MINNESOTA VOICES: Kathy Mouacheupao

Friday, July 29, 2011

After Kathy Mouacheupao resigned from her position as Executive Director at the Center for Hmong Arts and Culture (CHAT), where she started working as a teaching artist in 2001, all sorts of recognition came her way. She received a Sally Award from the Ordway, she was profiled in the Star Tribune, CHAT honored her with a commitment to setting up a scholarship in her name, and she received a Bush Fellowship to allow her to use artistic programming to strengthen connections within the Hmong community.

Mouacheupao is taking things in stride. The youngest of three children (and only daughter) to Hmong refugee parents, she was born in Newton to Mato Moua Soua Mouacheupao and Sy Vang on May 19, 1978, the first and last American-born child in her family. She was named after her mother’s English teacher – in honor of her first experience with a formal education.

The Child of Refugees

Mouacheupao’s family was one of thousands of Hmong refugee families who resettled in the United States, but were the only family to land in Newton, Massachusetts. Coming from the mountains of Laos, where they had lived in a dirt-floored hut, raised chickens and farmed a small plot of land to a new country and a home with in-house plumbing, electricity, doors with handles, and refrigerators was quite a shock to her parents when they first arrived. “My parents described the extreme transition as one of the loneliest, most confusing and uncertain experiences,” she said.

When they arrived in Newton, Mouacheupao’s parents were sponsored by a church, helping them with the transition. She recalls her mother saying: “It felt like we were living in the ocean. We didn’t look like anyone else, we couldn’t communicate with anyone else, even breathing took a new learned effort. But there was school!”

Eventually, her parents decided to move to St. Paul, because there were more Hmong families living in Minnesota, as well as excellent social services. They also came to Minnesota for the school system.

In St. Paul, Mouacheupao attended Hayden Heights, and then went to Mississippi School in the third grade. During these early years, she loved school. Her parents always taught her to value education, and she did very well in her classes. Then, while in middle school, she was selected to go to J.J. Hill’s gifted and talented program, and things changed for her.

At J.J. Hill, she was one of very few people of color. “I can remember from that moment on, school was less important to me,” she said. “Having a vibrant social life was more important.” Mouacheupao wanted to make friends, and be popular.

In addition, her life became more sectioned off. She had her school life, and her church life. When she was at school, all of her friends were white. On Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays, her family went to church, and that was her Hmong world. “I had my best friends at school and my best friends at church,” she said. “I was a kid. I didn’t realize it, but when I think back, it’s just crazy how you form your identity and cultural identity.”

By the time she got to junior high school, she realized she was different. One of her school friends made a racist remark about an Asian couple. “I felt really uncomfortable,” she said. “I asked the kid if they realized I was Asian, and they said ‘Oh, Kathy, yeah, but you are different.'” After that, she started to question more what it meant to be Hmong.

In high school, Mouacheupao became a kind of “wild child,” she said, and ended up finishing off high school in Rhode Island, where her brother was attending Brown University. “I needed to get away,” she said.

After graduating high school in Rhode Island, she returned to Minnesota and attended Concordia University, where she studied education and sociology, with an emphasis on women’s studies. Though she got her teaching license, she decided not to teach and instead did an internship in 1998 at Asian Women United, a coalition for battered women, following in the steps of her mother, who was a women’s advocate. She was eventually hired by Asian Women United.

While working as a women’s advocate, she also began teaching at the Center for Hmong Arts and Talent. She was contracted with another teacher to do a video poetry class, and she taught the poetry part of it. She had heard about the opportunity, and though she wasn’t an active poet, she had done poetry on her own and had the teaching experience.

Lee Vang, the Executive Director of CHAT, offered Mouacheupao a job as program manager and grant writer, though she had never written a grant in her life. “I don’t know how she came to the conclusion that I could do that,” Mouacheupao said. But she was too invested with her continuing work at Asian Women United to take on a full time job. “I felt what I was doing was important, meaningful work,” she said. She declined the offer.

Discovering the Power of the Arts

In 2001, the Great American History Theater produced a play called Hush Hush, by Lee Vang and Jaime Meyer, about domestic abuse in the Hmong community. Mouacheupao was asked to give a talk-back for the play, given her experience with domestic violence issues.

“It was a life changing moment for me,” she said of the experience. “I had an audience of 300 people. I got to engage 300 people in a conversation about domestic violence.” Though her work at Asian Women United centered on talking about domestic violence, she was never able to get the type of audience and engagement that she had with her experience at the History Theatre. “It shifted my understanding of how important how the arts could be,” she said. She decided to take up Vang’s offer to work at CHAT.

Immediately, Mouacheupao started to get to know Hmong artists, and she started to connect more to the Hmong community as a whole. She began to find a sense of pride in her identity.

Around the same time, she started writing for Hmong Today, which is published by her brother, Wameng Moua. She wrote for the arts and entertainment section.

“I was really loving my job,” she said. “I was having fun with it, I was inspired by the artists, and developed an understanding of my own culture.” Thought she had been an arts enthusiast before working for CHAT, that rarely had included Hmong artists. “Working at CHAT opened my eyes to these opportunities for Hmong artists,” she said.

One day, Mouacheupao went to an open mic where several Hmong artists performed, and she realized how proud she was to be Hmong.

When Lee Vang left her position of CHAT’s Executive Director, Mouacheupao took over the position. During the following six years, she said, “I’ve been able to see how an organization has been able to strengthen the community through the arts.”

The Next Chapter

This year, Moucheupao decided to resign from CHAT, for a lot of reasons. “It started to really feel hard for me to distinguish Kathy and CHAT,” she said. “A lot of people thought I was one of the founders or that I started the organization.”

“When I was working at CHAT,” she said, “it was all CHAT. It was all work. We were doing concerts, youth programming, a monthly open mic... it was very time intensive.”

Mouchepao has decided to change course, a bit. For one thing, she and her husband, Ying Kong Lee, are talking about having a family. She didn’t get married until she was 31 (she’s now 33), which she says is old to get married in the Hmong world. She also wants to re-prioritize her life, making room for both her personal life and projects she’s interested in pursuing.

One large project she’ll be embarking on for the next four years is a fellowship through the Bush Foundation. For the fellowship she’ll be doing a lot of travelling, both within the United States and abroad, trying to connect with different Hmong artists around the world. She’s hoping to document Hmong history, with an emphasis on contemporary Hmong artists, as opposed to traditional artists. “I’m looking around the idea of biculturalism,” she said.

She’ll be documenting the history of the Hmong experience through art, she says. Most of the artists that she’s familiar with now, who are coming up with tools to express their experience, are Hmong-American — artists such as Kaolee Thao and Katie Ka Vang — but she hopes to connect with Hmong artists internationally as well. While she hasn’t entirely mapped out the scope of her project, she hopes to travel to Laos, Thailand, China, Australia, France, and California and Seattle in the United States, visiting Hmong New Year celebrations in particular. Eventually, she hopes to create a curriculum that could be used in schools such as St. Paul Public Schools, which recently adopted Hmong history into their curriculum. She also plans to create an exhibit of her findings.

She wanted to do this project because she is fearful that Hmong culture is in danger. Her nieces and nephews could barely comprehend or speak the Hmong language, and were even more removed from the community than she was. “I went through an identity crisis,” she said.

Even now, she is learning about what it means to be Hmong. For example, while she was brought up Christian, her husband was brought up in the traditional Hmong religion — animism. Though she still considers herself Christian, she’s learned about the “other side” of the Hmong community that is not.

In many ways, Mouchepao sees her fellowship as an extension of the work she was doing in CHAT. And while leaving the organization was one of the hardest decisions in her life, she’s excited to start being more thoughtful about the value that Hmong Artists have had in shaping communities.



Angelina Jolie's daughter is wearing Hmong outfit!

Cute, huh? From Time magazine here


Hmong town idea dries up as visionary disappears

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

When Fresno investor Dang Vang went public with his plans to build a Hmong town business center in east-central Fresno, hundreds of people showed up for his announcement, and dozens eventually put down cash to reserve space for their booths.

One year later, Vang's business partners aren't sure where he is, and the project appears to be dead. Many in Fresno's Hmong community wonder what happened to the tens of thousands of dollars they put up.

Nelson Vang, former director of development for the company, said he hasn't spoken to Dang Vang, also known as David Vang, since September. Nelson Vang said he spent $3,600 of his own money to pay the design engineer, and his business partner said he had no money to reimburse him.

Peter Moua, a professional civil engineer who has his own side business, was the design engineer for the project. He said that money was for the cost of surveying the property. In addition, Moua said he spent roughly $6,000 in time and materials on plans for the project, for which he still has not been paid.

Nelson Vang, who is now executive director of United Hmong International – the organization that hosted one of the Hmong New Years celebrations in Fresno – said his business partner told him 80% of the 314 booths for rent in the center had been paid for, although he has no way to confirm if this is true.

Those who had paid for booths said the cost to rent one was $500, although some got discounts. Most said they paid in cash. Using those numbers, roughly $125,500 could have been collected by Dang Vang and his wife, Chong Yang. That would not include any other investments.

Many in the Fresno Hmong community were excited at the prospect of having a Hmong center, which could give an economic boost to a population that is often poor and uneducated. Many came to Fresno to find jobs as farmworkers.

Yer Lee, 50, was enthusiastic about the idea and paid $400 for a booth, but said she never heard anything about the project again.

"I need my money back," Lee said.

Sam Bliatout, who owns the Asian Village shopping center on King's Canyon Road near Willow Avenue, shared an office with Dang Vang and said he hasn't seen Vang in about a year. Friends, as well as people trying to deliver legal papers, have been looking for Vang, he said, but Bliatout does not know where he is.

Vang's company, Asian Development Company LLC, no longer is housed at the Asian Village but is still active according to the secretary of state's website.

The 20-acre property on Maple south of McKinley leased by the Hmong Town Company, for which Nelson Vang is listed as the agent, has been bought by an irrigation company.

Phone numbers associated with Dang Vang have been disconnected, and he no longer resides at his listed address. A search of the Fresno County Superior Court database did not reveal any lawsuits regarding him or his company.

Dang Vang was arrested in 2007 along with 11 others in connection with a plot to overthrow the Laotian government. He wrote a 19-page document detailing the plans for "Operation Popcorn," an apparent reference to POP, the acronym for Laos' Political Opposition Party. The majority of the case was thrown out in November.

Some Hmong people say Dang Vang is still in town. Nelson Vang said he heard Dang Vang and his wife may be living in an empty house.

Moua said some of the people who had rented booths called him asking what had happened, and he told them if they wanted to pursue legal action, he would go along with it.

But many people did not want to sue.

One woman, who wished to remain anonymous, paid $600 for two booths – a discounted price – but she did not want to be named because she knows the couple well. She did not want to sue Dang Vang and his wife.

"I just feel like, let God handle that," she said.

Nelson Vang is not interested in suing either. His wife and Dang Vang's wife are sisters.

Moua said a lawsuit probably wouldn't go anywhere, regardless, because Dang Vang probably does not have the money to pay.

Nelson Vang said he still hopes to create a Hmong center, but he will not be working with his former business partner. He is currently negotiating details, he said, which he said he cannot disclose until they are finalized.

The reporter can be reached at vguida@fresnobee.com or (559) 441-6427.



Former Councilman Lo dies

Lormong Lo in 1997. The 5-foot-tall Laotian immigrant, who served seven years on the Omaha City Council, died in his sleep last week after feeling ill. He was 52.

Former Omaha City Councilman Lormong Lo morphed quickly from lowly and unassuming to bold and assertive during his seven years on the council.

When board members selected the soft-spoken, 5-foot-tall Laotian immigrant to fill a vacancy on the board in 1994, he bowed to them and told them that his interest in serving stemmed from his hunger to give back to the community.

Four years later, as a council president, Lo was daring enough to settle a prolonged contract dispute with the firefighters union while then-Mayor Hal Daub was out of town. Daub's absence made Lo the acting mayor.

Omahans learned not to underestimate Lo, who was being remembered after his July 19 death at his Arkansas home. He was 52. The cause of his death has not been determined, said his brother, Doua Lo of Omaha.

Lormong Lo started feeling sick on July 18, went to a hospital near his home and then returned home, where he died the next day in his sleep, Doua Lo said.

An autopsy was performed and the family was waiting for results, his brother said.

Lormong Lo grew up in Laos during the Vietnam War. By day he attended school. By night and on weekends, he said, he joined his family and other Hmong people who worked with the CIA against communist forces and rescued American pilots shot down in enemy territory.

But the Hmong became endangered after the United States withdrew from the war. Lormong and Doua escaped into Thailand. Lormong later remembered being a teenager sleeping under a scrap of an American parachute in a Thai refugee camp.

He arrived in Omaha in March 1976, receiving help from a Ralston church. Lo graduated from Ralston High School in 1979, working two jobs during the week and an extra one on the weekends. He said he slept two hours a night and developed ulcers. Lo earned a degree in political science from Creighton University in 1983.

In 1980, Lo founded the Lao-Hmong Association of Nebraska, a refugee service. He became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1988.

During the summer of 1990, Lo worked as an intern in the mayor's business development office. Lo commuted to Sioux City, Iowa, in 1990 and 1991 as executive director of the Woodbury County Community Action Agency. He joined the Omaha Planning Department in 1991 and worked there three years in housing rehabilitation.

Lo's decision to settle the fire contract dispute while he was acting mayor stunned Omahans and made him the fodder of talk radio. Lo had worked on Daub's campaign staff and at one time was seen as a Daub loyalist. Daub later rescinded the agreement but signed virtually the same package a short time later.

Daub said he remained friends with Lo. He said any differences they had were minor. "They never interrupted our friendship or our ability to get things done," Daub said.

"I considered him a dear friend," the former mayor said Monday night. "He was a very hard-working fellow who cared about his family and was proud of his heritage. He was so very proud to be an American."

Lo's experience as a refugee fleeing to the United States made him fiercely patriotic and freedom-loving, friends have said. When he interviewed for a vacant seat on the Omaha City Council, Lo spoke of his gratitude at starting a new life in the United States.

"I thank you, America, I thank you, Omaha," he told the council.

Lo was said to be the first Hmong American to be appointed to a City Council in the United States and the first to serve as a council president for a city as large as Omaha.

He lost a 2001 re-election bid to fellow Councilman Marc Kraft, after redistricting moved Kraft into Lo's District 1. Lo bought a chicken farm in Lincoln, Ark., about seven years ago but kept a residence in Omaha, his brother said.

"I know he loved Omaha very much," Doua Lo said. "He loved his hometown and the people of Omaha."

Lormong Lo also worked preparing taxes in Siloam Springs, Ark., near his home.

Lo was involved in forming national refugee policy under the Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Clinton administrations. He worked on economic development with the National League of Cities in Washington, D.C.

Lo also was a member of the governing council of the Nebraska Synod, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

Survivors include his wife and five children, all of Lincoln, Ark.

Private funeral services in Arkansas were pending. The family is planning a memorial service in Omaha but did not have a date yet, his brother said.

Contact the writer:

402-444-1304, news@owh.com