Lao writer and community activist Saymoukda Duangphouxay Vongsay is no stranger to accolades. She’s won a slew of local and national grants, been lauded for her poetry and playwriting, like the hit play “Kung Fu Zombies vs Cannibals,” and has had her work supported here in Minnesota and also across the country. Vongsay’s latest award has a slightly different focus, however. As a 2022 Bush Fellow, Vongsay is being supported for her leadership skills.
During the interview process, Vongsay recalls being asked what it would mean for her to get a Bush Fellowship. “I said, ‘Well, I’ve gotten recognition for my work as an artist. I’ve gotten grants and fellowships for my work as a playwright, as a poet, as a writer. But I’ve never gotten one for my leadership,” she remembers. “It feels like, yeah, it’s about time.” The award recognizes all the ways Vongsay creates change. “It feels like a different kind of recognition,” she says. “It’s one thing to get a grant for a project, it’s another thing to get a fellowship that will allow you to really be bold with the work that you do.”
Vongsay is one of 24 fellows being awarded the fellowship, which comes with up to $100,000 over 12 to 24 months as they develop skills and relationships to foster large-scale change in communities located in Minnesota, North Dakota or South Dakota as well as the Native nations located within those states’ geographical scope.
During her fellowship, Vongsay plans to connect with other Southeast Asian playwrights from the diaspora, learning about how other artists are adjusting, thriving and being in community. She plans to connect with artists from places like Portland, San Jose and Fresno, and she’ll travel to Laos as well. She also plans to focus on communication, working with a coach in order to speak with legislators or other policymakers as she works to make change. She hopes to beef up her Lao language skills, which have receded in years since she went to college. Eventually, she’ll write a one-act play completely in Lao. “When elders come to my plays, they don’t really understand it because it’s in English,” she says. “If I wrote a play in my language, then I’ll feel like I’ve included my community.”
For Vongsay, being a leader is congruent with her work as an artist. “I can’t separate being in the community, with myself making art,” she says.
Tucking herself away and writing plays in isolation isn’t appealing to the playwright. Often, her work is about bringing people in and having multiple perspectives, experiences and stories that inform the work. “Ultimately, all of my work is for community,” she says.”That’s my target audience, especially the Lao and Southeast Asian people. Everything that I make is really for them and about them and with them.”
From 1976 to 2010, the Bush Foundation distributed artist fellowships to Midwest artists, to support them in their work and their contribution to community. In 2010, the foundation ended the artist fellowship, as well as its “enduring vision” fellowship, announcing a shift in focus toward awards that supported leaders who were developing innovative solutions and advancing community change. This year, two artists — Vongsay and Ifrah Monsour — received Bush fellowships focused on leadership. Both playwrights and poets (Mansour also acts/performs and creates visual art, while Vongsay has additionally published a picture book), they are also refugees and active members of immigrant diasporas.
“The Bush fellowship is really an investment in their leadership now and in the future, not just in their own culturally specific communities, but across our entire region,” says Damon Shoholm, who directs the fellowship program at Bush. “We understand that they all bring with them specific talents and gifts, but we’re really investing in them as individuals who are their own level of organizers. They play a role in their communities to advance stories of those that are often most marginalized.”
Artist leaders use their gifts to help make understanding of what our community can be, Shoholm says, as well as its struggles and beauty. “You have this gift that helps you articulate that, which I think in and of itself is leadership,” he says.
“To be an artist is to be a truth seeker, and to constantly be in this place of finding balance within yourselves about what it takes to tell that truth,” says Ifrah Mansour, another of this year’s Bush fellows. Mansour has toured her one-woman show, “How to Have Fun in a Civil War,” across the country, and has been featured in national museum exhibitions, in addition to acting and creating in film productions.
“As an artist who is a builder, who is a storyteller, who embodies the work, who carries the work, I am feeling the toll now of what it took me to perform a trauma-filled story for five years,” Mansour says.
“I’ve chosen this passion that inherently puts me in a place to be a vessel for pain and for truth and to help others see that,” she says. “It’s a deep moment of reckoning what I’ve chosen.”
Receiving the Bush Fellowship is a surreal feeling, Mansour says. She remembers a day several years ago, biking on Washington Avenue with 10 milk jugs she got at a Caribou near where she was working a job at a day care. The milk jugs were for a project she was working on at time. It was a moment of being in a crossroads, Mansour recalls, of whether to stay at a job that didn’t satisfy her, or take an exhibition opportunity.
“That was like a pivotal moment, where I felt like my spirit was willing to make this art passion come alive, no matter what.”
Now, Mansour says, she feels immense gratitude. “I know the toll and the trauma and the pain and the invisibility it took to get here,” she says. “It’s beautiful to be valued and to be seen.”