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Chanida Phaengdara Potter is the executive director of the Southeast Asian Diaspora Project, or SEAD. Phaengdara Potter is a mother of two and is of Laos and Vietnamese roots. She is also a storyteller and a writer. 

Ten years ago, Phaengdara Potter was working primarily within the field of human rights. She realized that none of those in her office who were working in communities of people who looked like her actually did look like her. It was at this pivotal moment when she decided that, “Hey, I think I can do this on my own.” She started working more deeply in Southeast Asian and larger Asian American communities.

As someone who came to America as a refugee from Laos at 3 years old, she realized she needed to stay rooted in her personal experiences. Phaengdara Potter describes herself as a product of war and American imperialism in Southeast Asia, and says that her interest in the rights of people with similar experiences led her to focus on working at the grassroots level with refugee and immigrant communities. 

Phaengdara Potter finds joy in doing what she loves with people she loves, being able to reimagine what storytelling does in our communities, and how communities use it to drive change. She also appreciates the beauty of working  directly with communities that have been largely invisible. One of the things she says she has learned from thinkers and elders is that colonization and trauma strip the collective imagination from communities.

What she finds beautiful about the SEAD Project is that it uses art and design, storytelling, and other forms to help communities better understand the issues that affect them, and the broader communities to better understand those voices and stories. 

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

What does it mean to be AAPI in Minnesota right now?

I consider myself a very globalized person. I think my background as part of the diaspora is that I’m neither here nor there. So I’m kind of everywhere. I consider myself a futurist in many ways. Being Asian, that label is also fraught with so many complications. I don’t consider myself American because people here don’t consider me American. And I think that’s the hardest thing.

One of the most common things that is said to us as Asians is, “Go back to where you come from.” It stings and injures the soul in a very deep way for my parents as well as my siblings and people like me in the Asian communities, as a refugee from Southeast Asia, because I can’t return back to my home. 

And so I think, for me, being Asian is holding all these things, holding all these complicated histories, and categories and labels about me. We also know the term Asian American comes from the activist lineage in the ’70s with the Third World Liberation Front, and part of what rose during that time. It’s a lot of that history, too, that I’m carrying with this label.

One of the most common things that is said to us as Asians is, “Go back to where you come from.” It stings and injures the soul in a very deep way, as a refugee from Southeast Asia, because I can’t return back to my home.

I think what’s beautiful to see now is that that label is being changed. It’s being morphed in many different ways. Being Lao or Vietnamese or other ethnic or indigenous identities from Southeast Asia and Pacific Islanders communities, people are taking back those identities and owning them. I think that’s the most beautiful thing to see. So for me, being Asian here in Minnesota is literally like a hot dish. It’s like a hot dish of many things.

I’ve been here since I was 3, primarily in Minneapolis. I grew up in a predominantly Black neighborhood, and also around Indigenous people and Latinx community members, too. So that part of it has been really beautiful for me and very wholesome for me, because I grew up with people who were in conditions that were like mine.

We came from experiences where we were in the housing projects living on food stamps, and just had nothing but each other. The aunties in the neighborhood would feed us meals from their backdoor kitchens because our parents had to work day and night. It was very much a village mentality.

I think that also holds true about me being Asian, I’m a multitude of those identities and a multitude of those cultures. I think that’s what is beautiful about this city. What I would say in a nutshell is that I’ve been really fortunate to be raised in this city.

What figures have shaped you and who you are?

There are so many legends and champions in our communities. But a lot of the aunties who are the invisible workers in our communities are the ones who shaped me. I was raised by them. I was raised by my aunties and sisters. And it’s been a very femme environment for me.

When I was growing up in Minneapolis and trying to grapple with the Asian model minority myth, because I spoke another language at home, I was placed in ESL pretty much up until high school.

I had an ESL teacher, Mrs. Stone, through middle school up until high school. I was so bored in my classes. I was not placed in classes, and taught things that actually challenged and helped me imagine something different, other than just learning how to read and write and do math, all the basics. And so Mrs. Stone helped me not only learn English, but she told me to take English literature, poetry, and writing classes. And I started getting into that. And also, she was like, “Why are you still in ESL? You should probably get out of ESL.”

That was a pivotal moment, because my parents had no idea. However, Mrs. Stone believed in me, and she helped me get out of ESL. That was a moment I remember as like, “Oh, wow, there’s more! There’s more than just these types of topics in class.” 

It wasn’t until college that I started becoming more active in learning about all these amazing people and giants that came before me, that led the way. There were other influencers and shapers in my communities who also helped raise me. But I would say there are a lot of scholars and activists I really admire. Not just the thinkers of our time, like Malcolm X or James Baldwin, and the Black feminist theorists, like Audre Lorde. Mariame Kaba, I started learning more about abolition as well. Those are people I really look up to, as well as Angela Davis. Edward Said who talks about Orientalism, that was an eye opener for me.

And also locally, you know, there are so many amazing people like MK Nguyen, who is a Vietnamese sister of mine, and Mel Reeves, who is a local elder activist in the North side. You know, those are just a handful of folks I really really admire. They have a really good grasp of solidarity and what it means to work across our Asian, Black,  Latinx, and Native communities.

Ricardo Levin Morales, as a cultural organizer, as an elder movement leader, has really helped shape me into understanding how you use art and culture and what we already have, our ancestral knowledge, to move people in a way where it helps get at the root causes. He talks a lot about how when we think of systems, we tend to forget how systems are rooted in a lot of things that are societal attitudes, and mindsets. 

What’s your vision for the future generations of AAPI peoples in Minnesota?

My vision, which is an extension of the SEAD Project, is that we have a more creative, a more just, and a more sustainable future. And that we live in a world where we’re in the right relationship with each other. The future that I see for our Asian American and Pacific Islander communities, is that we don’t forget where we come from, and that we use our ancestral knowledge and really learn about our histories and our cultures in a way where we’re reminded of the abundance that we already have. And that abundance means an abundance of care and collective care, and abundance of wealth, community wealth. 

Wealth for us looks like our relationships, and our food or cultures, and how we thrive in that way. That’s the kind of future I would see for Asian American Pacific Islander communities. And that we learn from the communities that we’re surrounded by. I can’t tell you how grateful I am to learn from Black leaders and Native leaders who have helped really solidify the kind of future we need. Until we better understand and learn from others before us, we won’t be able to see our shared liberation.

I hope to live in a better world where my kids don’t have to clean up the mess, and that they actually get to hold and nurture Mother Earth better than we did. 

Jaida Grey Eagle is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.