HomeAsian AmericansThe Lao American educational and cultural movement is growing in Fresno

The Lao American educational and cultural movement is growing in Fresno

By Jia H. Jung, California Local News Fellow

The 6th Annual Laotian American Educational Conference showed continuing growth as students from 7th through 12th grades packed into Fresno State Satellite Student Union in Fresno, California on Mar. 22 and filled the space to capacity.

The event, which has become the largest of its kind in the nation, is bringing awareness, advancement, and visibility to an ethnic community determined to advance and blaze trails for future generations.

Thousands of Lao, like the distinct ethnic Hmong from the highlands of Laos, began immigrating to the U.S. in the latter half of the 1970s and 1980s. Most fled the aftermath of the Lao Civil War between the Communist Pathet Lao and the Royal Lao Government once U.S. troops, “secretly” involved in the conflict from 1962 onward, withdrew from Vietnam and the rest of the Southeast Asian region in 1975.

6th Annual Lao American Educational Conference Fresno Jia H. Jung article
A panel of college students addresses over 600 students in grades 7-12. Photo by Diane P. Phakonekham

The refugees arrived with interrupted educations, few assets, and fractured families at scattered locations governed by sponsors and benefits for agricultural labor. Here in the U.S., they faced a different language and customs, and systems lacking culturally and linguistically appropriate resources to help them adjust.

The Laotian American National Alliance cited the per capita income of Lao people in America as $17,951 – just barely above the $15,060 poverty threshold posted by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services for 2024.

The 2022 American Community Survey counted 173,524 people of Lao ethnicity in the U.S., with a community of 53,439 in the state of California. This most recent supplement to U.S. census data found that nearly 1 out of 4 Laotians has no high school diploma and that just under 16% have a Bachelor’s degree. 

Lao and Laotian Americnas 25 years or younger without high school diploma, 2022 American Community Survey Supplemental 1 yr Data ACS Census 6th Annual Lao American Educational Conference Fresno Jia H. Jung article

Despite understanding that subgroups of the “AANHPI” umbrella need to be seen and addressed independently, national public services and messaging continue excluding Laotians. Mentions of specific Southeast Asian ethnicities in content attempting to reach more subgroups usually remain limited to the most populous Vietnamese.

The Laotian American Community of Fresno (LACF), a volunteer-powered organization for advancement, is trying to change things from the bottom up with its educational conference. LACF was one of the first community groups to translate emergency information from English to Lao and make informational videos for non-English speakers once the pandemic hit. LACF has also gone to the state capitol in Sacramento to advocate for inclusion in a Southeast Education bill that still lacks provision of a curriculum to teach Lao history and experience in California’s schools.

LACF, completely powered by local volunteers with full-time jobs, began coordinating the event in 2017, emulating the Annual Lao Education Conference in Sacramento founded in 2006 by Dr. Khonepheth Lily Liemthongsamout, Executive Director of the Lao American Advancement Organization (LAAO). 

6th Annual Lao American Educational Conference Fresno Jia H. Jung article
Diane P. Phakonekham, President and CEO of Big Brothers and Big Sisters of Central California, giving a presentation entitled ‘A Digital Footprint: Navigating Social Media In The Professional World.’ Photo courtesy of Lao American Community of Fresno

Ever since, the Fresno event has been inspiring young minds with networking and skill-building opportunities, and cash scholarship raffle prizes. 

Approximately 100 people attended the first event in 2017. This year, 600 students came from over 15 schools across the Fresno, Clovis, Sanger, and Central unified school districts. A dozen kids came from Merced with their parents and one young man drove himself up from Los Angeles County, saying there was nothing like this where he lived.

Lany Sivongsay Avakian, a nurse practitioner who doubles as LACF’s Educational Advancement Program Coordinator, first joined the organization in 2016 when it was maintaining a relatively quiet presence since its establishment in 2000 by Dr. Khampha Thepphavong, a physician who is still the executive director of the organization and chair of its board. 

Avakian thinks the intensification of LACF’s activities over the past several years is due to a maturing generation of Lao people with undying memories of their refugee experiences, a will to uplift their community, and the knowledge of American systems and politics by which to do so.

6th Annual Lao American Educational Conference Fresno Jia H. Jung article
Lany Sivongsay Avakian, NP, the Educational Advancement Program Coordinator who organized the educational conference, being pulled onto the stage by Soal. Photo courtesy of Lao American Community of Fresno

“I think a lot of us got to that age maybe when we started thinking what we can do to pay it forward,” she mused. 

Avakian said that all but one person on the current board was born in Laos and 90% of them grew up in Fresno, whether from birth, childhood, or adolescence. Some had moved away as young adults and came back home years later.

Leading up to this year’s installment, the LACF called for event volunteers and partnered with teachers in schools across the Central Valley to recruit Lao students directly from classrooms. 

Avakian led a subcommittee to work with California State University, Fresno and the state’s third-largest district, the Fresno Unified School District (FUSD), led by Superintendent Bob Nelson and Deputy Superintendent Misty Her.

Cal State Fresno helped boost outreach efforts and provided speakers to demystify the college admissions process. FUSD deployed a fleet of eight charter buses to bring students to and from the conference on a school day, making multiple runs as necessary. 

6th Annual Lao American Educational Conference Fresno Jia H. Jung article
Attendees of the 6th Annual Laotian American Educational Conference. Photo courtesy of Lao American Community of Fresno

Community sponsors secured speakers, lecturers, and performers for the program, as well as breakfast and lunch for the attendees. Salong Namsa, founder of Sabaidee Fest, the largest Southeast Asian music and entertainment festival in the country, pressed commemorative t-shirts for all through Laos Supply, his apparel and skate deck brand catering to Lao consumers.

LACF approached musician Phongsia Perry Vongkiasone (“pung-sai perry vung-kai-sawn”), who goes by SOAL (“soul”), a semordnilap for Laos – Laos spelled backward. They asked the artist, who had sealed his connection with the Lao and Hmong communities of Fresno leading up to and at the inaugural Sabaidee Fest last year if he would perform. He said yes.

To hype up students before the event, the proud Lao American posted videos on TikTok and Instagram.

@itsmesoal

I’ll be coming to Fresno March 22nd for the 6th Annual Laotian American Educational Conference! 😊🙏 (ALEC) see y’all soon and excited to see all the young leaders of our new generation 😁🔥 #LAO @lacfresno #fresno

♬ Justin Bieber style beat, refreshing western music(1327452) – Burning Man

Looking confidentially into the camera, he said, “Growing up, I didn’t get to see a lot of this. So the fact that we’re doing it now that I’m alive, and I get to be a part of it? An honor.” He gave the thumbs-up sign.

The theme of this year’s educational conference was The Power of Storytelling: Crafting Compelling Narratives.

Workshops focused on the impact of social media on mental health and well-being. Dr. Chai Phannaphob, EdD and Diane P. Phakonekham, President and CEO of Big Brothers and Big Sisters of Central California, encouraged students to always use technology for good.

6th Annual Lao American Educational Conference Fresno Jia H. Jung article
A breakout workshop of the 6th Annual Laotian American Educational Conference in Fresno, CA. Photo courtesy of Lao American Community of Fresno

The highlighted speaker was Dr. Steve Arounsack, an award-winning California State University, Stanislaus cultural anthropology professor. Also a maker of documentary and narrative films, he also served as the visual anthropologist for the Southeast Asia Story Trust that Disney consulted when creating the Oscar-nominated animation Raya and the Last Dragon (2021).

His appearance followed those of actor, director, producer, acting coach and Dahmer star Khetphet “KP” Phagnasay in 2023 and Andre Soukhamthath, a Lao MMA fighter, in 2022. 

Sharing his motto “never ready, always hungry,” Arounsack, who had come to the U.S. as a little boy by way of a refugee camp, talked about how his father’s premature death had occasioned a family trip back to Laos in 1994 that transformed his life.

“For those of us who are refugees – we don’t know where our parents grew up. For the people that lived here, they can go to the Bay Area, they can go to Southern California and see where Mom and Dad grew up and we can’t do that. I got a chance to do that. I got to see the big, blue sky that they looked at when they were our age. It was amazing. So when I came back, I started to tell some stories,” he said.

He began telling his stories through videos – a way for him to circumvent his shyness. He started a magazine called Lao Vision right out of Fresno State. He made a documentary – Getting Lao’d: The Rise Of Modern Lao Music And Films (2018) – after hearing only modern Thai music around Laos. 

After five rejections he finally got traction in the film festival junket and went on to show “Many of us stop after the second or third try. It takes years to push through,” he said.

He shared an anecdote about sending an email to dispute the names of the movie’s characters on his birthday, wondering if he was going to be the guy who got fired on his birthday for going against the bosses. Instead, the producers changed the names to Lao-appropriate ones for accurate worldwide representation of the culture.

“Don’t be afraid to stand in your center of truth, and if you get fired, it wasn’t meant to be,” he told the students.

6th Annual Lao American Educational Conference Fresno Jia H. Jung article
Dr. Steve Arounsack giving his keynote speech to students on Mar. 22. Photo courtesy of Lao American Community of Fresno

He shared how he went back to Laos to show the Disney film to kids who had inspired the animation but could not afford to go watch the movie in the theaters. “It was one of the greatest honors of my life to see kids sitting on the sai, our traditional mat, watching themselves be represented around the world. A country of 7 to 8 million people finally, finally, getting some sunshine on the international gaze upon us instead of bombs being dropped upon us.”

He warned students that they will find themselves one day in a situation where they talk about their culture and no one seems to care. He said not to stop caring.

Later, Arounsak told AsAmNews that he found out about the opportunity because he already knew the organizers of the conference, not just because the community is small, but because of common objectives to increase the visibility of Lao culture and advance the community. 

Avakian, his college friend, raffled off separate scholarships for $2,000 for high school seniors to attend California State University, Fresno. The institution doubled its usual amount of $1,000 for the students. 

6th Annual Lao American Educational Conference Fresno Jia H. Jung article
Representatives of The Fresno Center: Holistic Cultural and Education Wellness Center tabling at the educational conference. Photo courtesy of Lao American Community of Fresno

Soal performed at lunchtime, leading to a long line of fans waiting for him to sign their shirts. They followed him out of the main venue when he tried to go somewhere else to cause less of a disturbance as the vice president of Fresno State attempted to address the crowd.

Soal is in the lineup for the third and final day of Sabaidee Fest (SBDF) happening in Chino, Calif. Jun. 14-16, billed this time as the largest Southeast Asian music and cultural festival in the country.

He told AsAmNews that he had had the time of his life, and “cried on the inside” from his emotions.

“I was in a dreamland to see many kids – Lao kids – together. I’ve never seen that. In America? Never seen it,” he remarked. “That’s something that I always wish I had. I wish there was a class or a school or a program to take me out of school to just tell me, ‘Hey, this is what you are. And these are the amazing feats we’ve accomplished. And this is why you can accomplish something.”

6th Annual Lao American Educational Conference Fresno Jia H. Jung article
Students holding up their conference shirts made by Laos Supply, the apparel business of Salong Namsa, who is also the founder of Sabaidee Fest, the largest Southeast Asian music and cultural event in the country. Photo courtesy of Lao American Community of Fresno

Soal was born in the U.S. in 1992 to a mother who had come to Minnesota from Laos when she was 4 and a father who had immigrated later at age 17 to Florida. 

His first years were spent in Warroad, Minnesota, a tiny city just 7.5 miles south of Canada. He grew up dividing his time between there, Florida, Iowa and Kansas, where he had extended family.

“My parents always made sure to keep me intact and not forget my roots,” he said. “I have a big enough family that even though I grew up in predominantly white, black, and Mexican areas, and Native American areas, we always had family reunions – all Lao people.”

Music was always in his life but he had many other interests, ranging from videography to design to tattoo art to choreography. When he was 19, he determined that music was the course he wanted to pursue along the road to a twin dream of acting. All his previous experiences came together to help his goal and he found himself in remote meetings with community leaders planning an ambitious Lao-centered music and entertainment festival called Sabaidee Fest.

6th Annual Lao American Educational Conference Fresno Jia H. Jung article
Soal (Phongsia Perry Vongkiasone) on stage at the 6th Annual Lao American Educational Conference. Photo courtesy of Lao American Community of Fresno

In early 2022, he listened to everyone’s urges to move out to California and drove out alone to San Bernardino County. His Fresno connection came later in 2023 when he performed a teaser concert called Road To Sabaidee Fest there. His set at the main event down in L.A. a couple of months later solidified a fan base not just with the Lao community of Fresno but a strong Hmong contingent.

He became one of the conduits between Lao and Hmong communities, historically known for having friction. He began receiving invitations back to Fresno from both the Lao and Hmong communities for various projects and appearances. As someone in front of the camera, he wanted to emphasize the work being done behind the scenes.

“I know I can make it. And my number one goal is to send all my baby cousins to whatever college they want. I can pay off everybody’s debt, I can help build up my community, get my culture known…everything,” Soal has said, for his page in The Lao Project of Lao American narratives collected by greater Boston area journalist Vekonda Luangaphay.

6th Annual Lao American Educational Conference Fresno Jia H. Jung article
Volunteers serving refreshments at the 6th Annual Laotian American Educational Conference. Photo courtesy of Lao American Community of Fresno

He fell in love with the nonprofit organizations that genuinely wanted to keep the culture alive by making it more accessible and fun to youth.

“Again, when I grew up, I felt almost embarrassed to be Southeast Asian. And I just always knew that that was wrong. I was like, I’m proud – why does America make me feel so fuckin’ embarrassed? Seeing how hard people are pushing, I found my lane and my people. I found my people. They literally have the same dream as me,” he said.

The Lao American community is still finding one another as Soal has been doing.

The Monday after the educational conference, the Office of the Fresno County Superintendent of Schools held its first-ever Lao community conference with 50 Laotian parents and students, including those with a migrant background. 

The office worked with Fresno County’s migrant education department and Lao community leaders to provide a session on the ins and outs of the American higher education system and let them know about resources for more support.

LACF excitedly identified the Lao American man who had put together the endeavor with county funding and reached out to work together going forward on their respective angles of targeting youth and parents to build more bridges to success.

6th Annual Lao American Educational Conference Fresno Jia H. Jung article
Organizers, attendees, partners, volunteers, and special guests of the 6th Annual Laotian American Educational Conference. Photo by Diane P. Phakonekham

More Resources:

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