By Eren Simpson
Photos courtesy of SEAC
The Southeast Asian Coalition was founded in 2011 by Cat Bao Le, who moved to Charlotte from California and saw firsthand the lack of resources available for members of this community.
Bao Le, who is from Vietnam, was sent to Charlotte by an Asian civil rights organization based in Los Angeles to create a three-month project that would provide the Vietnamese community with citizenship services. But upon her arrival, she quickly realized there was a large community of Southeast Asians– – including those from Cambodia, Burma and Laos– – and she saw how few resources were available to them. So when the opportunity arose to negotiate for funding to create an organization that could help this community, Bao Le stepped up to the plate.
“I started in this position because someone needed to sign on the dotted line,” Bao Le says. She said she’s always been more of a front-line activist and that being an executive director is not really her cup of tea, but she’s grown into the role.
While the Southeast Asian Coalition (SEAC) started out providing mainly citizenship services, the organization has blossomed to include much more.
“For Charlotte, SEAC is different, because while we do provide services, we also work to create a voice for the Southeast Asian population in the city,” Bao Le says. “We take up causes like immigration, police brutality and deportation, which impacts Southeast Asians at a disproportionate rate, but a lot of people don’t know about it.”
Bao Le says SEAC also tries to help members of the community understand the democratic process, and holds forums where they can meet local political candidates, and also provides volunteers who can translate for them at the polls.
Bao Le has also added a youth component to SEAC.
“I wanted to grow the leadership pipeline,” Bao Le says.
One night a week, at-risk high school students are mentored by volunteers from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and Davidson College with similar backgrounds.
“The kids in the program aren’t all Southeast Asians; they come from the community … all are welcome,” Bao Le says.
As part of the youth program, SEAC mentors and volunteers work not just with the kids, but with their families as well, to address any underlying issues.
SEAC also focuses a lot on advocacy and inclusion– – making sure the Southeast Asian community is part of the greater community around it.
“We really put that out there when immigration reform was an option,” Bao Le says.
The organization has made sure to participate in Charlotte’s annual Pride parade, the Martin Luther King Day parade and other community events.
Since its inception, SEAC has helped thousands of people through its citizenship and youth programs.
“It keeps growing,” she says about the organization and its reach.
While SEAC started in Charlotte, the organization’s leadership now travels to Greensboro, High Point, Albemarle and other communities.
“People come to us because we speak the languages, we’re accountable and they see us in the community, at their churches, etc.,” Bao Le says.
Bao Le says the most important thing to her about SEAC is that the organization is all-inclusive and won’t turn anyone away who needs help navigating citizenship or needs help figuring out other resources.
“It’s the only way we can do work within our community and be a part of a larger movement in North Carolina,” Bao Le says. “We’ll always be anchored in the Southeast Asian community as long as there’s a need, but we have an open-door policy; everyone is welcome.”
To learn how to support SEAC or learn more about its upcoming programs, visit www.seacnc.org.