Press Release: Leaders of Southeast Asian American Organizations Band Together to Build Community

SEARAC provided a space to foster connection and healing to fuel a strong SEAA movement

Washington, DC— Earlier this month, Southeast Asia Resource Action Center (SEARAC) held its third biennial Leadership, Empowerment, and Advocacy Fellowship (LEAF) convening, bringing together 16 community leaders from Southeast Asian American-led and -serving organizations across the country.

Pivoting from previous LEAF convenings, this year’s program had three objectives: to connect with others in order to feel less isolated, to acknowledge and heal from the burnout that often accompanies the fight for social justice, and to strategize on national issues affecting the Southeast Asian American community. Facilitated by longtime social and racial justice champion Shiree Teng, the three-day event included various sessions that encouraged personal and professional growth, as well as interpersonal relationship building. Activities included exploration of individual learning styles, strengths, and assets; discussions around self-care and emotional well-being; identification of gaps and needs in participants’ work around education, immigration, and health; and applications of physical exercises, like tai chi, to harness inner strength and enhance holistic awareness.

Sovanna Pouv, executive director of Cambodian Mutual Assistance Association, based in Lowell, MA, welcomed the opportunity to learn about his fellow participants’ experiences in the advocacy space, especially as a direct services provider.

“For us, it’s pretty new doing advocacy work, and I think it’s really important that we’re able to pick up what went well and what didn’t go well,” he said.

In particular, Pouv appreciated an activity that examined key immigration policies of the past that have led to a current broken system. “We were able to think about some of the things that happened to create drastic change within the Southeast Asian American community and think about how we can proactively work toward preventing some of these things,” he said. “A lot of the time, we react to these issues.”

Similarly, Cha Vang, executive director of Hmong Innovating Politics, based in Sacramento, CA, agreed that it was helpful to have conversations with other executive directors to whom she could relate. She specifically looked forward to carrying some of the trust- and leadership-building exercises with her back to her organization. “I think it’s an opportunity to really learn about yourself, the work that you’re doing, and gain some valuable info to bring back to your organization and your community so that we can all be stronger,” Vang said.

Photo courtesy LEAF participant Sina Sam

Along with knowledge sharing, SEARAC’s LEAF convening also sought to provide a safe space for participants to recover from their ongoing tiring activism. For example, although ReleaseMN8 co-founder Montha Chum’s fight against her brother’s deportation to Cambodia is over, her work to end these crises across Minnesota and nationally continues. “I am grateful for spaces like this to come together with other Southeast Asian American leaders and talk about our trauma, as it is so important and plays a huge part in my healing process,” she said.

“LEAF has shown us that before we can strategize together on pressing policy issues, we must take the time to step back to reflect on what brought us all here in the first place,” said Quyen Dinh, executive director of SEARAC. “To build and sustain a powerful movement, we must first invest in human connections. SEARAC is glad to have engaged so fully with our partners across the country, and we’ve come away from the convening feeling renewed, restored, and ready to fight for Southeast Asian American equity.”

Participating organizations included: Asian American Resource Workshop, Dorchester, MA; Boat People SOS-Houston, Houston, TX; Cambodian Mutual Assistance Association, Lowell, MA; Formerly Incarcerated Group Healing Together, Pullman, WA; Freedom Inc., Madison, WI; Fresno Interdenominational Refugee Ministries, Fresno, CA; Hmong Innovating Politics, Sacramento, CA; Khmer Girls in Action, Long Beach, CA; Laotian American National Alliance, Los Angeles, CA; ManForward, St. Paul, MN; Mekong NYC, Bronx, NY; Providence Youth Student Movement, Providence, RI; ReleaseMN8, Minneapolis, MN; Southeast Asian Coalition, Charlotte, NC; The Cambodian Family Community Center, Santa Ana, CA; and VietLead, Philadelphia, PA.


Elaine Sanchez Wilson
(202) 601-2970