International Women’s Day (Week) In Action

by Britt Ide, CEO of Ide Energy & Strategy

Britt stands in front of a large golden statue, a dedication to a recreational lagoon near Vang Vieng, Laos
Developed lagoon for recreation near Vang Vieng, Laos

I have enjoyed a fabulous week in the Lao People’s Democratic Republic (Laos). My trip was funded by the US State Department’s YSEALI (Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative) and administered by the Maureen and Mike Mansfield Center at the University of Montana. Because I hosted Thipdavanh Phimmasone “Nong” in the United States in 2019, I applied and was selected to travel to Laos to support Nong’s work (the trip was delayed by COVID). Nong is one of the most-senior women in the Lao Ministry of Energy and Mines. She works on many projects, including increasing access for rural women to get cookstoves that reduce carbon emissions and smoke in the home.

I specifically planned this time to travel to experience how Laos celebrates International Women’s Day. March 8 is a National Holiday and schools and offices are closed. The women’s meetings and celebrations happen all week and there is a commercial aspect as well—”two for one” sales on clothes and drinks for women (I was confused at first when they brought me two drinks)!

Britt Ide at a table during a meal with a group of women in Clean Energy, a  lunch event hosted by USAid
Women in Clean Energy lunch hosted by USAid

Highlights of my week include:

A woman works on cooking stoves in Laos
Woman employed to manufacture cooking stoves
  • Attending a Women’s Day Tea at the US Ambassador’s Residence, hosted by Dusadee Hammond, the Ambassador’s wife and diplomat where I met many Lao women leaders.
  • Visiting four cookstove manufacturers in Vientiane Capital and Luang Prabang and nearby provinces. We saw the impact of Lao and international funding to increase stove production, increase efficiency, decrease carbon emissions, and employ women in manufacturing and sales.
  • Speaking to the women faculty and students in Environmental Science at the Lao National University and learning about their efforts in renewable energy (focused on biomass and waste-to-energy projects).
  • A lunch dialogue sponsored by USAID with Lao women leaders in clean energy, including engineering professors, entrepreneurs, and training professionals from the Lao state electric utility, EDL.
  • Visiting ecotourism sites to see how the Lao government is trying to expand tourism in a sustainable way.
Photo of an advertisement at a market in Laos that promotes the sales of cooking stoves
Photo of an advertisement at a market in Laos that promotes the sales of cooking stoves

I learned so much, including:

  • Laos has about 80% hydropower and exports the clean energy in Southeast Asia. Around 90% of the country is electrified, but most of the rural communities (70% of the nearly 7 million Lao population) still rely on cookstoves.
  • Meeting the woman who runs the incubator that helped launch Loca (a service in Lao similar to Uber or Lyft). Loca is working to hire more women drivers and expand its EV fleet.
  • American diplomats and business leaders living abroad shared what they love about Laos and their passion for international development and friendship.
  • Connecting with travelers from all over the world, including Australia, Bangladesh, Canada, Scandinavia, Germany, France, United Kingdom, Korea, China, Indonesia, Italy, and New Zealand.
Britt’s presentation audience of women faculty and students in Environmental Science at National University of Laos
Temple interior in Laos

The best part of the trip is my understanding of the huge, positive impact of programs like this on the world. My amazing learning about Laos and Asia is dwarfed by the impact that the YSEALI program has on the participants who visit the US. I enjoyed hearing from women alumni who shared how their US experience helped them in their careers years after the trip. They shared how they built confidence in speaking English, leadership, and management. I could see the skills difference from 2019 when I met YSEALI Fellows to now in 2023. These fellows, especially the women, are leading their businesses, NGOs, and government agencies and empowering others. The ripple effect continues as the YSEALI Fellows build their networks and further develop energy sustainability to reduce carbon emissions, eradicate poverty, and improve public health, especially for women. This is truly International Women’s Day (Week/Year/Decade) in action!

Many thanks to the US State Department, The Maureen and Mike Mansfield Center at the University of Montana, the US Embassy in Laos, the Lao Ministry of Energy and Mines, and most importantly, to Thipdavanh Phimmasone.

Britt Ide standing next to an elephant in Laos

Rediscovering Human Connection Through Travel

By: Laura Rennick, Director of State, Federal, and International Affairs

Traveling anywhere after three years of barely leaving the house is a surreal experience. Senses that have been in hibernation these past years, are thrust into overdrive as I navigate all the travel scenarios that I used to know so well. Exchanging money makes my brain hurt as I try to convert Thai Baht to US Dollars at a rate of 32:1 and attempting to explain in sign language and over expressive eyes to a taxi driver that this is not in fact my hotel, all without cell service to translate or navigate…but these mild hurdles eventually break way to muscle memory that I do in fact remember how to do this. How to be immersed in the unfamiliar, to lean into the subtle discomforts and remembering to flow with people, situations, and life.

As so I flow. This exchange was already 10 years in the making when in 2019, I was asked to be a one-on-one professional host for the YSEALI Professional Fellows Program, sponsored by the U.S. Department of State and managed by the Mansfield Center at the University of Montana. Three years ago Mick Thongfa, a young professional from rural Thailand, traveled to Montana through YSEALI PFP as a Civic Engagement Fellow. Mick works as a grassroots organizer with local communities on environmental justice. He was focused on environmental protection of his home village, Klity Village in western Thailand, which was greatly impacted by a nearby mine. At the time, I was the Energy Bureau Chief at the Montana Department of Environmental Quality. As Mick’s professional host I was responsible for arranging meetings for him with relevant professionals and organizations in Montana; of which there are many. And while I aimed to help Mick learn from the long history of environmental protection and advocacy in the United States, I knew I had at least an equal amount that I could learn from him. With every conversation we had about our work, I became even more excited to visit him in Thailand, to see the issues and his work first hand, and learn the ways in which our work might be the same and still very different. After a significant amount of schedule wrangling we settled on a two week period in April 2020 for my outbound exchange to Thailand.

And then, the world stopped and all those lessons learned from so many beautiful experiences moving with travel were put to use in stillness at home, particularly breathing through discomfort and remembering to flow. What happens next is familiar to all of us: weeks give way to months and months to years. Ten years of anticipation slowly turned into thirteen, and so when the borders began to reopen and travel restrictions were lifted, we cautiously began to wrangle schedules again. And even with dates selected, approvals given, reservations made, I held my breath as I boarded that first of four flights that would take me to Chiang Mai in northern Thailand.


As a US participant in YSEALI PFP, the purpose of my outbound exchange is to learn and to share: to be a resource for others in a professional field similar to mine, and to learn from them, their work, their challenges, and their successes. Then bring these experiences home and weave them into my work. I, like so many, made a career change during the pandemic; I’m now the Director of State, Federal, and International Affairs for the Western Interstate Energy Board. Our work is to enhance the economy’s of the Western United States and Canadian Provinces and contribute to the well-being of the region’s people through collaborative development of energy policy. My work touches on everything from environmental quality, equity and justice in the energy transition, energy technology, land management, transboundary jurisdiction, and energy policy. Given this broad portfolio at home, the itinerary that Mick has planned for my 10-days is very exciting: meeting with local climate advocates, visiting a rural community that has been fighting the government to stay on the land they been on for hundreds of years, learning about sustainable agriculture and the connections to the forest with an indigenous leader, meeting with the community that inspired Mick’s career about the environmental damages from lead mining, failed reclamation attempts, how young people are behind the movement for environmental justice through community organizing, and meeting with the US Consul General for Chiang Mai and other alumni of US sponsored exchange programs.


Our first day is spent at Mick’s Earthright “office”. I use quotation marks for “office” because this place is special. It’s a spacious campus about 20 minutes north of downtown Chiang Mai. Settled amongst flower farms, it is lush and peaceful. It gives off the sense of an adult summer camp or retreat much more than an “office”. The tree lined driveway passes by a yard for activities, a pavilion for ceremonies, and a small stream and pond. The building itself is a beautiful structure made of wood and cement alternative (remember this is an organization focused on human rights and climate justice) and is LEED certified. It is two levels: small offices line the right wing on both floors, while the left is reserved for student housing rooms. The center has two levels of spacious open air shared space. There are a few tables and chairs, and students and staff mingle and work from various locations. There is a kitchen and dining area around back, and a team prepares breakfast and lunch daily. To quite literally top it off, there is a rooftop terrace surrounded by flowers; Mick tells me sometimes you come up here for fresh air and to think. This open air, naturally lit space is a beautiful space to remember how healing nature is. It’s easy to see how a space like this can inspire students to return to their homes energized for change and to create a better life for everyone.

Earthright is an international organization and this “office” reflects that; because the students are from all over the lower Mekong region, and staff hail from all of the world (the new regional director in Chiang Mai is from Kansas), English is the common language spoken at work. It never ceases to amaze me how accomplished the rest of the world is with linguistics; the people I meet throughout this trip generally speak a minimum of two languages, and frequently more than three; Mick speaks his Native language Karen, Thai, and English. The diversity of the languages of this “office” make the work accomplishments that much more impressive.


Throughout the day I chat with various staff and students. One woman from Vietnam has just completed a three-month community organizing training at Earthright. I speak with staff who focus on climate change, transboundary issues with hydroelectric development, coal fired power generation, and organizing the student groups. Everyone is excited to learn about me and my work, we exchange business cards and social media handles, eager to expand networks and make the world more accessible.


The next day we head out early for the mountains. Our objective today is the village of Ban Nong Tao where the community has been fighting with the government, who wants to create a national park in the area, to stay on the land and maintain their traditional rotational farming practices. We are scheduled to meet with a YSEALI PFP alum from Montana who goes by Oshi. I’ll learn later that Oshi is a bit of a local folk hero among the advocacy community in Chiang Mai. We find Oshi at his home in the village, which is also a local coffee house; this may be an exaggerated description but it is accurate: it is local, it is a house (Oshi’s house), and he sells pour over coffees as well as beans to go although to whom is unclear, you’d have to be about two hours off the beaten path to find this place. Over coffee, Oshi walks us through the history of his village, their agricultural practices, battles with the government to stay on the land (a victory they’ve just recently won), and connection to the forest. He’s a wealth of knowledge and very persuasive. Following lunch, he gives us a tour of his family’s garden; it looks more like an overgrown jungle but that’s intentional. He doesn’t believe in monocultures but favors intercropping, allowing the plants to grow and support one another. It seems to be working well, there’s coffee, mangos, bananas, root vegetables, avocados, beans, basil, jackfruit, cacao, star fruits, the list goes on. Then there’s the animals: chickens, ducks, pigs, and an apiarie which he’s particularly proud of having a home for the pollinators who treat his garden so well.


Later in the evening we tour the rice fields and visit with the lawn mowers (a handful of very friendly and talkative cattle). Perhaps my favorite story from our time with Oshi is that of the Lazy Man. This is the name of his coffee company and his philosophy. He reminds me with a description that nearly moves me to tears, that there’s no need to be productive all the time or to make everything perfect. That there is value in slowing down, in resting, and simply enjoying life. He tells us, we should all be lazy and slow down for the Earth.

It’s unclear what will happen with the government’s plans for a national park around Ban Nong Tao, but our next adventure is to visit Doi Inthanon National Park where the communities on that land were allowed to stay on the land even with the development of the park. The area is beautiful, it does give the impression of a stretch of land that receives more attention and care from the government. As we ascend to the highest point in Thailand, we pass many villages. These people, like Oshi’s community, are Karen S’gaw and indigenous, ethnic minority in Thailand. They still practice agriculture within the park, as well as selling local goods, and some also serve as guides which are required for any hikes within the park. It is beautiful to see the community living in harmony with the park; but also a sad reminder of all the Native people forcibly removed from their homelands in America to establish our own National Parks.


Our final excursion in Chiang Mai is a meeting of alumni from US State Department exchange programs hosted by the new US Consular General to Chiang Mai. Ms. Lisa Buzenas came to the Consulate in August of this year so this gathering is one of many in her new post as the senior US diplomat in the region. There are multiple YSEALI alumni in attendance including some that spent their exchanges in Montana. This is an amazing gathering of professionals all working in various advocacy fields, everything from climate change and environmental justice, to human trafficking, LGBTQI issues, and carbon banking. It’s a wonderful opportunity to connect and meeting the new Consular General is certainly a privilege.


With the first week coming to a close our weekend is spent traveling to Bangkok which is the jumping off point for the second half of our exchange. We spend the weekend with another YSEALI PFP alumna from Montana, Isa, who is very much in the know and shows us a beautiful side of Bangkok including the arts and cultural center where Mick has recently organized a large event to showcase the local communities fighting for environmental justice. Isa does communications for Greenpeace Thailand and her current portfolio includes ocean issues, plastics, climate change, and energy. She has a great energy and is fun to engage with. We chat about politics in Thailand, the recent change of government for the Bangkok province seems to be revitalizing the city with new energy and opportunities for people to learn and engage with one another beyond shopping (a favorite pastime). We visit Bangkok must-sees, admire architecture, detailed mosaics, would-be influencers getting the perfect shot at temples, and eat all the things. I point at everything and ask what it is, why it is that way, and what do Thai people think or do about this or that. We talk about the generational changes happening in Thailand and the United States, and about nationalism and globalism, and we agree that they are not mutually exclusive. It’s a fascinating weekend and Isa and Mick are the most gracious and hospitable guides.



On Monday, we start early for an all day drive to the remote Klity Village. It takes about an hour before the Bangkok skyline is definitively behind us. We stop for lunch at the River Kwae and talk about world war two and refugees. The sun starts to get low on the horizon as the road turns to dirt and we slow to a backroad pace. Mick makes sure I’m okay, and I reassure him that this type of driving is much more normal for me than the past few days in Bangkok. Eventually we reach his village as the sun sets.

This community is incredibly remote. There is no electricity, no sanitation services, no market…many of the homes don’t even have four walls. The houses are platform structures, all elevated off the ground, there’s no plumbing, and no heat or air conditioning. This community is living off the land around them, everything they eat comes from the gardens and farms surrounding the homes and community, the water for everything comes from the creek.


The creek is why we are here. Fifty years ago a lead mine was developed about 12 kilometers from the village. We meet with the local community leader and his daughter Pnam, who has returned to Klity Village after receiving a graduate degree from Chiang Mai University. They tell me, at the time the mine opened, there was no road to the village, there were no dirtbikes, no trucks. It took hours to drive the tractor 12 kilometers from the village to the mine site. So when the creek changed color, smelled putrid, and became sick, it wasn’t initially clear what the issue was. The community also lacked the resources to push back against a massive mining corporation. A fortuitous meeting with an attorney on a backpacking trip to the national park (Klity Village is also in a national park), finally gave the community a voice of power. They brought news media to the village and put a spotlight on the environmental devastation the mine was taking on the local community. Pnam’s father tells us, these were dangerous times, he and the others leading the effort for justice received multiple death threats; but they pushed on (Mick clarifies that no one was killed and we all exhale gratitude for that).


The mine eventually closed about twenty years ago, but the damage to the creek remains. The community has won multiple lawsuits against the mining company, but only received a small amount of compensation. The government installed a rudimentary weir to deal with the lead in the creek, but that washed out. A new weir was installed last year further up stream. Mick and Pnam take me to see the weir: it’s a relatively simple structure made of gabion walls in at least two visible levels. It appears to be designed to slow the water so that the contaminated sediments can settle out and the water can pass through. The mood changes from casual to concerned, as Pnam and Mick ask me if I think this will fix the stream. It’s a complex question. I tell them it’s probably a decent first step as long as it’s inspected regularly and the settled sediments are removed to an off-site impervious repository. I emphasize that testing, long term, independent testing, is necessary to really know if it’s working and continues to work into the future. That’s a problem they tell me because there is no money for independent testing, and the company won’t give them results of tests in writing as they are still in active litigation. The government monitored the stream for a while, but has since stopped with no known plans to resume.

And this is where I feel the benefit of my exchange truly lies. To be able to come home, having seen the issues first hand, having met the community leaders of today and tomorrow, to try to make connections and find resources that might help them have true and trusted restoration of the creek that their entire lives, and the lives of everyone in their community, rely on. It’s a big task, and I can already feel the weight of it as Pnam, Mick, and I talk about her dreams for the community. In addition to the fight for environmental justice, she’s also seeking to develop a community center. She wants the children of the community to know they can be more than a teacher, farmer, or go into the military. She wants to educate them as to the broader world, so that they can decide if they want to live close to the land and in service to the community in the community like her, or if they want to take what they have learned from growing up here and help other communities as Mick is doing.

Pnam’s father tells us he thinks it’s good that I’m here. The world is a more connected place now than when he was young and he thinks that is good. I agree with him with my whole heart, we’re not so different from one another and we learn that best when we spend time together in person and in our communities.


If you would like to get involved with Klity Village or have suggestions for their efforts to restore and monitor Klity Creek, please email Laura Rennick at

Using Finance to Initiate Change Around the World

By: Meagan Kraft

I had the privilege of being a host family for my fellow last year, that I am now visiting in Dien Bien Phu. I had been looking forward to this trip for many months. I did quite a bit of research to try to prepare for the culture and my experience. I did not want to act or say the wrong thing. I arrived in Hanoi, with a co-worker of mine, on 3/2/20, after a very long flight. We were then connected with a wonderful woman, who was a contact of the YSEALI program. We had one day in Hanoi and then we were to catch a flight on 3/3/20 to Dien Bien Phu. Our contact was gracious and took out to eat and gave us the quickest city tour of Hanoi. It was truly a beautiful city. It was one of the busiest cities I have ever visited, and traffic was quite scary. There appeared to be no rhyme or reason to the road or how traffic flowed and there was a lot of traffic. In Vietnam you just walk across the streets without waiting for cars or motor bikes to stop. That was very intimidating and hard to get used to, but someone how it just works.

On 3/3/20 we caught our final flight to Dien Bien Phu. We stepped off the plane and I was hit with wave of extreme heat, mind you I was coming from Montana and was not acclimated to the temperature. We went straight to our hotel from the Airport. Once settled in my room, it hit me. I had culture shock and felt extremely overwhelmed and out of my element. It was a combination of the long travel, exhaustion, the language barrier and things just being completely different than I am used to. However, after some rest the shock started to ware off. I quickly realized I was among some of the kindest and most generous people I have ever met.

I am wrapping up my first week in Dien Bien Phu. I am here to work with an NGO called Anh Chi Em (ACE). Vietnam has made it through some tremendous economic growth. However, in Dien Bien Phu there are many rural villages that are unable to pull themselves out the vicious poverty circle. That is where Ahn Chi Em comes into play, they are truly using finance to initiate change. They were founded by a French NGO Entrepreneurs du Monde (EdM) in 2007 and launched a micro finance program with the primary goal of reaching as many ethnic minority individuals as possible. Most of the beneficiaries of this program are women, I was told that 85% of the money lent is to women. There are two reasons for the majority of the borrowers being women.

  1. The program was started by a women union program that aims to lift us women and children.
  2. The women have more time to attend the training for the loans as the husbands are often working away from the household.

This micro-fiannce program is not like all. This one is a social micro finance program, that not only focuses on financial aspects, but also nonfinancial activities.

  1. The finance portion of the program lends out money at a very low rate 1.3% to 1.4% , which is not traditional for a micro-finance program. Also, as part of the loan they also encourage savings. The saving is encouraged in 2 different ways. One is that each month they must deposit a minimum of 30,000 Dong (approximately $1.25 USD), this is the money that is then used to lend to other beneficiaries. The second is voluntary savings. The beneficiaries can access these funds at any time.
  2. The nonfinancial part of the program focuses on social education. The types of education are things such as agricultural training, human trafficking, HIV/AIDS training, hygiene and many other trainings.

The beneficiaries are very poor and seek small dollar loans to purchase thing such as fertilizer or livestock. However, ACE encourages the beneficiaries to diversify their income as agriculture and livestock can be very unpredictable. There is no control over the weather and therefore their crops may not produce, or the animals get stick and die. When these things happen, then they cannot make a profit to pay back the loans. Hence why the non-financial training can be very important, they try to help by educating the beneficiaries on the different business topics, specific to their needs. The other challenge is that even if they can diversify their income, the areas are very remote, and it is hard to get their products in front of tourist or consumers.

So, far I have spent the majority of my time in the field, learning about ACE’s entire lending process. From the initial meeting (underwriting), to the application process, to the group meetings and nonfinancial trainings (risk management), to delinquency follow up and to the disbursement of the funds. All of this is a done in a manual way. The credit officers work in the remote areas of Dien Bien Phu, every day. They go to the beneficiaries, unlike in the US, where many of these types of transactions are done in person or online. They face many obstacles and their safety can be a risk.

We had the opportunity to visit a village where the women make products from a homemade loom. The whole process is natural, all the way down to the dying of the yarn to make the products. The people truly live off the land and use the land in everyway possible.

ACE goes above and beyond to try and make a difference within their community and their work is truly special. At the end of the day my co-worker and I debrief on our learnings and have come to realize, that while they do things much different here, we actually have quite a lot to learn from them and are thinking of some of the experience we can bring back to our financial institution. So, far my experience has been one of the most humbling experiences. I have been greeted with nothing but excitement and kindness. I have been welcomed into every home with open arms and smiles on their faces. What is inspiring to me is that this whole lending process is not for wants, but simply just needs. I have realized I take a lot of things for granted in my life and this has been very eye opening.

Now that I have a true understanding of the process and the challenges the program faces, my co-worker and I will focus on how we can help. We are working on some management training, policy reviews and process efficiencies. I am looking forward to another amazing week.

Until, next week Tam Biet!

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Slingshot to Laos

In the weeks leading up to my professional fellowship exchange to Laos I had many feelings. Some of them exhilarating and some of them absolutely terrifying. I made packing lists, checked off tasks to wrap up at the office, and organized logistically for international travel. I prepared my family with food and freezer meals and showed my children where I would be on the world map. It was overwhelming at times, and there were moments as the Coronavirus outbreak escalated that I had second thoughts about going. At one point right before leaving, I described feeling like a rubberband on a slingshot. I was about to hurtle through time zones and culture into an epic adventure.

For the past five days I have had the pleasure of exploring Vientiane, the capital city of Laos. I am overwhelmingly grateful for this unique and important opportunity. The peaceful and welcoming culture of Laos has captured my heart and has allowed me to immerse quickly during my relatively short visit here. I have visited three incredible organizations working to improve health for people living with HIV, transgender and LGBTQ individuals and the sexual and reproductive health of youth. As I reflect on their work and the challenges they face, I feel connected to a sort of universal human experience. Poverty and stigma are significant factors in the overall health of the communities we serve. We share a common goal to expand inclusivity and access to healthcare that meets the unique needs of the people we serve. And advocacy and policy can make or break some of the most important health initiatives.

For the rest of my trip I look forward to digging deeper into issues of gender expression, homelessness and substance use, and the role of HIV prevention in garment factories. It is an absolute honor to be on this trip and welcomed into discussions on sensitive cultural topics. I cannot express my gratitude!

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Some Highlights From Cambodia (Week One)

By: Christopher Prosa, Montana Department of Labor & Industry, YSEALI Professional Fellows Program (Outbound Participant)

I visited the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) Media Action Phnom Penh office with YSEALI Professional Fellow & BBC Media Action Project Manager, Sotheary Tum, 2/5/20. I met Country Director, Gemma Hayman, members of Sotheary’s team and other support staff and discussed some potential opportunities for future collaboration. I was very impressed by the ambitious mission of BBC Media Action, to transform lives through media worldwide and how that mission is forwarded by the very unique and strategic projects in effect locally, in Phnom Penh, and across the country. One such initiative is called Klahan9, which means Brave 9, and it is a multimedia initiative that aims to engage, inform, entertain and educate youth and to aid them by providing much needed access to career guidance and training to improve their prospects of finding quality and sustainable employment. The initiative also operates in some of the most remote areas of Cambodia to reach youth who wouldn’t otherwise have access to these types of services.

On 2/5/20 I also had an initial meeting with YESEALI Fellow Sotheary Tum and Indochina Sarfish Foundation (ISF) support staff at their office in Phnom Penh. We met to discuss the youth student workforce cohort we were to serve together, their barriers to employment and to strategize on possible subject matter and student engagement strategies for upcoming employability and career readiness soft-skills training that I was to conduct with the students. We also discussed possible student interest and assessment tools for future use and criteria for me to provide review feedback on skills and interest assessment tools currently in use. I left the meeting very moved by the work that ISF does serving a wide spectrum of youth and the intrinsic motivation that drives the staff members to serve their clients by providing education, structured sports programs and providing for basic needs.

My last business partner meeting for the first half of my trip was a meeting with Sotheary Tum, National Employment Agency, Phnom Penh Job Center Director, Aing Pheareak and National Employment Agency, Phnom Penh Job Center Advisor, Keo Rattana at the Phnom Penh Job Center 2/6/20. The purpose of this initial meeting was to discuss local and regional Job Center operations and initiatives that support their workforce and employer partner clients. We also met to discuss potential future opportunities for collaboration between the Job Center and the Montana Department of Labor & Industry’s Job Service Missoula office. I found a great deal of similarity between the Job Center office operations and those of the Job Service Missoula office, including the types of clients that we serve (both workforce and business clients) and the wide array of services we offer both client groups. The National Employment Agency representatives I met with seemed very eager to learn best practices from me and I also felt eager to learn from them in an effort for us to better serve the foreign and domestic clients we represent.

Change is Possible

BY: Kari Kerr

It is hard to find words to capture the experiences and emotions of the two weeks I spent in Myanmar, learning about the culture and meeting with survivors of violence and women leaders. I was saddened to see the realities of what victims face in their country, but I was also inspired to see the dedication of the women leaders working tirelessly to make a difference. It’s difficult to think about big change when the resources are extremely limited, but we must start somewhere. We can maintain a mindset that there isn’t anything we can do or we can dig deep and start taking small steps. When I started this work in the early ‘90’s, The Community Violence Intervention Center (CVIC) had 13 staff, limited resources, and provided basic crisis services. We set our sights high and 20 years later we are now a staff of over 80, providing a comprehensive range of services focused on safety, healing and education. I shared that journey with the survivor leaders in Myanmar and we discussed what change could look like in their future. They have many barriers to overcome but they also have the passion to keep moving forward, which is critical. As I reflected on my experience on the long journey home, I kept thinking of one of my favorite quotes by Maya Angelou, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” I hope in my time there, I was able to provide information and some resources to explore different thoughts and open up some new possibilities. I know the challenge is big, but change is possible.

I am so grateful I had this opportunity and I would like to extend my deepest gratitude to Kelsey Stamm and The Maureen & Mike Mansfield Center at The University of Montana for the chance to make a difference. Thank you to Amy Whitney and the University of North Dakota Center for Innovation for partnering with the YSEALI program this past May and inviting CVIC to participate. Thank you to Mindy Walker for your guidance with preparing for the trip and to Naw Kyu Ju Ni for being an amazing host and for your dedication to working with survivors. Finally, thank you to my colleagues at CVIC for covering my responsibilities during one of the busiest months so I could share our work with women leaders and survivors in Myanmar. I feel so incredibly blessed and honored to be engaged in this work and I came home ready to face the next 20 years so we can create a violence-free community for generations to come.

From North Dakota to Myanmar

BY: Kari Kerr

It has been almost 1 week since I landed in Yangon, Myanmar, and I’m really at a loss for words to truly capture this experience so far. Naw Kyu Juni has been an incredible host and has made sure I’ve been able to experience their culture before spending the past 2 days with a survivor group. What an absolute honor and privilege to share that space with so many amazing women. My heart has been touched in ways I could never have imagined. Although we have a language barrier, it turns out a smile and a hug are very universal. I look forward to continuing this work for the next week!

The Beginning of an End

The beginning of an end

How does one learn when they were young? Recall your adolescence days, growing up, you observe how people interact. Speak. Gesture. Motion. We learn by imitation.

I was back to my younger self once more as I embarked on a two-day job shadowing class observation as the. Laramie high school. Ms Angie Varca, a passionate top class chemistry educator, hosted me in her senior chemistry class and AP Chem class.

That morning, I had under-estimated the time needed to reach the high school. Normally at the University, the start time is quite flexible. Typically we begin at 8:30am or 9am. In the high school, class starts on time at 7:50am. While on the road, I realized that I would be late. My homestay host, Carole Hertz, drove me like how my own mother would back in my home (when I was young). Carole told me that that’s the Laramie peak period, a long, single filed stacked vehicular path. She said that the high schoolers drive to school here in the U.S. I was astonished. In Singapore, it is rare for a working adult to own a car and drive to work, let alone a young adolescent maneuvering a metallic transport behind the wheels. Even though we were running late, Carole gave way to the smaller roads that had cars awaiting anxiously to inch their move towards the Main Street. Carole was kind. The gray-haired lady in the maroon SUV gestured and smiled. Carole had made someone’s day.

As we arrived at the high school (we didn’t even drive towards the drop-off point! Too rushed for time), I quickly alighted and ran towards the school. Of course I remembered to say good bye to Carole. It was back to my childhood again, with Carole/Paul vis-a-vis my mum and me (Paul is her son).

As I charged towards the high school entrance, I slipped on the icy pave. My mind was too focused on getting towards the finishing line (school general office), I had become oblivious to the white glaze in my way. I tumbled. I let out a far cry.


Quickly I picked myself up.

Because it was already 20 minutes past the school starting time, there was almost no young people outside the compound. At a distance away, from the corner of my eyes, a pair of gazes dawn upon my direction. A young chap heard my brief wail. He looked befuddled by my clumsiness.

Embarrassed by my mishap (luckily, I didn’t break any bones), I now watchfully examines every inch that my 10.5-inch feet place their weights on. It was a deliberately careful attempt. I didn’t want to fall down again.

I am now in the general office, the receptionist queried if I had a pass. I responded that I had. And that my appointment with Ms Varca was at room 3125. I frantically rummaged through my school bag. I could not find my badges.

My heart sank.

“GG.” – my mind thought.

A wasted trip?

Fortunately, the receptionist lady told me “you are good!” And that all I needed to do was to write my name on a piece of temporary sticker and paste it on my chest.



I hit my chest so hard to ensure my name tag was punched in. It was done with the amount of force that was equivalent to my days as a training officer cadet in the army, an act to show our patriotism towards our country.

I felt better having a name tag on me.

“Hey! Is that your real name?”

Someone exclaimed.

“Yes… I was given this name at birth.” I replied.

“How cool is that!?!” came the response.

As I made my to classroom 3125, my heart pounced even faster. Oh no, will I be scolded?

I walked past the door that’s labelled 3125, I swung the door opened, a lady, presumably Ms Varca, walked up to me and whispered, “Fun Man?”

I nodded sheepishly.

“Angie is at the next door.”


There was no consternation as I had anticipated. Big boy now, I thought.

I mixed up. I was supposed to join Ms Varca in room 3126.

I now stepped into the correct classroom and surreptitiously tiptoed to the back of the class, where they had several empty seats. Ms Varca was in the process of elocution. I didn’t want to interrupt her lesson. Alas, one could not avoid noticing a 6-foot 1 shadow hurrying past their vista.

Lesson goes on and I listened attentively. I took notes, I had a first sight of how dedicated the US educator is like. Angie’s classroom was embellished with inspiring quotes, posters of famous leaders and artists ranging from Martin Luther King, the Beatles on abbey street, Gandhi, and the beloved (some may argue not) JFK.

I liked how the classroom was a microcosm of knowledge and friendship, a spirit that foster the growth of learners. The classes I observed were incredibly focused. None used their cellphone. (I later learned that Ms Varca had a house-rule that no mobile devices are permitted in her class).

I took down more notes on how to teach chemistry…

Suddenly, the bell rang!

In a swift motion, the students folder that books, zipped their bags and zoomed out of the class in split seconds. Most of them quickly waved and said goodbye to Angie before harrowing out the “Salida” exit.

I curiously followed.

In the hallway, we could see a turbulent flow of young human beings traversing left and right. All the Teachers stood outside their own classroom. When they see a student they know, these lines (e.g.) could be heard:

“Benny, come for training today, will you? You will train hard to become a swimming champion one day! Work at it!”

“Esther, how’s the corrections for assignment X going? Come see me any time when ready”

The flow of students in the hallway was very new and refreshing to me. In Singapore, and I could assume to say most Asian countries, the embattled teacher has to enter the student’s turf – their classroom. Just like a Football game between the Green Bay Packers and Denver Broncos, the atmosphere when visiting an away game can be intimidating.

I liked how the class size is small here at 15-18. I liked how the teachers build their knowledge hub – an information abode that stimulates learning. I liked how the teachers greet their students at the hallway before class. I liked how students had the liberty to take charge of their learning journey.

There were so much more I want to say. My memories did not fail me, but my phone battery may, disappointingly.

Angie, Elena, Jennifer and Tamara (other teachers-thanks to Dr Parker’s linkup) and I discussed about pedagogy.

I had lunch at the student canteen (another time for this story)..

At the end of the day, I called Carole to pick up me. As she drove her Honda CR-V to the front of the school, I greeted her, “I am done with school today!”

It has been ages since she has sent a child to the high school. I feel young and rejuvenated again.

We went home and I cooked for her an Asian dish – mixed vegetables with Iowa black Angus fried dark pepper beef, with rice.


This is one of the most memorable day of my professional fellowship at Laramie.

I hold every experience close to me heart.

I remember every persons I met, all of whom were incredibly kind and generous to me.

I am truly grateful to YSEALI, the U.S. State Department for this opportunity.


Fun Man (pen name)

**See the photos for other activities that I had the privilege to experience. For that, I am thankful.

icon_10_generic_list.pngFun Man job shadowing at Laramie High school – …
icon_10_generic_list.pngImmeasurable Amount of Gratitude for YSEALI. Ph…
icon_10_generic_list.pngRichard’s Host – the Bacons, hosting the Larami…
icon_10_generic_list.pngSingapore-Malaysi YSEALI Fellows conquered Vida…
icon_10_generic_list.pngThe World is our Oysters – YSEALI.jpg
icon_10_generic_list.pngWyoming Fellows stirring up a WOK!.jpg
icon_10_generic_list.pngYSEALI makes a differernce to so many people’s …

The More time gone by, the more things happened to My Life.

By: Rojana Inkhong

Tomorrow will be the last day of my fellowship placement in Helena, Montana and the final week of the 2019 Fall YSEALI Professional Fellows Program. Joining with this program, placement at Montana Human Rights Network (MHRN) and staying with American host family are the great moment in my life. Many experiences has influenced on my life. Every story, everyone, and every time in Montana have reflected on my mind to think about power of civic engagement and active citizen. I had opportunities to meet people who dedicated themselves to help others. They inspired me to believe in myself, my belief, and my goal.

Joining with 2019 Fall YSEALI Professional Fellows Program changes my life. I realize that network and partnerships are very important not only for work but also for life. We are from Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Timor Leste, Thailand, and Vietnam. We learn and share our ideas, experiences and inspirations together. I am very impressed that my colleagues work hard in difference issues such as supporting and promoting human rights, woman rights, disability rights, LGBTQ rights, civic education, health care, sustainable public policy, equality, fairness, and peace. However, they have share ideas and policy intervention to help marginalized person and to enhance society better. I feel that I found the right place and there are supporters around me. I am very happy that I spent time with people who believe in the same value and philosophy. Friendship happens when we see each other eyes. We know that we see the same world; better world!!

Placement at the Montana Human Rights Network (MHRN) fulfills my belief and my goal. The MHRN is a non-governmental organization (NGO) that organizes Montana residents to realize their power to create pluralism, justice, and equality in community. They challenge bigotry and discrimination, support marginalized people, and advocate for legislation that honors everyone’s basic rights. They expand human rights in Montana by pursuing progressive public policy, combating white nationalism, and supporting community organizing. They address issues of LGBT Equality, Economic Justice, Immigrant/Refugee Rights, Anti-Semitism & Islamophobia, and Tribal Sovereignty The MHRN is a professional organization that runs by knowledge, information, and passion. The MHRN’s staffs work hard in deep each issue. They do research, work closely with community and network, create progressive public policy, and support positive things. Moreover, they work cross other organizations because Human Rights are all around and touch every part of personal life. Human Rights issue intersects with other issues especially woman rights, disability rights, children rights and minority rights, etc. I had opportunities to learn from other organizations such as Montana Coalition, Disability Rights Montana, Montana Women Vote, Empower Montana, and YWCA’s work to eliminate racism and empower women and discussed with City Commissioner. I saw American professional culture such as active citizen, volunteerism, community engagement, freedom of choice, self-determination, participation, network and organization coalition. They made me understand about leadership. I found that Leader is someone who has service mind and wishes to help others from suffering and to get others life better. My professional fellowship host told me that someone who manages well does not guarantee that they are a good leader. Leadership has many elements such as initiative, creativity, responsibility, courage, empathy, sympathy, love, encouragement, open mind, open space for all, advocacy, and work life balance. Leadership is a skill in the term of practical management, emotion intelligent, creativity and decision making that everyone can learn and practice. Everyone can be a good leader. Some jobs are a low payment, hard work, high risk and violence. However, people still work in uncomfortable area because they cannot hide themselves behind safe and comfortable place while there are a lot of people face insecurity situations and suffering. If we can do anything why we do not help them? I found that many people create their meaning of life from passion, belief and philosophy. They can do hard work, dangerous work and low-income work because they wish enhance the standard of living in society.

Staying with American host family made me understand about American culture and American life style. I had opportunities to stay with 2 host families. First week at Helena I stay with the first host family and after I change to other host family. I found that the American people value in family, friend and social. They have a lot of parties and events. They give time and space for their families and friend and take care society. I am very surprise that everyone in the town know each other and bring their family and their kid together. Moreover, they have a work-life balance. Children have a decision making skill and self-determination. They believe in themselves, their ability and opinion that is different from children in my country. I found that parent talk about politics, social problems, Human Rights, equality, LGBTQ rights, anti-racism, and rationalism with their kids. American people usually talks about politics with their family and their friends because they realize that politics and policies effect on their daily lives. In the part of food, American food is combination of international food from Mexican, Italian, Mediterranean, and Spanish food etc. It is very interesting that the U.S is diversity and freedom society. However, American society still faces social problems: white supremacy, white nationalism and hate groups.

The things that I learn from 2019 Fall YSEALI Professional Fellows Program are “do not just”, “a coin has two sides”, and “change how you see not how you look”. The program made me think about civic engagement, leadership, networking, community engagement, freedom of choice, voluntarism, empowerment and inclusive society. Furthermore, there are many things remind me about Audrey Hepburn. She said “as you grow older, you will discover that you have two hands, one for helping yourself, the other for helping others.”

Let’s Talk About Sex

You might be wondering why a YSEALI Professional Fellow is talking about sex on this blog, the simple answer? Because no one is talking about sex here.

Sex can be a lot of things to different people.

  • Sex can be sacred.
  • Sex can be fun.
  • Sex can be scary.
  • Sex can be messy.
  • Sex can be good.
  • And Sex can just be Sex.

We won’t be on this planet without it, and yet you don’t hear a lot of people talk about it.

From my three weeks of stay here in Wyoming, I came to realized that our problems back home in the Philippines were almost the same as what they have here: some people are still not accessing sexual health services because they’re ashamed of being tagged as LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender), being seen at the community center, or not affording the health service that they need.

Even some People Living with HIV are getting lost to follow-up, because of these same reasons.

What caught my attention is how these people in the U.S.A and in the Philippines are getting through these barriers, and making something from it.

Advocates and health workers are supplementing what they’re getting from the government from other outside sources: from pharmaceuticals, from grants to private donations, just so they could provide service to everyone who needs HIV testing, prevention, and treatment services, especially the ones who are at the seams of poverty, but they need to know you’re here, and that you’re willing to do your part.

Our problems back home might be magnified by our current economic situation; however, that doesn’t mean we’re going to stop making things possible for our people. Empowering people to love themselves and take care of themselves is the best and easiest thing we could do to help ourselves and others. As the saying goes, prevention is better than cure, it’s also a lot cheaper.

Whether it’s with sexual partners or even a healthcare provider, you should talk about your sexual health.

So let’s talk about sex more 😉

by L.A Lomarda 🇵🇭

YSEALI Professional Fellow Fall 2019