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Elgin’s Lao community gets politically active

The Lao Community flopasses by during The City Elgin’s inaugural International Festival parade ElgIll. Saturday September 1 2012.

The Lao Community float passes by during The City of Elgin’s inaugural International Festival parade in Elgin, Ill., on Saturday, September 1, 2012. | Andrew A. Nelles~For Sun-Times Media |

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Updated: February 1, 2013 6:02AM

This is another in a series of stories on people and events that shaped our communities in 2012.

ELGIN — While no one from Elgin’s sizable Latino community came forward as a candidate to run in next year’s city council election, 2012 saw the growing Lao community organize for political ends.

The Lao American Organization of Elgin already had been making itself known to the broader community with its annual Lao New Year’s celebration, which it hosted again Dec. 23 when the group presented Elgin Mayor Dave Kaptain with its person-of-the-year honor.

In late June, the group collaborated with the Asian Health Coalition, Illinois Public Health Association, and Visiting Nurse Association (VNA) to present an educational session on the topic of human papillomavirus, and breast and cervical cancer.

To make its voices heard, LAOE held a drive prior to the November presidential election that registered 600 voters in the area. And local insurance man Chin Keomuongchanh, 50, stepped forward to seek a spot on the council, becoming the first member of the Lao community to do so.

To work on the drive, LAOE formed a partnership with the Asian American Institute that was part of a broader effort called Pan-Asian Voter Empowerment.

“This was a monumental initiative for the Lao American Organization of Elgin and will serve as a springboard to future programs, ensuring the advancement and growth of our community,” Alan Thavisouk, LAOE board member and director for its civic engagement program, said at the time.

According to Thavisouk, about 10,000 people of Laotian descent live in Elgin and surrounding communities, and about 1,000 belong to LAOE, which was formed in 1996. He noted that a good portion of the Elgin area’s current Lao residents holds blue-collar jobs and works in the local factories as laborers.

According to Elgin historian E.C. “Mike” Alft, Lao refugees started arriving in Elgin during the late 1970s. A YWCA refugee project and local churches were sponsoring agencies, bringing Lao who had been living in Thai refugee camps; that had fled their homeland after a civil war overthrew a monarchy and left a communist regime in power.

Keomuongchanh said both the voter registration drive and his run for office are “to make our voices heard. It’s time to do that, to be a part of the larger community. If you don’t get politically involved, you risk others not knowing about you and about the contributions you are making.”

Keomuongchanh said his family settled in the Elgin area in 1979. After graduating high school early in December 1981, the next year he enlisted in the Navy, with which he had a 20-year career. He and his family returned to Elgin in 2011 and the Cobblers Crossing subdivision in large part to care for elderly parents here.

“We got back in time for the blizzard,” Keomuongchanh said. He and his wife have two grown male children, one of whom is serving in the Air Force.

As for why he is running for office, the reasons are issues frequently mentioned by any number of politicians in any number of races: “Jobs, taxes, and government spending. We have to go to businesses and ask, ‘What do you need from us to be successful?’ Because a successful business environment means more jobs and a successful government.”

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