March 28, 2023

Ten middle school students at New Millennium Academy in Minneapolis took time out from their summer arts program (facilitated by college student PaDao Yang) to pose for a picture. (Contributed photos)


From drawing to dancing or writing poetry, the act of creating art is powerful on its own. But for PaDao Yang, art is also a tool to encourage Hmong youth to express themselves and a link to their culture.

Yang, an Augsburg College student from Brooklyn Park, spent the summer working with Hmong youth as part of an arts program she designed and implemented. Called “Expressionist Art: Youth Leadership Development through the Arts,” her program enabled 10 middle school students at New Millennium Academy in Minneapolis to learn about both traditional Hmong and modern art forms.

Major themes woven throughout the summer were identity and self-expression.

For youth, “art is a way they can express who they really are,” Yang said.

Students worked with local artists who instructed them in four art concentrations – traditional Hmong needlecraft – called paj ntaub (pronounced roughly ‘peng dao’), meaning “story cloth” – dancing with Hmong and hip-hop components, spoken word and creative writing. At the summer’s end, the youth had the chance to demonstrate their skills at the Hmong Arts and Music Festival in St. Paul.

While boys in the program most enjoyed hip-hop dancing and girls liked sewing, everyone participated in each art activity and was enthusiastic about the program overall. One boy, for instance, said he liked needlecraft because he had sewn with his mother when he was younger.

The students’ openness to and interest in art reflects the importance art has in the Hmong community, Yang said. Even so, completing the program demonstrated to her that there is still a need for art and art programming among Hmong youth. She points to a creative writing exercise students worked on in which they were asked to write about what they would do if their voice was taken from them.

“The students wrote things that they never would have told me one-on-one, because while there were a few who were outspoken, most were shy. They wrote a lot about their families and about things going on in their lives as middle schoolers,” she said.

Yang, a sociology major, proposed and then completed her community project as a part of being selected as a Phillips Scholar. The program, funded by the Jay and Rose Phillips Family Foundation, awards six annual scholarships to students at Minnesota private colleges who demonstrate a commitment to community service.

Yang said there is a natural connection between sociology and art.

“With sociology, we learn about human behavior, why we act the way we do and why we treat each other the way we do. A lot of art relates to the self and self-expression,” she said.

In the future, Yang sees herself working in higher education (she’s most interested in student affairs) or in a coordinator position at a nonprofit “working with any community in need,” she said.

And her plans for the not-so-distant future just might include another summer working with the same students from New Millennium Academy – at their request.

“At the end of the program, they asked if we would come back next summer,” she said.

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