In the introduction of Planting SEADS: Southeast Asian Diaspora Stories, by Southeast Asian Diaspora Project (SEAD), the authors write: “We believe storytelling is necessary for us to start making sense of our being from the past, present, and future.” In centering storytelling by and about their Southeast Asian community, and bringing the diaspora together across generations in conversation, SEAD, a Young Women’s Initiative grantee-partner, exemplifies the Women’s Foundation of Minnesota’s (WFMN) values of listening to the wisdom of communities, centering their solutions, and investing statewide to create systems change so that all women and girls have what they need to thrive.
Based in Saint Paul, SEAD offers classes and workshops on Southeast Asian history, culture, and language. Their organization has become a home for members of the Southeast Asian (SEA) diaspora to tell their individual and collective stories and draw strength, hope, and healing out of stories that often include cultural, collective, and individual trauma.
SEAD performs work that is critical to changing systems. The organization fosters positive shifts within the diaspora community and the Twin Cities generally by holding space for learning about and engaging with SEA language, culture, and stories. Systems change does not only happen on the policy level, or only within economic, educational, or legal institutions. Narrative shifts that subvert negative internal and external messages about selves, bodies, abilities, and communities are often an early step in changing the social conversation to create racial and gender equity.
In recognizing this, SEAD created the SEA Change Youth Lab in 2018 to help SEA youth grapple with the unique barriers that immigrant communities experience, particularly those who face protracted trauma and persecution like Hmong, Lao, Vietnamese, and other SEA communities have. The program that aligns with WFMN’s own theory of change to employ community investments, transformational relationships, and strategic communications to build further equity.
One of SEAD’s interns explained in a reflection letter, “As an emerging second-generation Viet-American, I have struggled immensely with an identity that is filled with war, trauma, and loss. An inherited pain passed through fragmented stories and the painful invisibility of my people. It has led me to ask myself, ‘Who are we outside of our pain? Who am I outside of my pain?’ These questions led me to SEAD and its work.”
SEAD is able to activate and build youth confidence, leadership skills, and love of self and community through initiatives like establishing a hub of SEA college-aged mentors for SEA youth to engage with and learn from, facilitating creative workshops and field trips to foster curiosity and exploration, and celebrating SEA cultures and traditions. By challenging learned norms borne out of inequities in social systems and cultural trauma, youth can build self-esteem and confidence, increase and stabilize their own identity (both self and racial/cultural), and become advocates for themselves and their communities.
Sharing SEA narratives of pride and resilience is a critical way that SEAD uses strategic communications to reframe how SEA youth see themselves. This work also aims to positively shift how all communities interact with immigrant communities. One SEAD participant shared, “Through SEAD I saw the weight and impact of our stories, to learn what it means to collectively heal from our wounds. I witnessed the depth and perseverance of our community…Though riddled with pain, war, and diaspora, they are also a source of resilience and strength. They are a beacon of hope, marking how far we’ve come and have yet to go. Most importantly, they are our truth.”
With support from WFMN, SEAD has both the capacity and expertise to shift the way young women, girls, and all youth in the Southeast Asian diaspora see themselves and their communities. When young woman and girls thrive, their families and communities and all people thrive. Supporting SEAD is an investment not just in Southeast Asian communities, but in all of Minnesota. By investing in narratives shifts that build hope and community, the Women’s Foundation supports the journey of SEA youth to build their power and understanding as they embrace their cultural richness and strength.
Front-line organizations like SEAD are working in the intersecting areas of economic opportunity, safety, and leadership on behalf of and with young women as part of the Young Women’s Initiative. The organizations – 80% of which are led by women of color – participate in convenings and trainings to build their capacity, partnerships, and leadership in the field. They are selected by a grant making committee that includes members of the Young Women’s Cabinet.
By Hayley Drozdowski, Communications Project Manager at Women’s Foundation of Minnesota