SPPS Board Chair Kazoua Kong Thao described the near completed effort to have Hmong history implemented into the curriculum.
By TOM LAVENTURE
AAP staff writer
ST. PAUL (May 29, 2010) – The Hmong Organizing Program of TakeAction Minnesota held a public forum last Saturday to hear leaders and candidates for office discuss possible solutions to leading issues facing the community as determined by a survey conducted at the time of the 2008 election.
The event was titled “Building Justice and Equity for the Hmong Community Forum” Saturday, on the theme “Hmong issues: Hear it. Know it. Solve it. Be a part of the solution.”
The highlight of the event, held at Hmong American Alliance Church in Maplewood, was the announcement by St. Paul Public School Board Chair, Kazoua Kong Thao, that the effort to have Hmong history implemented into the curriculum of the schools, has received a letter of support from Superintendent of Schools Valeria Silva.
Kong Thao said she has supported this initiative from the beginning, as a product of the school system herself – she recalled students and faculty asking if she was Chinese or Japanese – not knowing what Hmong was at the time.
She said Hmong history is full of important information that brings an important perspective and understanding not only to its own culture but with context to Asian and American history. It is important for Hmong students and parents, but she it is also so that students, faculty and community can better know the Hmong which make up so much of the school district.
Kong Thao said the next step is for the curriculum to run through the Center for Professional Development for lesson plans in secondary level courses in geography and the history of Hmong culture. They want to have the classes approved and ready for the 2010-2011 school year.
“So this is a good start,” said Kong Thao. “This is the beginning, and I hope that our community comes together and implements this in the schools. I want this to be a model to the rest of the nation and the country.”
Vang Lor, HOP Regional Co-Director and Trainer, offered a personal testimonial as to the impact of Hmong history on his life. He was a high school drop out at age 15, and said he felt racial discrimination and cultural conflicts in the home.
After working aimless jobs he went to live with an elder brother in California, and enrolled at Chico State University to earn his GED. The school offered a History of the Hmong People course that he said changed his life after learning about the people and events – feeling part of something bigger than himself.
Inspired, he returned to Minnesota, and is now graduating from Concordia University with a degree in Social Justice and Sociology – adding that he has a 4.0 GPA.
Roy Magnuson, a member of the St. Paul Federation of Teachers, who instituted the first Hmong history course into his curriculum at Como High School in the 1990s, also spoke to the importance of children having a sound foundation in U.S. history to make sense of society.
“History is more than memorization of fact, it is the search for meaning of the past, present and future,” said Magnuson, adding that controversy and disagreement are all part of the process of understanding.
The history of the Hmong is diverse and controversial but it is rewarding to study,” he said.
Magnuson also addressed the negative impact of the now defunct Gang Strike Force in its cataloging of kids coming to summertime school activities, grouping kids as gang members for carpooling or speaking to known or suspected gang members of their own age group. Guilt by association is a dangerous trend that could impact the lives and even lead to the prosecution of innocents.
“I respect the police and the work they do but its policies have not always been race neutral when it come to law enforcement for youth and young adults,” he added. “I wish that Senator Mee Moua’s language had been left in the crime bill and enacted into law.”
Kong Chee Vang and Minneapolis City Councilmember John Quincy were present to discuss the work on Minneapolis Police Reforms.
The motivation stems from past years of trouble with community relations and also within the force, which some Asian recruits say discouraged them from staying on the force. Then in 2006, Fong Lee was shot and killed by a Minneapolis police officer who was later acquitted of wrongdoing and received an award which infuriated a community that felt an injustice was done.
The progress so far was that the city has reformed its policies and regulations on requiring a wider circle of review for approval of police awards from the city and not at the discretion of the chief or the mayor individually.
Kong Chee Vang thanked St. Paul Police Chief Harrington for his input on the issue and for developing a model police department in St. Paul.
“I know that Chief Dolan has done a lot of work in the community but further policies need to be implemented,” he said.
Councilmember Quincy said these issues and others have changed the way that local government has worked from the past. He said the council has come a long way since 2005 and especially since the beginning of 2010.
He said the city better understands how it responds to high profile incidents can either build or erode trust and confidence in leadership. This is a major concern when thinking about the next generation and their role in taking part in building the community, he said.
Quincy said significant changes with the MPD are incentive to hire Hmong speaking officers, a more positive relationship between public safety and the community, and the change in how the city handles the police award process. The result is better community exchange and a more inclusive and sensitive process to ensure that past reviews, complaints and law violations are considered.
Victory Vu, HOP Board Member, spoke briefly on the concerns over Light Rail on University Avenue. He said the Hmong that have built their lives with businesses on the corridor are afraid that with LRT will come increased rents and taxes that will force many to move from the Frogrown area.
He said it would take collaboration with other communities to ensure that the negative impacts are minimized.
“Frogtown is in the heart of the Hmong community,” said Vu. “This is where majority of us live or work or shop.”
Another topic of interest to the community is the cost of Hmong funerals. Advocates for reform say recent studies show that funerals can leave huge debts to surviving families of $30,000 to $60,000.
Kou Vang discussed the costs that come in part from the relatively few Hmong funeral homes that will perform traditional services that can last several days. He said the community would need on voice on this issue to get the support of government.
The TakeAction Minnesota HOP team is advocating for a publicly funeral facility in the City of St. Paul to conduct Hmong funeral rituals for a small rental fee.
There has been a national effort to get the service of Royal Lao Armed Forces Special Guerilla Unit soldiers recognized as a component of the the United States during the Secret War in Laos. The goal is to get aging soldiers benefits including military burial rights at Fort Snelling National Cemetery.
Hmong SGU soldiers suffer the same ailments as their American compatriots. They have PTSD, depression, toxin exposure and the physical ailments typical of soldiers of that war. They have the added issues of isolation from language and cultural barriers, and financial problems as underemployed and again refugees.
HOP proposes to have the Secretary of Veteran Affair, General Eric K. Shinseki, write a directive to allow benefits to all Hmong Secret War veterans and their surviving family members.
Dai Thao introduced Rena Moran, the TakeAction Minnesota endorsed candidate for House District 65A. It came in part for her support of SGU veterans issues, said Thao, who is a co-chair of her campaign.
Moran said that as an African American who had family members in the Vietnam War, she shares the heartache and concerns of returning soldiers that did not feel honored or recognized. She said it is important to learn and understand the contributions of the Hmong to American history.
“I will work with you on these issues,” said Moran. “When we listen to each others stories then we begin to understand and appreciate each other.”
Long Yang, vice president, Special Guerrilla Unit Veterans and Families USA, Inc., said these soldiers were recruited by the CIA to fight from 1961 to 1975, rescuing pilots, destroying enemy trails and protecting radar instillations. They helped prevent the Vietnamese from coming into Laos on the northern border, he added.
Many of these soldiers died and those that survived had to escape with nothing but their loved ones and the clothes on their back.
Michael Siebenaler, staff of U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison (MN-5) was present to talk about mobilizing for more effective attempts at veteran benefits legislation on the national level. He said that the Congressman is more effective with a stronger lobby.
The SGU veterans could help their own cause by talking to commanders of local Veterans of Foreign Wars and American Legion halls, where they could gain letters of support and network for a more effective lobby.
The other components include records that channel benefits eligibility to a place and time the soldier served. He used the Filipino WWII veterans as an example of an effective organizing effort that won benefits piece by piece over 60 years.
Mee Xiong, a HOP Board and a Delegate to the DFL State Convention in Duluth last month, spoke about the Governor’s Race and what it means to the Hmong community. She said that legislation and policies made and signed by the Governor at the State’s capitol have direct impact on the Hmong community.
She said the Hmong voice was not heard in this administration, with no Hmong staff working in the Governor’s office. HOP is confronting gubernatorial candidates to ensure that the governor will have Hmong staff and working on community issues.
Xiong introduced Speaker of the House Margaret Anderson Kelliher, who was endorsed by the DFL at the convention as its candidate for Governor.
Anderson Kelliher congratulated HOP for its organizing ability and said that her administration would recognize clan leadership, advocates and Hmong veterans.
“I know how much you love America and we need to work together to deliver on the great promise of America and Minnesota for the Hmong American community,” said Anderson Kelliher.
She said that the learning process means educating ourselves every day about the Hmong and other communities in order to work together more effectively. She said the Hmong would be part of her overall priories and along with jobs, education and healthcare would be Hmong funerals and veterans issues.
Dan McGrath, executive director, TakeAction Minnesota, said that he was raised in Wausau, Wisconsin, home to a large Hmong community, and that the community essentially turned its back on the new refugees 33 years ago. This impacted his life to want to do more. He was the only White player on the school soccer team and said he shared the pain of racism directed toward his teammates and himself.
“It was because of this experience I became community organizer,” said McGrath. “I hold the belief that united with each other we can defeat the racial injustices that racial hatred can create.”
Ka Houa Yang, president, Lao Family Community and of the Yang Clan was present to congratulate the young Hmong organizers for their vision and action on community issues. The Hmong have come a long way, he said, but there is much more to be accomplished.