Engaging the Community: The 2017 Southeast Asian American Studies Conference

What’s the best vision for society that you can imagine? Where do you see Southeast Asian Americans within that world? These were some of the questions asked in Lowell, MA during the 5th Southeast Asian American Studies Conference on July 27-29th.

For many familiar with the national Lao American Writers Summit, it felt almost like a homecoming because many of the previous organizers and speakers were in attendance, including 2015 keynote speaker Dr. Phitsamay Sychitkokhong Uy, who, with Drs. Ivy K. Ho and Sue J. Kim made this gathering possible at the University of Massachusetts Lowell.

Sahtu Press author and co-founder Bryan Thao Worra was one of the three featured Southeast Asian American poets. He read along with Vietnamese American poet Bao Phi, who had just released his new book, and Cambodian American poet Peuo Tuy, the author of Khmer Girl and one of the founders of the Cambodian American Literary Arts Association. Thao Worra read selections from his first book On The Other Side Of The Eye, which is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year. He also read pieces were part of the 2012 London Summer Games and a forthcoming documentary on the Vietnam War for public television.

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Also presenting was Catzie Vilayphonh, who will soon be releasing her first book from Sahtu Press. She discussed art in activism and her journey as a Lao American artist, along with Thao Worra and the Khmer writers Sokunthary Svay, Peuo Tuy and Bunkong Tuon. From the conversations throughout the weekend it was very clear that the Cambodian literary arts scene was on the verge of a major breakthrough.

The Lowell region has the second-largest Cambodian American population in the country, and many of their artists happily shared their work with the participants including Flying Orb Productions and the Angkor Dance Troupe. The Cambodian American Literary Arts Association gave an inspiring workshop for over 70 members of the community that weekend, with many promising talents spotted among the participants. Time will tell what happens if they keep writing.

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One of the first speakers during the conference was Channapha Khamvongsa, the executive director of Legacies of War, a non-profit organization focused on advocacy for clearance of unexploded ordnance contaminating approximately 30% of Laos. Many were hearing about UXO in Laos and Southeast Asia for the very first time, visibly amazed at how effective the Southeast Asian American voice had been to raise US funds for clearance from $2 million in 2008 to nearly $30 million today. But there is still work to be done.

Representatives from SEARAC and other national organizations were a part of the weekend, as well as many local officials, college administrators and scholars from across the country, non-profit leaders and artists. Deportation, mental health, professional leadership, and educational success and were major topics for many of the speakers

Other Lao Americans presenting that weekend were Chanida Phaengdara Potter, founder of the SEAD project and Little Laos on the Prairie, film maker and scholar Rita Phetmixay, Saengmany Ratsabout from the Immigration History Research Center, and Dr. Steve Arounsack from CSU Stanislaus who were all discussing various aspects of telling the Southeast Asian American story.

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TeAda Productions presented several sketches from their acclaimed show Refugee Nation. Ekkarath Sisavatdy, one of the organizers of the Lao American Writers Summit in Seattle and his colleagues from Highline College also attended this gathering, as did Tommy Shee, one of the rising youth leaders from Missouri.

The Southeast Asian American Studies Conference was one of many events taking place that weekend including the Asian American Literary Festival, the Laotian American National Conference as well as several traditional music and dance camps. At the end of the weekend it was announced that the next Southeast Asian American Studies Conference would be held in Oakland in 2020 at CSU East Bay. Already many of the participants were discussing how they would prepare over the next three years.

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