Recently we had the joy of speaking with Noumoua Lynaolu, known to our CUSA community as the very first Circle Leader. From Laos to California to Iowa and back to California again, Noumoua and her family have lived several lifetimes’ worth of growth and challenge. Speaking over Zoom, Noumoua reflected on how her willingness to be vulnerable among strangers—not to mention her experience with CUSA founder Scott Miller—transformed her life more than 20 years ago.
“Even though we were ‘on the lower rung,’
the truth is I never went without what I needed.”
“My mom and dad supported us traveling on the arts and craft circuit all throughout the Southwest,” Noumoua told us. “I was born in Albuquerque and raised in California. That area has a lot of nostalgia for me and always tugs on my heart. So when I [re-]connected with Scott Miller a few weeks ago, it was kind of full circle in more ways than one. Me coming back to my birth city and then connecting with Scott, who was a mentor and friend and Ally in what is now notoriously known as ‘the First Circle.’”
Above all, she emphasized, “I’m American. My siblings are first generation and I’m second generation, technically: I’m the last of nine children. When my mom and dad came from Laos after the fall of Saigon in the Vietnam War, they came with my eight siblings. They all arrived here, and then I was born a few months later. So it’s interesting how that all works out.”
Noumoua described the spectrum of gain and loss, both financial and cultural, her family has navigated as émigrés. “The Hmong people [an indigenous Southeast Asian culture with a U.S. population of roughly 327,000] have a long history of being from hill tribes and dealing with some extreme poverty. But what’s poverty in one community looks different than another, right? So ‘Americans’ might look at and say, ‘yeah, no toilet, no running water….’ But that part of the world was heavily influenced by the French occupation, and my father and uncles actually came from a lot of privilege. They were from a very educated family and had high status jobs—I had a doctor in the family! So I don’t think that we were the ‘average’ Hmong family. Even though we were ‘on the lower rung’ here in America, the truth is I never went without what I needed.
“In America,” Noumoua continued, “you get to really check out what that poverty looks like, right? Because then you’re dealing with assimilation, language barriers, gender imbalances and all that stuff. And then there’s me born here…. Of course I grew up looking different and being different. The Hmong people are historically agrarian-based people. They are known for slash-and-burn techniques. My mom and dad did a lot of gardening in California, and we always had food. We didn’t say, ‘oh, let’s go to the store and buy ourselves a steak.’ We said, ‘let’s go buy ourselves a cow and split it with the neighbors.’ And so we always had the basic stuff.”
“When I think of Circles, it’s like all the stars had to align. And some of those stars were less than appealing, but those are all part of the journey.”
Noumoua was a single mom in her early twenties and a newcomer to Ames, Iowa, when she found a flier at the state’s Department of Human Assistance. That slip of paper helped her make a fateful connection: “I was living in subsidized housing. I was lucky enough my one-and-a-half-year-old daughter Arabesque and I were able to get a one-bedroom,” she said. “Then I finally made it to a Community Leadership Team meeting, which became known as our regular Thursday night dinner. That’s where the community would come together and break bread.”
Noumoua’s first encounters with this pre-Circles cohort, Noumoua said, came at a time when “my goal was just to survive and to make sure my daughter was okay. And I didn’t really even know how that would be. I had no aspirations for school at that time—I had no aspirations. I just knew I needed a job. I needed to make sure I was okay. And mostly I wanted to get that car so that I wouldn’t have to deal with public transit. I never even realized that I didn’t have a dream, you know what I mean? I had never thought about it, because I was so distracted by just trying to survive that I never even thought about the future. It was kind of scary to think about the future…like, ‘please don’t mire me down with fantasies. I need to pay my bills. I need food on my table.’”
She recalled that these early dinners “were almost always facilitated by Lois, who was one of the co-founders of Beyond Welfare and Community Team. You’d have Allies and participants there… I didn’t really notice that the allies were much better dressed because there weren’t cliques. Everybody was treated equal, so it was just one big group. Later on, I found out these ‘anybodies and everybodies’ were Allies, participants, young moms, single dads, people who were really, really struggling. There was [all] manner of distress and need. Yet there was also a moment where everybody just said, ‘Well, I have this to give,’ or ‘oh, I need this,’ or ‘if anybody knows this…’ And so that was a safe place to be vulnerable, or to share.”
“On my first or second night, Scott [Miller] approached me and said, ‘Hey, my name is Scott. We have this new process… Is that something that would interest you?’ I really didn’t even know who he was, but somehow he just zeroed in on me. So that’s how it came to be: it was just two strangers meeting at a Community Leadership Team dinner.”
Tune in next week for Part 2 of this conversation.