BY MAI NGUYEN DO
Excerpt from The SEAD Project’s statement on the murder of George Floyd: “As an organization based in North Minneapolis working with our Southeast Asian diaspora, we know the historical trauma and social oppression that’s used as a divisive tool between our marginalized communities. We need self-reflection, course correction, and internal healing in order to understand how we benefit from and participate in anti-Blackness. We emphasize that even in the time of coronavirus and heightened Asian racism, the real pandemic has always been White supremacy and the systems that keep its culture of fear and hate to thrive.”
“We’re charting a new path for our communities for self-determination. What the future looks like for us is when our community members are allowed to do whatever the hell they want in their own way and without apology or fear. That’s what success looks like in the future.”
Chanida Phaengdara Potter, Executive Director & Community Architect
Although many might associate Southeast Asian refugees with resettlement along the United States’ west coast, other regions of the country — including the Midwest — are home to robust communities of Southeast Asians. Minnesota, for example, is home to a significant number of Southeast Asian refugees in the United States, with the largest concentration of Hmong Americans residing in the Twin Cities area.
Established in response to a need for community building efforts among Southeast Asians looking to become more engaged in activism and advocacy, the Minneapolis-based nonprofit organization The SEAD Project aims to be an accessible creative hub that provides streamlined workshops and tools to engage and share knowledge in Khmer, Hmong, Lao and Viet diaspora communities. The SEAD Project’s executive director, Chanida Phaengdara Potter, recalls the idea for The SEAD Project being born out of her listening to “a lot of young folks [that] were like, ’We can’t advocate for our communities, we can’t go door knocking without us understanding our community’s issues, without speaking the language. We just want to be connected to community first.’”
The SEAD Project was officially established in 2011 and started as a space for language classes where people could come learn how to speak and communicate better with their elders. The course offerings started first with Lao, then Hmong was added to the list.The SEAD Project’s instructors began teaching classes in Khmer and Vietnamese about two years ago. To Phaengdara Potter, the SEA Roots language program is not just about learning words, but rather “about using language as a form of expression, as a form of agency and liberation. It helps people see language as an entry point for how they talk about themselves and how they talk about history, about our ancestors and what they’ve built and developed.”
To work towards that goal of having community members view language as a more transformative tool, The SEAD Project’s classes have evolved from those centered just on basic literacy to those integrated with community issues, in which students have opportunities to discuss important topics such as gender roles. As part of their language programming, the SEAD Project also hosts pop-ups focused on Southeast Asian history, geography, classics, literature, art, food and social issues led by knowledge experts.
That start as a hub for language classes paved the way for The SEAD Project’s storytelling work. The organization engages in storytelling through both print and digital mediums, from social media campaigns to artwork. In 2018, The SEAD Project published Planting Seeds, an anthology of 20 stories from Southeast Asian communities, as part of its narrative storytelling program Planting SEADS. As Phaengdara Potter emphasizes, “It opened the doors to talk about how we heal, how we’re thriving today. At the core, everything we do is storytelling.”
The SEAD Project’s work with storytelling has become crucial amidst the COVID-19 crisis. In addition to the organization’s meal program and its Emergen-SEA Corps volunteers making over 300 masks, The SEAD Project provides translations and posts in-language resources online for the community to access. The SEAD Project Multimedia Storytelling & Engagement Strategist Nicole Thomas points to the organization’s focus on creatives and community as an asset that shines during these times of crisis: “So much of the need and urgency for resources, and we’re trying to keep up for it and everything is moving very rapidly. The hardest thing is keeping up, uplifting people’s voices. I love working with The SEAD Project creative team, which is way killer at that.”
“We’ve been encouraging intergenerational communications with elders through storytelling, encouraging people to have a conversation with their elders to discuss and work through uncertainties and use that information to flip the script from something negative to something positive, reimagine what we can make in the future.”
Multimedia Storytelling & Engagement Strategist Nicole Thomas
Although the pandemic is an urgent crisis, Phaengdara Potter stresses the need to look not only towards survival, but also recovery. She says, “Nobody is thinking about recovery, where our work is going to be the most crucial. I don’t want us to miss that phase just because we’re responding only to what’s happening on the ground.” The SEAD Project’s forward-facing focus is highlighted through its third program: the SEA Change Lab. The SEA Change Lab is an experimental pilot project aimed at growing social empowerment and leadership development through arts and storytelling in Hmong, Khmer, Lao and Viet young people.
Examining the relationships between past, present, and future is key especially in times of crisis to Phaengdara Potter because, as she notes, “We forget to imagine, to take the time to create the world we want to survive into.”
To learn more about The SEAD Project, visit their website here. Throughout the month of May, you can support their community-based response to COVID-19 and their regular programming through the Give in May campaign here.