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.


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