Memories and mentors: Transformational leadership in Lao American community


Minnesota just celebrated Lao Minnesotan Artists Heritage Month for the very first time. This made me think back to the SatJaDham Lao Literary project, which has many wonderful memories connected to Minnesota.  

Founded in 1995, the SatJaDham Lao literary project was one of the oldest continuous networks of Laotian American writers in existence. As a grassroots network, they grew in size over the years, and they eventually held 7 national conferences and produced five anthologies of Lao American writings between 1995 to 2001. This was at a time few saw the need for Lao voices in our own words. Our group’s name came from the combination of the words for truth and the teaching of the Buddha in the Lao language. I was lucky to be one of the participants in those amazing years.

One of my contributions to the anthologies appeared in 2000. It was a non-fiction essay entitled “Intersection of Identity.” I was concerned about the lack of Asian American voices in the debates, particularly Lao voices.  Rereading it this month, I was struck by what I wrote over a decade ago: “As first generation Asian American student scholars, we need more role models, mentors as well as the support of our community to lead and guide us through the bureaucracy. We need more leaders to lend invaluable knowledge and experience.”

So much of it still holds true!

Having recently completed my doctorate in Community College Leadership, my research was on the holistic identity development of Lao American students. What I discovered talking to them was that there was still a deep need for role models and mentors, not just as undergraduates but at all stages. I think we all need to be more intentional about this.

Good community leadership can emerge in many ways, but the more we reduce barriers to helping one another, the more we can participate to address larger issues.

During President Obama’s weekly address on August 18th, he said “There’s nothing more important to our future than the education we give our kids.” I agree. But this can’t come just from the institutions, but from the families and our communities. We need to express this more. Because if you can’t express yourself or your challenges, you can not solve those challenges. And many of our best and brightest who are in a position to help will not have a way to know you need help.

I know community figures who are fond of teaching incoming students there are four ships of academic success: Friendship. Scholarship. Mentorship. Internships. Friends help each other succeed in their scholastic pursuits. They share opportunities for each other to learn and grown. Our students need to seek good mentors who can advise them on the many different challenges they run into. Our students need to take internships that allow them to really be a part of the professions they’re interested in. I also think Leadership belongs in this list, especially transformational leadership.

In its most common definition, transformational leadership means “leaders and followers help each other to advance to a higher level of morale and motivation”. It’s accountable. People understand why decisions are being made, and how they can empower themselves. It’s implicit that you will pass this on to others. Our students must recognize that real leadership is not ego-driven, but community-driven, and that it’s ok to aspire to help others and to learn how to help each other succeed. That’s the heart of leadership. 

You can look at many of the stories of our elders and our old stories. The most successful families and heroes and heroines share and guide each other. They see their success is tied to the success of others. I hope we don’t forget this as we begin our school year.

We all have to be ready to meet the next generation on the way and welcome them into our community. We should be passionate about finding ways for them to apply what they’re learning and to challenge themselves in amazing ways. As they grow, we all grow.