giving birth to me, when she was brave enough to petition for my dad’s release at the time. Then after a couple of years in refugee camps, the UN finally sent us to Minnesota and the Minneapolis area has been our home ever since.

5) How did you really get started as an community activist, and what keeps you going? What are some of the best practices you learned from working with mainstream organizations that you wish the Lao Minnesotan community would adapt?

I can’t pinpoint how I got started in community work, it seems being an ‘activist’ has always been at the heart of everything I had to confront or come across– whether it was advocating for social security benefits for my aging parents to promoting the importance of Lao heritage in Asian groups I led from high school through college. Activism is a part of me.

There’s always the few doing this kind of work. I think many people in my position want to believe there’s a ‘best practices’, but I’ve realized that with any framework we use to address social justice issues, we have to remember two things in our community: the people and their best interests. Without these two important factors, our approach would never be effective. No matter how good of an intention we think we have in mind. We sometimes forget to keep involved, listen carefully, and understand the real issues. Only then will we know where to start and what our role is in the scheme of things.

6) What is something you’d like to see us do to encourage the growth of community leaders and organizers among Lao Americans?

Network, network, network. We lack the connection between the professionals in the private and public sector, re-connecting with our elders, and involving our youth. It pains me that our elders won’t be around long enough to pass on the skills, talents and history that enriches our cultural identity. Where’s our ongoing network of mentors, professionals and artists we can learn from? I started a Lao Professional Network on Facebook and in Minnesota, in hopes that others will take the initiative in sharing our resources and wealth of knowledge.

7) When do you feel most successful?

When I see the small successes that lead to the bigger successes (which isn’t always guaranteed), I can feel that what I’m doing is right and I’m content with it. At the end of the day, it’s easy to get burnt out. I always feel tempted to throw in the towel, but when I see things like youth who come to me for letters of recommendations to a mainstream institution including the Lao in a research study, I take comfort in those small successes.

8) Where are you hoping to take Little Laos on the Prairie in the future?

I want to see it as a trusted source of news and creative outlet for the Lao community. I want to see it as a full fledged dot com website like Angry Asian Man (maybe an Angry Southeast Asian Woman, more like it). I want to be able to learn and share the stories and experiences of our community in the most meaningful way.

9) What is your favorite Lao dish?

This is tough. I LOVE food. When I think of a Lao dish that comforts me the most, it would have to be freshly steamed sticky rice with chicken laab and soup. My parents always made it a family affair. I did the prep work, mom did the cooking and soup, and dad did the mixing. 

10) You recently began pursuing graduate school. What sparked that decision, and what advice would you give to others considering it?

I miss school, honestly. It’s been 5 years since my undergrad and I needed to go back to school to advance my career path. Growing up, my parents made sure I knew that knowledge is power. Working in the field of development, I need to learn more methods and ways to be an effective agent of social change.

My main advice for those considering grad school is to take into account where you’re at in life. Ask yourself if you’re ready. Do you need to go back to school to achieve your goals or are there other ways? School isn’t for everyone. It’s a lot of commitment and the investment in time and money needs to be doable. And for goodness sake, don’t go back just because you’re addicted to school.

11) Are there any issues you think should really be on our radar in the Lao community?

There are many but locally here in Minnesota, we need to look at the elders, youth and organizations that need emerging leaders to be involved in the issues that impact our community the most. I think since the 80s, about 80% of the majority of Lao have moved out to suburbs and we’ve forgotten about our friends and relatives who are still stuck in a stagnant state. It’s overdue time to work together.