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Laotians seek community center


Longtime Laotian leader Hongsa Chanthavong would like to see a Lao community Center created in Portland. East Portland Action Plan advocate Lore Wintergreen and Chanthavong have their eyes on the former Marshall High School building in outer southeast Portland for the center.
Mid-county Memo photo/Tim Curran
What is on your Christmas list? What would you like to see under your tree this year?

Hongsa Chanthavong would really like to have a Laotian Community Center for himself and his fellow immigrants in Oregon - perhaps not this year, but someday soon.

Chanthavong has the time to pursue the dream, having retired in 2004 after working 20 years with the Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization, including 10 years as director of its Asian Family Center. He now works there part time.

It is a vision shared by others. A March 10 workshop at the East Portland Community Center, financed by grants from the East Portland Neighborhood Office and the East Portland Action Plan, called for such a facility to “bring our diverse communities together” to “strengthen our unity and cultural traditions.” Those present felt that such a facility could be created by 2017 for $6 million.

Why is such a facility necessary when institutions such as EPNO already exist? Because, Chanthavong told the Memo, others are either too exclusive or not exclusive enough to serve the Lao community. “IRCO has facilities, but there are too many countries served there,” he says, with not enough opportunity for Lao people to establish their own identity. Some meetings are held in a Buddhist temple at 4350 N.E. 133rd Ave. Many immigrants from Laos's lowlands are Buddhists, but the Hmong, Mien and others from the rural highlands hold other beliefs. (There are also different language dialects and clothing styles.) “For the leaders it's no problem, but to expand we want to meet in a neutral space,” Chanthavong says. Sometimes they use meeting space at the Midland Library, but they want something more culturally specific.

To accomplish this, “You have to have a plan, a strategy, priorities; without that you get nowhere,” Chanthavong says. “If you accomplish 50 percent, it's a good plan. The Lao people enjoy food, music and dancing, so we start with that,” in a place to accommodate them.

Another objective would be a research library where you could collect literature and documents and “provide an opportunity for all people interested in Laotian culture.” In particular, it would be a place to educate younger generations in their own cultural traditions before they become completely assimilated. Overall, the facility should have office space for five to six people, gathering space for 300 or more, kitchen facilities and the library.

Chanthavong says that with the aid of the East Portland Action Plan staffer Lore Wintergreen he is investigating whether part of the defunct Marshall High School campus can be obtained for this purpose.

The Lao people can be found in many parts of the United States-Chanthavong spent two years, from 1992 to 1994 in Florida organizing IRCO-like facilities there-but 10,000 have settled in Portland and close-in Washington County. “Portland has a very good climate and environment, and the job market isn't bad,” he says.

Regarding the community center, Chanthavong says, “We've been thinking about this for 30 years, but it's time to start.”

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