It’s 3 p.m. and it’s New Year’s Day, 2556 –- in Lao culture. On this pleasant April Saturday, Lao community members are filing into the gymnasium at the Crystal Community Center — the men in crisp grey and black suits and the women in heels and shimmering dresses.
One of the young women at the door takes donations to the Lao Assistance Center. She’s quiet, unassuming and smiling from ear-to-ear. She’s Chanida Phaengdara Potter and most people wouldn’t know by looking at her that she’s one of the most active and promising young Lao community leaders in the room.
“She does so much,” Immigration Attorney Loddy Tolzmann says. “She’s a full-time mom, she’s going to school, but above and beyond that, you don’t hear about that part of her life. You hear about all the work she’s doing in the community.”
Potter is a program assistant in the research, education and advocacy program at The Advocates for Human Rights in Minneapolis and a development consultant with the Lao Assistance Center of Minnesota. She serves on the advisory committee for the Center for Health Equity at the University of Minnesota and on the advisory board for Wilder Foundation Research. She founded and runs the Lao Professional Network Facebook group and started a local chapter of Lao professionals to share resources, knowledge and drive community engagement.
“She’s always serving the Lao community,” Tolzmann says.
It’s characteristic of the best leaders, Tolzmann says, to operate behind the scenes and lead with their hearts.
“Leaders, they make change. They like to disrupt the normal flow of things, but they do it in a way that they earn peoples’ respect, and through their passion,” Tolzmann says. “Chanida does it in a way that is truly amazing. She does it in her subtle, sweet, quiet way.”
According to the 2010 Census, there are about 12,000 Laotian-Americans in Minnesota.
Potter organized the first Minnesota celebration of the Lao New Year last year and has led or played a significant role in a number of other efforts, including the Voices from Laos speakers tour and“Little Laos on the Prairie,” a blog she and others use as a platform for “telling our stories, sharing our history and our love and fascination of pop culture, community, and news that connect the diaspora communities in the Midwest back to the Mekong memories of Southeast Asia.”
Potter is a vocal proponent of Lao issues and culture on social media, a skill set that has earned her the job of running the social media initiatives of the Advocates for Human Rights.
Potter says her advocacy, involvement and activism is aimed at giving the Lao community a voice in Minnesota with respect to access to housing and affordable health care and immigration reform. She says the Lao have come from a war-torn country that didn’t allow the people to have a voice in their government. Speaking up for themselves and taking a seat at the table with other community representatives is something the Lao here have had to learn and Potter is teaching it and modeling it for others.
“She’s thinking more big picture than anybody else,” Lao Assistance Center Executive Director Sunny Chanthanouvong says. “She focuses on (asking) the, ‘What is the big outcome, what is the big benefit for our community?’ ”
Uptake Editor’s Note: This is the seventh in a continuing series of UpTake profiles on men and women whose names may not be widely familiar but whose leadership makes our neighborhoods, our cities and our states better places. — Nick Coleman, Executive Editor (firstname.lastname@example.org)