Kouichoy Saechao had no leadership strategy, leadership just presented itself. It was the mid-70s and Saechao was a teenager in a refugee camp in northern Thailand. Though too young to be a leader in the traditional Iu Mien way, Saechao was uniquely positioned to guide the Iu Mien people through the dramatic changes they faced after fleeing their hillside villages in Laos. As the village leaders son, and one of the few in his generation who knew both English and written Lao, his assistance was naturally sought by fellow refugeeswhether to fill out forms, teach Thai, or distribute rations of rice, food, and firewood.
From that point on, large numbers of Iu Mien people followed his unassuming lead; one reason why thousands of them flocked to the Bay Area after Saechao, his wife, and baby became the first Iu Mien family to settle in the area in 1978. Saechaos leadership here began with airport pick-ups and housing searches for refugees. Twenty-five years later, his roles have broadened to include community representative for the Iu Mien, founder of a nonprofit benefiting the Iu Mien, board member of many Bay Area organizations, and county social services official who works not just with Southeast Asian refugees, but with the diverse array of East Bay residents.
Saechao is an interface, not just between the Iu Mien people and other communities, but also even among generations of Iu Mien. While those of the older generation were longing to return to a farming life, the youth were far more interested in learning American ways than in exploring their heritage. Im able to work with elders and the younger generation, he said. Thats one advantage I have. To bridge the generational community needs, Saechao seized on and championed the idea of building a Iu Mien Cultural Center, a place to anchor the community, an idea he further developed as part of Wildflowers Studies 2000 project. That dream was realized in July 2003 after years of planning and fundraising.
Though Saechao is receiving much of the credit, including a community leadership award from the San Francisco Foundation, he pays little heed. No matter how hard you work, still some people criticize. No matter how badly you do, some people still praise you. So Im not too proud about what I accomplish or too depressed when people say negative things. I aim for whats in the best interest of our community and our future generations, he says.
Saechao has been a Wildflowers fellow since 2002.