LANA Votes: Building Organizing Power in Lao and Laotian American Communities
When I was 22 years old, I ran for local office in my hometown of Woonsocket, Rhode Island. I won. I was the youngest and only person of color serving in elected office, and I was the first Lao American ever elected to a school committee in the country. I didn’t know anything about running a campaign - what 22 year old does? - but that's what made it so fun.
I didn’t have political operatives running my campaign; it was community run and driven. I didn't have a sophisticated voter database; I had a voter list on a cd-rom, organized the data, and knocked on doors. I didn’t just go to high propensity voters; I expanded the electorate by canvassing my neighborhood to register new voters, mostly Lao, who people left out for decades. I held fundraisers that brought over five hundred people each time, raising funds from small dollar donors. I was scrappy, I had my community, and I knew how to organize.
Organizing in the Lao and Laotian American community at the local and national levels has taught me so much about power and representation. I’ve felt alone so many times when I’ve made unpopular statements and choices in order to put our community’s issues at the forefront to get the resources we deserve. The work is hard, but then I remember an elder during my campaign telling me that they had lived in the country for almost forty years and had never voted, but they registered and voted as a result of my organizing efforts because they knew and trusted me and my family, and that keeps me going. As a community that has historically been left out of the decision making process and that has been unengaged civically, the roadmap to engaging our communities hasn't yet been written for us.
We know that power begins at the ballot box. This is why we’re so excited about the launch of LANA Votes: a new civic engagement program of the Laotian American National Alliance. Our goal is to build organizing infrastructure to increase voter registration and turnout in our communities. We’ll do this by creating a shared vision and path for informing, connecting, and inspiring our community to be active voters today and beyond.
We’re some of the best organizers that I have ever seen. When there is a death, a birth, a retirement, a wedding, a birthday, a new year, or a major life event, we know how to organize to support and show up for each other. It’s what we had to do when we first arrived in this country when refugee resettlement programs failed us, and it’s what we’ll continue to do. There are so many leaders and organizers doing great work at the grassroots level providing mutual aid, preserving our arts and culture, informing our communities, and so much more.
That’s why we’re investing in connecting our community at the local and national level. We’ll be working with Lao and Laotian-led organizations to increase their capacity to register and engage voters in the upcoming midterms. We’ll inform and meet our communities where they are; we’ll be at the temples, churches, community events, in living rooms, small businesses, and community centers talking about the importance of voting. We know we make a difference in elections when we grow our base. We do this through registering new voters, inspiring people to vote, and working together.
As a community built entirely by refugees fleeing war, we know engaging with the government is a delicate balance. In addition, we know it’s hard for us to trust one another. But we’ve seen that so many barriers in our communities are broken down by breaking bread, or in our case, sticky rice. We’ll be connecting through community dinners with our partner organizations to celebrate our communities and to get everyone ready to vote. We’ll work to develop voting plans, including coordinating rides, finding polling places, providing sample ballots, and making sure people feel comfortable and safe at the polls.
We’re working together to coordinate in-language text and phone banks, direct mailers, and social media campaigns. We’re planning a town hall with voters, our community partners, and election and voting experts to discuss what’s at stake in the upcoming elections and how we get our community to turnout. And, because we love a good party, we’re going to celebrate our community on election day with a watch party. We’ll discuss a wide range of topics such as our experiences when we voted, our favorite recipes, our favorite karaoke songs, our hopes and dreams for the community, and which performers we’re looking forward to seeing at Sabaidee Fest to name a few conversation highlights.
Knowledge is power: by sharing information with our communities, we are building power. The most important part of our work will be building the pipeline of community members who will receive resources, technical assistance, and information to run civic engagement programs in their communities. The way we build sustainable power in our communities is to bring in new leaders to learn and be inspired to continue the work beyond this election cycle. Elections, voting, and our democracy should bring joy to our communities. They're a reminder that if we work hard enough, our democracy can work for us. I’m so excited for LANA Votes, building our community’s civic engagement infrastructure, and the upcoming midterms. Elections are about hope: hope for our communities, our visibility, and our power. Let’s go!Vimala Phongsavanh, Board Chair of the Laotian American National Alliance (LANA)