At my age (somewhat past Medicare), one begins to think that they are beyond transformational experiences. In 2013, I was reminded that transformation is ageless, if you are open to opportunities wherever they may emerge. That year the Mansfield Center at the University of Montana introduced the Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative (YSEALI), funded by the U.S. Department of State. This Professional Fellows Program offered exchange opportunities for young leaders from Southeast Asia to spend five weeks studying with the Mansfield Center in areas related to civic engagement, economic empowerment, governance and sustainable development. Those selected for the program are placed with host families for part of their stay to help expand their local engagement.
I was, then, executive director of Lake County Community Development in Ronan. Our organization became engaged when a delegate studying organic farming and food production safety was hosted by a staff member. As we mentored her, our entire staff became advocates of the program.
In 2014, I hosted a Thai woman from the Indigenous Lisu Tribe, whose family owns coffee plantations in Northern Thailand. Chome had three areas of study: coffee shop management, creating cooperative, and cultural tourism. She aspired to develop a coffee processing and marketing company around a local brand (Abeno) with local producers to compete with large coffee buyers who were paying below value to farmers. At the same time, she wanted to see how the local Salish and Kootenai Tribes’ efforts to preserve history and culture might translate into establishing a cultural tourism program at home.
In March 2015, the State Department sponsored my trip to Thailand to work with Chome on implementing her goals and plans. I was immediately swept into a 30-day whirlwind, which blew most of my pre-prepared slides and talking points out the window. I spoke on entrepreneurship to a college class of non-English speaking business students; addressed a conference of Indigenous peoples that included eight of Thailand’s 12 major tribes; then worked with staffers to develop a loan program to help start Indigenous businesses. At an international meeting of Lisu people, I sat in on meetings of Chinese, Myanmar and Thai delegates discussing issues of cultural identification within their countries.
I was welcomed to the Doi Chang community as a family member and was invited to lead brainstorming sessions on branding and marketing Indigenous products and on home-based businesses. I teamed with a soap-maker to teach both soap-making and marketing techniques; and with farmers about working together to build a business. I learned that language is not a barrier if you listen at all levels, including non-verbal ones.
In 2016, several of the Indigenous people I met in Thailand were part of a cultural exchange with the Salish and Kootenai. I hosted two of the women and had many conversations around the table with other members of the group as they worked to complete their business plans. Along with laughter and music, they shared a deep desire to advance their communities economically, while maintaining cultural identities.
I continue to follow the progress of the now flourishing Abeno Coffee Co. and Chome’s family, and I continue to speak with Lisu elders, as they wrestle with their people’s futures. These encounters have transformed how I previously may have viewed countries and cultures as “third world.” Essentially, we all aspire to make life better for our families and communities. The experiences offered through the Mansfield Center demonstrate how bringing diverse people together to listen and learn can lead to transforming our shared world.
Billie Lee is the former executive director of Lake County Community Development Organization in Ronan, and a consultant on rural community and economic development
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