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Lao Advancement Organization of America (LAO America)

"LAO America Explores the Power of Community Collaboration"

As community organizations consider how to build power, many recognize the potential of strategic partnerships. The Lao Advancement Organization of America (LAO America) set aside six months in order to explore stronger alliances with and among other Lao nonprofit organizations.

Loa Advancement Organization of America (LAO America)

As community organizations consider how to build power, many recognize the potential of strategic partnerships. The Lao Advancement Organization of America (LAO America) set aside six months in order to explore stronger alliances with and among other Lao nonprofit organizations. LAO America’s aim was to help facilitate greater links so that the organizations can mutually achieve their missions more efficiently and effectively.

What does civic engagement really mean in the context of a particular community? It is a popular buzzword in community work, in philanthropy, and in related sectors, but the reality of how to truly engage and activate individuals can be very different depending on how a given community operates. LAO America decided to spend their six-month community engagement process to probe how to better work with other Lao organizations in order to gain buy-in from the community and figure out how to better engage its community members.

The mission of LAO America is to be an advocate to provide education, employment, and economic opportunity for Lao people at all stages of life. LAO America furthers its mission through a number of youth, parent, and senior programs and services. In addition, the organization works to engage the community and its leaders in identifying common needs and how to address those needs. In its overarching direction, LAO America aims to build upon the strengths and traditions of Lao culture, to give Lao families the tools they need to succeed in their new homeland.

Although there are nearly 40 Lao organizations and associations in Minnesota, the vast majority of them do not operate as formal nonprofits (that is, they lack formal financial systems and 501(c)3 tax-exempt status). Since LAO America has been in operation since 1988, organizational leaders felt that its long history could serve to help smaller and more recently established Lao community organizations.

Therefore, they decided to work with an external consultant to lead monthly nonprofit trainings. Trainings focused on strengthening organizations, sharing best practices, connecting communities and forming alliances, and fostering civic engagement. Lead staff built in time for more extensive group discussion after each two-hour training session. LAO America board members were also involved in the design and the participation, and translation was provided to ensure comprehension. Through the follow-up discussions, LAO America learned about several issues and assumptions that have been barriers to a civic engagement approach and to more effective collaborations.

"As a result of the community engagement process, LAO America can conclude that our future success is dependent on the level of our engagement with our own community." —Khao Insixiengmay, Executive Director

First of all, stakeholders discussed cultural barriers that negatively impact its effectiveness in community collaborations and partnerships. Despite having provided services to the Lao community for over two decades, many LAO America stakeholders felt that the organization had not yet been able to empower community and spur them to action on issues that mattered most to them.

One perception that was voiced was the sense of resistance within the Lao community to share and mutually explore new ideas, as Lao people "are by nature very humble and not outspoken" and often prefer to seek answers and solutions from elders and traditional community leaders. On a related note, discussion participants felt that many Lao community members are reluctant to become involved in civic engagement or advocacy activities, believing that this kind of activism is too contentious or political, and that it is better to avoid argument and confrontation.

In addition, many participants noted how the Lao community can be internally divisive, since people come from different religious beliefs and political identities. In striving to represent and elevate the Lao community, LAO America recognized the need to address such political challenges.

In addition to their observations about community dynamics, stakeholders also discussed mistaken assumptions regarding the nonprofit structure, which often becomes a barrier to working more actively with the community. For example, Lao people see their interests being reflected through traditional institutions such as Lao temples, Lao churches, and local associations, but they do not necessarily see the nonprofit structure as a "go-to" place that belongs to them and serves their interests.

Many Lao community members assume that nonprofit organizations receive unconditional funding from the government, inferring that they do not need financial support from individuals. Another common assumption is that all of the Lao organizations purely compete with each other (as in a corporate business model), so that there is no unity or alignment between them. LAO America’s series of nonprofit trainings helped to debunk many of these misconceptions. Organizational stakeholders are continuing to work to correct misassumptions in order better establish deep community ties.

All things considered, LAO America learned from its community engagement process that building relationships and trust within the community is a long and complex process. Still, the organization is committed to working towards the vision of strong and effective Lao alliances. Organizational leaders were pleased that the exchange of ideas had begun between representatives of diverse organizations, associations, temples, and churches. LAO America sees this opportunity as one to lead and serve as a role model agency with others in partnerships statewide and nationwide.

While the trainings were only a small first step, LAO America would like to continue the dialogue about working together for the betterment of the Lao community and would like to strengthen its capacity for community organizing. In the future, LAO America plans not only outreach within the Lao population to debunk misconceptions, but to also capture the most effective ways to be responsive to how the community operates. In a powerful way, the organization can now truly redefine civic engagement for its own community.