Recently, there was an interesting request for proposals which you could use to develop and implement a self-selecting community-learning and enrichment plan. The results came back and my proposal was declined. That happens from time to time for everyone. As artists and writers we learn to become resilient. But the best of us can use even a declined proposal as a learning opportunity.
I see such moments as a crucible where you ask: What will you do, what is your commitment even if one group will not be supporting you, at least this time. It’s just one group. If you’ve proposed a project so delicate one rejection can upset that project, I think you need to revise your project.
I’m a big fan of demystifying processes.
Many of you know I’m deeply fond of the story of the ravens from the old radio show, Engines of our Ingenuity. What strikes me most from that program is the idea of building community and sharing the best practices, the best visions with each other so that we all grow and benefit. A strong Minnesota does not come from hoarding knowledge and secrets like a chance carcass in the snow, but from bringing more and more people into the great work we’re trying to accomplish together. Like a raven, we should be circling around, calling others to share our fortune even in the coldest of winters.
Often I see people propose programs and ideas that never see the light of day after a committee rejects them. In their discouragement, they don’t continue to push forward for it.
For my fellow Lao refugees, I can’t conscience that because I think it holds us back. As we transition from the old ways into a democracy, we need transparency and to share with each other. If people see a good example of a program I’m proposing and think it will work in another state or even in the same state and same city, I’m happy to see people make an effort to replcate or expand upon my efforts. When you have a rejected proposal, we can also look through the bones to see what works, what didn’t, and how we might improve it in the future. Bear in mind that sometimes, even a well-written proposal cannot be funded due to a foundation’s annual budgetary restrictions or some other criteria.
I understand how younger artists and community builders can be fearful and insecure. Some can worry that if they share, their ideas will be taken from them and they’ll be left with only scraps. But if you go into community work and the arts with such fears, it leads to self-fulfilling prophecies, and I don’t think you get a chance to grow as well as you could have.
So, from time to time, I will be sharing some of my proposals, those that have worked, and those that have not. This way, some will be on the record so other artists and community builders might feel the confidence to be more open about their visions. That’s what’s truly transformative.
In this case, the rejected program was Laomerica 40: New Voices, which would have been an original community-learning project working with historically underrepresented voices in the Lao American refugee community.
I had sought to focus on those from smaller populations such as the Khmu, Tai Dam, Iu Mien, Lahu, and Lua. In a nutshell, between 2014 to 2015, this community-learning project would have developed almost 30 new voices in three key zones where Lao refugees have no meaningful regular access to sustained, culturally appropriate literary training and access programs. This proposal and similar projects are particularly urgent to me because 2015 is the 40th anniversary of the beginning of the Lao Diaspora, and yet we have almost no artistic representation from these communities after 4 decades.
Longtime readers of mine know that I will regularly reiterate that Laos was a monarchy the size of Great Britain. I read our journey over the last 600 years as an effort to build a diverse, tolerant nation that was inclusive of over 160 ethnicities with 82 distinct living languages. I will also not hesitiate to mention that during the Secret War for Laos, over 400,000 people were killed, maimed and displaced as refugees.
Many in my generation grew up to become strangers to our own birth land. While Hmong and ethnic Lao writers are now making significant progress in the literary arts, many others from Laos are being left behind.
Since our Diaspora began, Lao have created less than 40 books written in our own words on our experience, especially from less well-known Laotian ethnicities. But in the art of refugees, I believe plurality is absolutely vital to create a truly democratic and interesting artistic space. This project would broaden and deepen the artistic understanding of our labyrinthine history for myself and for our communities.
The Khmu, the Tai Dam, the Iu Mien, the Lahu and Lua are particularly communities whose voices are still largely underrepresented in world arts and letters. As I mentioned in the proposal, our challenge is magnified because many Lao are widows, elders and single mothers with limited education and English fluency. Less than 1 in 10 Lao graduate college and over 30% live in poverty. Many are from oral cultures without a written tradition for over 4,000 years. The outcomes of this project would be some of the very first writing of their people.
Many have untreated post-traumatic stress disorder and limited access to health care, including mental health services. Nearly half are under 18. Many have had run-ins with the law. Laomerica 40: New Voices would have my colleagues and I working with emerging Lao American artists across the country to rebuild a vibrant expressive tradition.
I anticipated involving approximately 15 to 30 new writers, identifying artistic priorities, opportunities, and learning processes that met our needs. Some might ask why only 15 to 30? For a pilot project like this, it’s better to first focus on quality rather than quantity. Recently, the Lao in California had great results in San Diego with a playwright program that focused on training only 10 emerging Lao writers. We need more programs like that.
I proposed to provide key encouragement and feedback to develop their voices and audiences, and develop their own independent projects. This would have involved between 9 to 12 intensive weekend workshops, practices, and performances in their cultural centers and small businesses. You should always try to first go to the spaces they use, not the spaces we say they’re supposed to use. Then you expand their comfort zones.
Over time, in similar projects I’ve led, I’ve tried to eventually bring people into more mainstream spaces such as Intermedia Arts, the Minnesota Center for Book Arts, or the Loft Literary Center so that we can begin getting our emerging writers to see what really happens in there. To begin getting familiar with such spaces and thinking about how they might intertwine their journeys with those from other communities.
When possible, we would also include the use of culturally-appropriate distance-learning techniques. I anticipated 400 to 500 audience members reached through this process, and over 45 new works created and presented by 2015. It was a modest set of numbers proposed because this project requires a culture shift. Bringing forward new voices through literature is uncharted territory in many of these communities, who are increasingly drawn to non-arts entertainment and other concerns.
But if we wrote and created with passion and truth, if we committed to sharing the very best of our inner voices, there is a chance that dozens would become hundreds. Hundreds might become thousands. And from there, well, history shows we often see amazing transformations that can last centuries beyond that.
Overall, the proposed cost was $7,000, which included stipends which would have been the very first many of the emerging writers had ever received in their lives as payment for sharing their voices with the world. It covered space rental, transport cost, teaching supplies, marketing supplies, and a teaching salary. Of course, in a perfect scenario, such a program would be a little closer to $10,000 to $15,000 to implement, but for this particular call for proposals, our maximum possible request was $7,000.
Every time I see Tai Dam, Lue, Khmu, Lahu and Iu Mien elders and others pass away, there’s a part of me that’s saddened by how much we could not preserve of their lives. It’s stunning to me to consider how they lived through so much since the independence of Laos to this point in our Diaspora, and yet most of their voices will be swallowed by the shadows once more in less than a year, for many. It’s clear, many of our youth do not take this position seriously at the moment. There’s a deep sadness at the funerals, but few are able to capture even a fraction of the stories left from the living.
Would Laomerica 40 be the whole cure? Of course not. But it would have been a step towards creating advocates in communities who have not often advocated in public for their experience. It would have been a step towards strengthening democracy to ensure none of our voices are left behind. And I believe there are many artists, many writers across the rest of the United States who would be able to implement this or a similar program for a year, maybe even more. But time will tell.
There are a few other places where I might be able to present a modified version of this proposal. But I hope this will give others who advocate for refugees and at-risk communities an idea of how to start a proposal, and beyond that, how to begin a movement.