We are honoring the lives of Mr. Thongsoun Phuthama and his wife, Boua Vanvilay, who passed away from COVID-19 on December 22 and 25th respectively. Thoungsoun and Boua were both active leaders in Richmond’s Laotian community, and their passing, amidst so much other loss this year, is heartbreaking.
Thongsoun settled in Richmond in 1979. He was a single father with three young children and they were one of the first few Laotian refugee families to settle in Richmond. In Laos, he had been a captain and military academy trainer in the Lao Army. After the Secret War in Laos, he escaped to Thailand before resettling in Richmond. Over the years, he worked many different jobs from restaurant work to auto mechanic. For decades, he was an active leader in the Richmond Laotian community.
Mr. Thongsoun Phuthama speaking at Richmond City Council against Chevron’s 2013 proposed expansion project.
When APEN started the Laotian Organizing Project in 1995, Thongsoun attended the first meeting. He stayed connected to the organization until his passing. After he and his wife Boua got married, they attended leader meetings and campaign actions together.
In 2002, Thongsoun represented APEN at the 2nd People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit in Washington DC, where he led a traditional Lao Baci ceremony for the entire convening. For many years, he spoke out against the Chevron refinery’s pollution and greed. After advocating for a multilingual phone warning system, in 2005, he was the one of the first residents to have one installed in his home. In 2009, he was an active leader in the lawsuit that halted Chevron’s billion dollar expansion and again advocated against Chevron’s expansion project in 2013. He continued to speak at city council meetings, attend APEN educational sessions, and participate in campaigns well into his 80s.
Even as his health and mobility declined, his commitment to fight for a healthier Richmond and investment in the community never waned. Although Thongsoun had no formal education, he learned to read and write with the help of friends and dedicated himself to learning, carefully taking notes at every meeting. A father of 5 children and grandfather of 12 grandchildren, he valued youth leadership and was especially attentive and inspirational to young leaders and staff.
In addition to his leadership at APEN, Thongsoun helped found the Lao Senior Association and the Khmu Federation and maintained a role on both boards for many years. He also worked in the Lao community garden.
While we grieve this loss, we honor Thongsoun and Boua’s legacies by continuing to fight for a healthier and more just Richmond, learning from our elders, empowering our youth and finding ways to come together and take care of each other.