Minneapolis conference highlights Hmong accomplishments

Friday, April 22, 2011

As a small child, MayKao Hang fled war-ravaged Laos with her family for the dubious safety of a resettlement camp in Thailand. They were, like thousands of other Hmong refugees, an impoverished people without a country.

That quickly changed.

"I'm 38," said MayKao Hang, a graduate of Como Park Senior High School, Brown University and the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs.

"I came to the United States when I was 4, so English is not my first language. But I grew up bilingual, bicultural. I'm college educated. I have a graduate degree. And now I'm the president of the Wilder Foundation."

With her own struggles and accomplishments in mind, MayKao Hang will give the keynote address this weekend at the Hmong National Conference at the Marriott City Center Hotel in downtown Minneapolis.

The three-day conference, now in its 15th year, is expected to draw 900 young Hmong professionals and college and high school students from across the country, as well as some national and international presenters.

The conference, held in a different state each year, is organized by the Hmong National Development group, which merged last year with the St. Paul-based Hmong American Partnership, a social services agency.

In a break from tradition, this year's conference will focus more on working professionals than on students. Many won't have far to travel. The Twin Cities is believed to host the highest concentration of Hmong professionals in the nation.

According to organizers, 38 percent of the conference attendees will have a master's degree or higher, and 86 percent will have at least a bachelor's degree.

"We're definitely focusing more on the working professionals, and we're bringing in very top people in the Hmong community to come and speak," said Lee Vue, 21, of St. Paul, a conference organizer and political science student in her final year at the University of Minnesota.

"We do have that mentality of helping each other — 'Hmong helps Hmong.' When you're growing up, as a Hmong child, your parents instill that in you, and in going to community events," Lee Vue said.

The conference, which begins Friday, features more than 70 workshops, with topics ranging from health care reform and social activism to business smarts. A workshop is dedicated to the community response after the fatal 2006 shooting of 19-year-old Fong Lee by a Minneapolis police officer. Another session will focus on traditional Hmong music, while yet another explores Hmong voices in hip-hop.

Students from the Center for Hmong Arts and Talent, or CHAT, in St. Paul will host a discussion about polygamy, which is illegal in Minnesota but still is practiced by some traditionalists, although frowned upon by many members of the younger generation. Another workshop, called "Placing Bets, Debts and Regrets," focuses on gambling among Hmong elders.

Pao Lor, a professor of education at the University of Wisconsin Green Bay, will discuss the future of Hmong leadership after the recent death of former Lao Army General Vang Pao, who was seen as the uniter and patriarch of the 18 Hmong clans in America.

Other speakers include U.S. Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn.; former state Sen. Mee Moua; social worker-turned-millionaire-philanthropist Jerry Yang, who won the televised "World Series of Poker"; and Kayla Yang-Best, director of the Cargill Foundation.

The conference was last held in the Twin Cities in 2006, said Bao Vang, president and CEO of the Hmong American Partnership and Hmong National Development.

Bao Vang said she hopes the conference will help launch a national strategic think tank to focus on Hmong issues. "We believe the community has moved beyond a refugee era," she said. "It's really a call to action to various stakeholders about how to advance the Hmong community in terms of economic prosperity, wealth creation, health ... how do we empower our community to participate and exercise their voting power."

"I think that the Hmong community has really achieved a lot in 35 years," MayKao Hang said. "Every time we get together at one of these conferences, it's a reminder of how far we've come and how far we still need to go.

"I think there's still a lot of economic barriers to overcome," she said. "There's a segment of the population that has moved on and become college educated, and are doing well, like myself, and there's a segment that's still struggling. I would characterize the first 30 years as 'learning how to survive in America.' And maybe the next 30 really as building on the assets that we've accumulated, and giving back to the community."


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