Master of Arts in Sustainable International Development

Lah Soukkaseum, MA SID’23

Lah SoukkaseumOpen Society Foundation Fellow

Growing up in the Khmu community in Laos, Lah Soukkaseum, MA SID’23, saw firsthand the struggles that many indigenous women face. Today she is building a career – and a social enterprise – that incorporates economic empowerment and cultural preservation through sustainable development practice.

Soukkaseum explains that the Khmu community (one of the first indigenous peoples of Laos) struggles with high poverty rates, and many Khmu people rely on agriculture and other natural resources to make a living. In times of climate change and rapid and uneven development, such livelihoods are at risk. Furthermore, women and girls in the community are expected to marry young and not attend school or work outside the home, which limits their opportunities.

Soukkaseum is one of few Khmu women from rural backgrounds working in development and public policy in Laos, and she has worked closely with rural communities, NGOs, and government on issues ranging from disaster risk reduction, emergency response, education, human trafficking, green cities and women empowerment. Her experience inspired her to create a community where other young women could learn skills to become financially independent. “What if I could do something that can help a group of women make money so they can have power in the family?” she asked herself.

In July 2018, Soukkaseum founded Talampam, which focuses on improving economic empowerment and gender equity for women in rural Laos. Talampam, which means “butterfly” in the Khmu language, builds networks among young artists in Laos and shares traditional knowledge and culture through designs, simultaneously protecting Khmu culture and fostering job opportunities for rural and minority women.

Soukkaseum is eager to use what she’s learned at Heller to further support sustainable development and cultural protection in her community and beyond. She first heard about Heller’s Master of Arts in Sustainable International Development (SID) program through a friend, and she was intrigued by how relevant it was to her background and future goals.

“The SID program is perfect because it’s broad – in a good way,” she says. “You get to learn about different areas and learn what is the best approach to do something. I have a chance to learn different things and see the opportunities to do something in the community.”

Soukkaseum is the first woman in her family to enroll in a higher education program and is a recipient of the Open Society Foundation’s highly selective fellowship program.

After graduation, Soukkaseum plans to return to Laos to build a learning center that will connect indigenous knowledge and tradition to younger generations; create space to help people build careers through traditional arts; and establish a small museum dedicated to the Khmu culture.

Soukkaseum is excited by the skills and connections she is developing at Heller that will help grow her ideas for the learning center.

“True to Heller, there are a lot of classes where I can learn and connect with people, and through these connections, I can find opportunities to apply for grants that will support my project – and my community – back home in Laos,” she says.