#YSEALI: Empowering the Next Generation of Young Southeast Asian Leaders

About an hour or so ago we concluded the Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative (YSEALI) Summit, with a traditional Lao Baci ceremony, a series of country-themed  dances, and then culminating  in nearly 200 Southeast Asian participants all gathered onstage to dance the same Lum Vong Lao dance that President Obama had danced during his trip to Laos earlier in the week.  That revered dance somehow morphed into full-throated singing of Katie Perry’s  “Firework”, accompanied by flags of most of 10 ASEAN countries that suddenly materializing onstage, and finally chants of “YSEALI! YSEALI! YSEALI!” filling the auditorium.  The summit was a wrap.

To strengthen partnerships with these emerging leaders in Southeast Asia, President Obama launched the Young Southeast Asian Leaders initiative in 2013.

During his historic visit to Laos this week, President Obama met these YSEALI Fellows for a town hall meeting.  “In each of you there is the potential to change the world,” President Obama told the YSEALI Fellows as he kicked off his sixth such meeting.

YSEALI Fellow Phonesapith “Om” Sotitham introduced the President. Om founded a community-based organization near Luang Prabang to empower rural communities, and is the first Lao YSEALI Fellow to introduce the President at an event.

The President thanked Om as he took the stage and fielded questions from fellows from every one of the 10 Southeast Asian countries, covering such topics as the Sustainable Development Goals, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the future of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, protecting the environment, and the future of the YSEALI initiative.  The fellows were particularly pleased to hear that President Obama plans to continue to be involved, through his Presidential Center, with YSEALI as well as the young leaders initiatives focused in other regions after he leaves office.

During his remarks, President singled out two female YSEALI Professional Fellows, whose stories inspired him and demonstrate the power of YSEALI to empower young people to make positive change in their communities.

Amema “Mimi” Sae-Ju grew up in a Lisu village in Northern Thailand but, through YSEALI, had the opportunity to spend time in Montana and meet some Native American tribes. As a result, Mimi founded the Lisu Cultural Heritage Center to promote and preserve the indigenous history of her people.Selling handicrafts made by Lisu women, empowers them earn a living and preserve their culture. After describing Mimi’s work, the President praised her cowboy hat, which she received during her YSEALI fellowship in Montana, and her necklace, crafted by Lisu minorities that Mimi works with in Thailand. 

President Obama also spoke about Dissa’s café, noting a personal connection, as his receptionist, Leah, who happens to be deaf, knows Dissa, and raves about her café. This café came to fruition after Dissa was inspired by an idea she discovered while volunteering in Nicaragua a few years ago. While there, Dissa encountered a café for the deaf, which piqued her interest in learning sign language and inspired her to do something to help empower people with disabilities. Following her time in Nicaragua, Dissa opened the Fingertalk Café in Indonesia to provide job opportunities for the deaf community there. 

I also have a personal connection with Dissa, as I arranged for her to present about Indonesia on “Take Your Child to Work Day” for kids in the Department earlier this year, including my oldest son. Yesterday at the Presidential Town Hall, I caught up with Dissa moments after the President left the building, and she was bubbling with excitement. “Adam, I shook his hand, and he told me that I should keep up the good work. So now I have to!”

President Obama was inspired by the work of these two women and told the fellows, “…on my final trip to Asia as President, I want to make sure that all of you keep on inspiring others the way these two young women are inspiring people in their countries and around the world”

The YSEALI program will be central to that effort, as it continues to empower the next generation of Southeast Asians to take on increasing leadership roles in shaping the future of ASEAN.

About the Author: Adam Meier serves in the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs’ Office of Citizen Exchanges at the U.S. Department of State.

For More Information:

U.S. President Barack Obama speaks to young people during the Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative (YSEALI) town hall meeting in Laos.
Posted by Adam Meier
September 8, 2016

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