Over the past week, I’ve had the privilege to visit Luang Prabang, Laos, as part of the State Department-sponsored 2016 Summit of the Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative (YSEALI).

My colleagues in our Asia division put on a flawless program that included trainings in monitoring and evaluation, social media, and financial management, as well as presentations by numerous local exemplars of the summit’s theme of sustainable development. The highlight of the week for me personally, though, took place today during our service activities.

Last week, the group of 176 young leaders from all 10 countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) split into several groups to participate in community projects around Luang Prabang and the surrounding towns. My group was assigned to an activity with Ock Pop Tok, a social enterprise whose name means “East Meets West.” In more ways than one, Ock Pop Tok represents to me the importance of IRI’s work in ASEAN and continued American engagement in the region. The name signifies the cooperation of the two women who founded the company, an Englishwoman and a Lao woman. Throughout every stage of their operations, from selecting silk producers entirely within Laos and Thailand, to employing local women and men, to the painstaking process of showcasing Lao culture through textiles, they prioritize social good in line with profit. 

Ock Pop Tok’s approach is anything but easy. I stared in wonder at the various production stages – one woman creating a skein of silk thread from cocoons soaked in water, another boiling teak leaves for a stunning pinkish-gray hue – and reflected on the quality that’s created through slow, laborious effort. Whether in the making of their goods or the operation of their business, Ock Pop Tok’s founders aren’t concerned with getting it done quickly. They’re concerned with getting it done right.

Democracy promotion is the same type of exercise. Our partners in the countries we work in, as well as our teams around the world, often feel the frustration that comes with numerous setbacks and the many obstacles our cause faces. The most dangerous obstacle of all is the desire to throw the towel in, to give up on the cause altogether, to let apathy and fear replace the endless optimism that’s essential to soldiering on. In the faces of the YSEALI participants, though, I saw the energy and dedication that we need. Just as the English immigrant to Luang Prabang joined forces with her Lao business partner, our team stands shoulder-to-shoulder with these young activists, ready to provide any assistance necessary as they strive to better their communities. Over this past week, East met West, and I can’t wait to see what’s next to come out of this fruitful relationship. 

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