ST. PAUL — The Facing Race Ambassador Awards to be held April 29, at 7 p.m. in the Prom Center in Oakdale, will honor five Minnesotans, including Hli Xyooj, an attorney and Hmong outreach coordinator at Farmers’ Legal Action Group. The even is free and open to the public.
The event will include remarks from Carleen Rhodes, President and CEO, The Saint Paul Foundation. The 2013 Ambassador Award recipients include Ellen O’Neill, YWCA of Duluth; and Josie R. Johnson, Josie Robinson Johnson and Associates and Regent Emeriti University of Minnesota. The Honorable Mentions include Corinth Matera, Minneapolis South High School; Oluwaseyi Daniel Oyinloye, University of Minnesota Duluth; and Hli Xyooj, Farmers’ Legal Action Group.
“Anti-racism work has allowed me to have a clearer and deeper understanding of the social and power structures that continue to enforce racism,” Hli Xyooj said in the press release. “It has taught me many lessons in humility and continues to remind me that my actions and decisions at all levels can work for or against racial justice.”
Dr. Manuel Pastor, Professor of American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California, will deliver the keynote addrress on the dramatic demographic shifts currently underway in the U.S. and the gap between progress in racial attitudes and racial realities. He will offer a new set of strategies for both talking about race and achieving racial equity.
Hli Xyooj was part of the first wave of Hmong children entering kindergarten in Minnesota in 1982. She was born in a refugee camp in Thailand, recalled that her first teachers in Minneapolis set her apart from the other children, and spoke to her differently.
“I was in class with everyone else, but I was allowed to be excused,” said Xyooj. “I don’t remember participating or learning. My teachers were not bigots, and were well-intentioned, but our society conditions all of us to treat people differently without evaluating why.”
Growing up in Minnesota as an immigrant and a woman of color, Xyooj said she regularly experienced subtle interactions with people that left her feeling angry, ashamed, and alienated.
Over time, Xyooj’s analysis and understanding of race and relationships have evolved, and the angry reactions of her youth have subsided, replaced with love, diplomacy and education.
Today, Xyooj works primarily with Hmong farmers in her job as staff attorney and Hmong community outreach coordinator at Farmer’s Legal Action Group, Inc. A notable incident last year in May Township (Washington County) underscored for Xyooj the importance of communication, patience and diplomacy in race relations.
In early 2012, a group of about 40 Hmong farmers in May Township were surprised by the news that a local ordinance was to be enacted that would restrict vegetable farmers. The Hmong farmers had not been consulted about the ordinance even though they only grow vegetables. Local corn and soybean farmers were exempt from the ordinance.
The restrictive measure included rules that would have determined what time of day the Hmong could farm and during which seasons (April 1 to Oct 30), as well as where they could and could not park their vehicles. Other ordinance restrictions included requiring farmers to provide a site plan for their operation, and the use of portable toilets.
Xyooj said those who wrote the ordinance didn’t see her clients as famers because the township’s view of farming was very different than the Hmong.
“We didn’t say it, but yes, of course racism played a role, indirectly, in the creation of this ordinance,” said Xyooj. “The ordinance was created on assumptions about a group of people and designed to restrict them even though their vegetable farm operations are similar to others in the same community.”
Xyooj and her team of lawyers briefed the farmers on their rights and went to work to get the ordinance repealed.
Xyooj knew that going to court would have ruined relationships, and that emphasizing communication over litigation would be a more fruitful strategy. So, Xyooj connected her farmer clients with township leaders and residents. They met several times, sharing stories and the history of Minnesota’s Hmong farming families.
The township rescinded the ordinance, and today, the farmers and township leaders are working toward a more involved and inclusive relationship.
“The work is really never done and we are planning to have more conversations,” said Xyooj. “But, building relationships and opening perspectives and minds really changes the whole story. Both sides are becoming more comfortable with each other as they realize they have a personal connection. I think that’s exciting work.”