As we approach International World Refugee Day on June 20th, there are good reasons to revisit the journey of the Lao Minnesotans.
Although they are often forgotten in many policy discussions in Minnesota and nationally, the Lao community in Minnesota has over 12,000 who still actively identify as Lao. We have the third largest population of Lao refugees in the United States. This is enough to form a city the size of Monticello.
Minneapolis, especially North Minneapolis, is home to an estimated 70% of our community with 8,400 Lao. We have to ask, how will the next mayor work with us to keep our community engaged? How will our legislators work with us to reduce systemic barriers that encourage a thriving economy? Who will help us most to enable everyone to innovate together?
In the coming elections in November we must ask: Who has the vision to build sustainable world-class models for economic and social development? Alas, many candidates, especially among those vying to be the next mayor of Minneapolis, have no understanding of our journey and they act as if they can take the Lao Minnesotan vote for granted. They cannot.
For a tangible example of why Minneapolis needs to be concerned, we might take notice that few Lao make use of city facilities and resources such as parks for our festivals. Almost all major Lao Minnesotan events are held outside of the boundaries of Minneapolis, even though 7 out 10 Lao live in Minneapolis. That should be a BIG red flag for city council members and other stakeholders that there are unmet needs or restrictive policies that oblige us to take our business elsewhere.
During the 1990s, Minnesota’s approach attracted hundreds of Lao Americans who rebuilt their lives successfully. In the 2000s, however, an honest assessment is that far fewer have migrated to Minnesota as a destination point for success. How might Minnesota become a renewed magnet for Lao for the rest of the 2010s and beyond? It’s going to take a lot more than a shiny brochure from the Visitors and Convention Bureau.
Lao Minnesotans are fairly easy-going and resilient. For over 30 years we have not seen a Laotown zone emerge anywhere in Minnesota because Lao will typically set up shop wherever, without necessarily clustering. It’s debateable how effective an economic and social strategy this is. But the bottom line is that we saw few Lao entrepreneurs emerge in the last 5 years. This is deletrious to our broader philanthropic capacity, and to the overall character of Minnesota. So, how might a city encourage Lao Minnesotan investment and growth?
I strongly believe that in order for Lao Minnesotans to live up to our full socio-economic potential of almost $700,000,000 (based on the median Minnesotan income of $58,476) we all need to seriously reinvest in our process. That particularly includes support for our non-profit sector, which is needed to reduce the strain on the mainstream systems and increase efficiencies.
It would be fair to state that most of our officials and colleagues have little appreciation of how strained the Lao community service infrastructure is presently. To put it into perspective, the Monticello city government has 140 employees to serve its 12,000+ residents. The 3 main Lao Minnesotan non-profits have less than 15 employees combined to do outreach and engage effectively statewide. We’re looking at one Lao non-profit employee for every 800 Lao Minnesotans. Based on the last few years’ budgets, each Lao non-profit organization presently has about $16 to invest on each Lao person in the state a year, not even enough for a decent pizza. Compare that to the Monticello city budget, which needs $6 million a year to operate, typically, or an investment of $500 per head.
We know there’s a very real and crucial need for Lao who can assist other Lao and other refugees in navigating many of the complex systems in Minnesota. There is still a very real need to hear Lao Minnesotan voices on immigration reform, health care reform, and education reform, given that many of our current Lao youth are scoring under 50% on both reading and math in this state, and less than 10% of us successfully graduate college.
If those numbers don’t turn around, we must begin considering alternatives where our children can succeed, preferably because of the system, not in spite of the system.
But we also know that Lao Minnesotans, if given the opportunity, are capable of winning national and state awards. The Lao youth group, “Asians United” received a top award from the U of M Human Rights Center, for example. Miss Teen Brooklyn Park, Mariah Rattanasamay, is breaking ground as a role model and anti-bullying advocate at Park Center Senior High School. Like many refugee communities, our results are still very polarized. People are thriving or flailing. We need to reduce barriers for everyone to have a good opportunity to live, work, learn and play in Minnesota meaningfully.
Minneapolis says it’s investing in its infrastructure and making improvements. The Lao Minneapolitans alone could form their own city the size of St. Anthony, but we often see Minnesota agencies dismissing our involvement, even those ostensibly in place to meet the needs of Asian Americans and refugees. This is a critical blindspot I’d seriously recommend folks reconsider, especially since most Lao Minnesotans ARE citizens and registered voters.
But what are your concerns and thoughts, and how might we make positive change to address the situation?