Hmong leader from Madison honored in DC for work against domestic violence

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Photo by TRUE THAO
Kabzuag Vaj speaks at the Capitol during a rally in the spring. On Thursday, she will be recognized at the White House for her work against domestic violence.

A local Hmong leader is being recognized at the White House on Thursday in honor of Domestic Violence Awareness Month.

Kabzuag (pronounced Kaj-u-wa) Vaj is co-founder and co-executive director of Freedom Inc., a Madison nonprofit organization that works with poor and low-income communities of color focusing on the root causes of violence against women and children.

"It's kind of surreal because we don't know too many people who get this type of award," said Vaj, 37, Wednesday by phone as she arrived in Washington, D.C.

Valerie Jarrett, a senior adviser to President Barack Obama, will join Lynn Rosenthal, White House adviser on domestic violence, in hosting 14 leaders who are dedicating their professional lives to ending domestic violence on a local level.

At the event, part of Obama's Champions of Change program, participants will share their personal stories and discuss lessons they've learned.

Vaj was born in Laos and arrived in Madison in 1981 as a refugee with her mother and siblings. None of them spoke English.

She started doing domestic violence work in the Hmong community in 2000 with the Milwaukee-based Hmong American Women's Association Inc., but she was located in Madison. When the organization lost state funding, she started her own group.

Freedom Inc. was incorporated in 2003, but it is not a typical domestic violence services organization, Vaj said.

In order to eliminate violence, an organization needs to go beyond providing services, she said.

"There should be a more holistic approach looking at different forms of oppression that contribute to violence against women and children," she said.

Freedom Inc. provides a niche where women of color can come for services and also build leadership abilities, Vaj said.

True Thao, youth program coordinator for Freedom Inc., who has worked with Vaj for 10 years, calls her a mentor and credits Vaj for helping her turn her life around.

"She's an incredible woman. Her vision, the work she does, her energy," Thao said.


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