Photo credit: Berta Romero
From IRAC to SEARAC: The Story of an Organization’s Transformation through Four Decades
April 30,1975 marked the end of the U.S. war in Vietnam. Between 1965 and 1975, the war took the lives of over 58,000 Americans and at least 1,000,000 Vietnamese. Without Congressional approval, the U.S. also secretly dropped the equivalent of a planeload of bombs every 8 minutes, 24 hours a day, for 9 years on the small country of Laos, and carpeted northern and eastern Cambodia with ordnance over the course of the war. In Cambodia, the end of the Vietnam War marked the beginning of the terror of the Khmer Rouge genocide, which killed approximately 1.7 million Cambodians – over 20% of the country’s population.
These crises created a mass exodus of refugees into Thailand and onto the open sea to Malaysia, Hong Kong, Indonesia. This was the largest humanitarian and refugee crises the world had seen and lasted over two decades. Over 1.3 million of these refugees were eventually resettled in the U.S. - the largest reception of refugees in U.S. history.
Southeast Asian American communities today grew and evolved from deep trauma and great strength. We are continuing to heal from these struggles, honoring our roots, and building our voices as Americans with resilience. This is a story about one organization’s history, and its ability to transform along with its community over four decades.
Emergency Response to the Refugee Flow (1979-1981)
SEARAC was established in 1979 as the “Indochina Refugee Action Center” or “IRAC” by a group of concerned Americans in the aftermath of these conflicts. In the words of founder Rob Stein, "IRAC was little more than a nucleus of consultants from diverse backgrounds who created the organization to address two critical issues: the famine in Cambodia and capacity building within the domestic resettlement system." IRAC’s early advocacy efforts resulted in the passage of the Refugee Act of 1980 and the establishment of the Office of Refugee Resettlement, helping to develop the country’s first formal refugee resettlement program.
Transition to a Southeast Asian-Led Organization (1982-1997)
As the Southeast Asian American refugee population grew, ethnic community representation on IRAC’s board and staff expanded, and Le Xuan Khoa became the organization’s first executive director in 1982. Khoa grew IRAC’s role as a leading voice for refugee rights and a resource to the U.S. government, acting as both watchdog and advocate as the Southeast Asian refugee resettlement program evolved. Khoa also recognized the need for strong community-based organizations, known at the time as Mutual Assistance Associations, to provide culturally and linguistically relevant services to newly arriving refugee families, and to advocate for greater access to resources to meet their needs. IRAC helped to build community-based organizations’ capacity through training, technical assistance, and grants.
IRAC’s name was changed in 1983 from the Indochina Refugee Action Center to the Indochina Resource Action Center to reflect this growing focus on providing support and resources for community empowerment. It was ten years later that IRAC transitioned to the Southeast Asia Resource Action Center or SEARAC, to shed the colonial overtones implied by the term “Indochina” and reaffirm its focus on Southeast Asian American community development.
Community Empowerment and Advancement in the U.S. (1998 - 2003)
With the conclusion of the Southeast Asian refugee program and the retirement of SEARAC President Le Xuan Khoa, the Board decided it was time for SEARAC to refocus. At its September 1997 retreat, the Board defined SEARAC’s roles as coalition leader, coordinator, facilitator and advocate for all Southeast Asian Americans on issues of common interest. By January 1998, a new Executive Director, KaYing Yang, was recruited.
KaYing had previously served as the youngest executive director of the Women’s Association of Hmong and Lao in Minnesota. A young professional with many years of advocacy and service experience KaYing declared a “new era” for SEARAC and the community. KaYing saw both a gap and an emerging opportunity to build leadership capacity among the 1.5 and second generation of Southeast Asian Americans. Under KaYing, SEARAC piloted its first annual Leadership and Advocacy Training to build a pipeline of leaders in Southeast Asian American communities to advocate for state and local policies and begin to fill leadership roles in the community. Since the first LAT in 1999, SEARAC has trained over 800 emerging leaders, including almost 150 from Minnesota, many of whom have gone on to advocate and organize with youth, parents, and grandparents at the local, state, and national levels.
Bringing the Southeast Asian American Voice to the National Level (2003 – 2014)
The vision to empower 1.5 and 2nd generation leaders continued past Kaying’s tenture, when, in 2003, Doua Thor took the reins after starting at SEARAC as an intern under KaYing. Through her nearly 9 years with SEARAC, Doua brought the Southeast Asian American voice into national policy conversations, and brought SEARAC into powerful spaces in Congress and the White House. During her tenure, Doua was appointed by President Obama to the President’s Advisory Commission on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. Additionally, through her leadership, SEARAC strengthened its coalition building across diverse communities, including being a core work group member of the Diverse Elders Coalition, the Campaign for High School Equity, and the National Council of Asian Pacific Americans.
A Leading Voice for Equity (2014 – present)
Finally, in 2014, Quyen Dinh became SEARAC’s fourth executive director, and its first second-generation leader. Quyen came to Washington, DC as a grassroots-grown leader whose leadership journey was cultivated by SEARAC - mentored by SEARAC’s Technical Assistance program through which she built lasting infrastructure for the International Children Assistance Network (ICAN) in San Jose, California, and trained as an advocate through SEARAC’s Leadership & Advocacy Training in the class of 2007. In 2011, Quyen joined SEARAC as Education Policy Advocate, and within two years successfully authored and pushed for the introduction of “The All Students Count Act,” elevating SEARAC’s role as a leading voice for educational equity for all students, including Southeast Asian Americans. Grounded in a fierce love for community, Quyen furthers SEARAC’s legacy by leading with a vision to transform SEARAC into an advocacy powerhouse that is driven by strong communities.
Under each generation of growth, SEARAC’s core mission gets more grounded as its vision grows wider. Thank you to SEARAC’s trailblazing Board and staff over 35 years, whose dedication, talent, passion, and resilience have led SEARAC to where it is today, a trusted and respected national advocacy voice that grows stronger every day on behalf of our communities.