From Burma to Brainfood: Reflections from Paing

Aung Myo Paing shares his journey to Brainfood through the YSEALI program. In his time at Brainfood, Paing taught us about Mon food, what it’s like to work 3 jobs, and the importance of keeping culture alive in youth communities. We’re looking forward to staying in touch with the very important work that he’s doing.

I was selected by American Councils for the Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative, a program that focuses on Economic Empowerment. My fellowship journey started in late April and I will be in Washington, DC for four weeks in total. At Brainfood, I have observed the ways in which the non-profit sector works for their community and how it facilitates an economic solution to some issues within the region. I have co-founded a similar organization, Mon Youth Society (MYS), in Burma, which started with a conversation and reading club in early 2008. It is a non-profit organization based in our capital city: Rangoon. We provide a capacity development training program for youth that focuses on career advancement and leadership skills through extensive management courses that also serve to provide pathways towards higher education.
MYS relies completely on the commitment of members for funding and labor. funding and contribution. Most of us members come from Southern part of the country. In 2012, we set up a project named Income Generation Initiative Program during which we collected domestic products of respective member areas and distributed in the city. In 2016, we opened a community restaurant asa way to make additional income, create job opportunities for youth and thus support the organization. Food in the restaurant specialize in Mon cuisine. In the future, we hope to continue to grow our activities and open more branches of the restaurant.

My placement at Brainfood brings me many experiences and insight into the non-profit sector, as well as those experiences related to economic empowerment in US. I believe I can bring these ideas to my organization.

YSEALI Fellowship matched me with Brainfood because of the similarities between our organizations. I was excited to join Brainfood because I find it to be an interesting organization led by a number of young professionals seeking to serve the youth community of DC.

In terms of similarity, both Brainfood and my organization in Burma, The Mon Youth Society (MYS), are working on youth capacity development, soft-skills innovation, empowerment, leadership, entrepreneurship and advocacy both for career advancement, as well as life skills. For MYS, we started in a very simple way, by hosting a reading club,and then extended our activities in order to better serve the community’s needs. I notice a similar pattern at Brainfood, starting with their cooking classes and moving on to Homegrown, an entrepreneurial food production business. My time thus far at Brainfood has taught me many things to bring back to Burma as our community restaurant creates work opportunity for youth members and encourages them to learn by doing.
From my observation, Brainfood seems to be a sustainable program because of the way that they provide young people the space to actively do things, rather than just listen to a lecture. It motivates students to be creative by letting them work together. I found this teamwork and creativity in every single class that I observed at Brainfood. It is also obvious to me that all Brainfood staff and volunteers have a common vision, which is that they love what they do! I see this as a sign for positive change.

Aside from observing classes, I have also participated in Brainfood’s staff meetings, where I am warmly welcomed and asked to share my experiences. I also had a chance to meet with Paul Dahm, Brainfood’s Executive Director, and have learned about the things that have inspired him to work for the organization for over a decade. He also talked with to me about the community needs that Brainfood tries to fill, as well as the supportive roles of Brainfood’s stakeholders. Towards the end of my fellowship, I was able to participate in the graduation ceremony, the recruitment processes for summer programs, second year program preparation and the Homegrown business activities.
My overall hope during this program is to observe how the non-profit sector organizations work for their people. Brainfood is such a perfect match. Again, it is such a great honor to be here in Brainfood and know that a lifelong relationship will be built up through this network.