Hmong Women Disrupt: Rebelling against identity politics on St. Paul's East Side

Zoe Prinds-Flash

Zoe Prinds-Flash

Nearly every Friday, Cindy Yang and LyLy Vang-Yang would commiserate over lunch about the space Hmong women take up in politics.

They have a lot in common. Both are second-generation Hmong women under 30 who became progressive operatives despite expectations they would get well-paying corporate jobs, marry, and retreat to lives of suburban quietude. They’re also unlikely friends.

Cindy Yang had been fundraising chair on Dai Thao’s 2015 re-election to the St. Paul City Council, then campaign manager behind Susan Pha’s historic ascension to the Brooklyn Park City Council in 2016. The year after that, she again backed Thao in his ill-fated bid to become St. Paul’s first Hmong American mayor. LyLy Vang-Yang worked in opposition, gathering votes for Mayor Melvin Carter.

Vang-Yang had been the only Hmong woman on Carter’s team, an alliance that prompted tension both internal and external. She recalls weighing both candidates at length, agonizing over her own Hmong heritage, and ultimately choosing to heed her gut that Carter’s values aligned most closely with her own.

“It does matter that when we help to elect people that represent us, we can co-govern with them and hold them accountable,” she says of her distaste for loyalties forged from lowest common denominators. “And just using that we have a shared identity isn’t always the thing that gets us there.”

Nevertheless, Hmong and non-Hmong alike thought her choice peculiar. She was asked ad nauseum, “Why Melvin and not Dai?” and told, “You’re Hmong,” as if she didn’t know.

LyLy Vang-Yang (left) and Cindy Yang worked on opposing sides of St. Paul’s most recent mayoral race.

LyLy Vang-Yang (left) and Cindy Yang worked on opposing sides of St. Paul’s most recent mayoral race. courtesy of Take Action Minnesota

“I gave her props,” says Yang. “I was like, ‘Dude, as much as people secretly supported him who were Hmong, you were the only one who stuck your neck out there.’ But we knew of LyLy. Everyone knew of LyLy.”

Both women eventually found their way to Take Action Minnesota, which trains progressive candidates in grassroots organizing under the notion that politics needs to be wrested from big money and given back to regular people.

They’ve since launched a new group called Hmong Women Disrupt. It’s meant to be a catch-all for activists to air dilemmas of identity politics that prevent Hmong women from being seen for their individuality, work ethic, and experience—and to bring discussions often had in private to the public arena.

There’s the pressure to fall behind Hmong candidates regardless of better-fitting alternatives. And the reality that their community would sooner mobilize behind a man than a woman, as in 2013 when Hmong Pages reported that supporters of Dai Thao had asked his opponent, Kazoua Kong-Thao, to drop out of their St. Paul City Council race because she’s a woman.

In 2018, Cindy Yang ran for the Minnesota House. She’d decided in a moment of DFL upheaval as Attorney General Lori Swanson declared her bid for governor, State Rep. Debra Hilstrom moved to succeed Swanson, and a district that included Yang’s hometown of Brooklyn Center opened for fresh representation. Unbeknownst to Yang, fellow community organizer Samantha Vang had the same idea. They announced competing campaigns on the same day. Ultimately, Vang edged out Yang in the DFL primary by just 200 votes.

It wasn’t until some time later that Cindy Yang found the words to express the unsettling dynamics of that race. Rumors suggested the two women had to dislike each other personally if they were willing to risk splitting a finite Hmong vote. Yet neither campaign ever issued an attack ad, and had in fact agreed beforehand to run a clean race, Samantha Vang says.

The painful implication: Their campaigns were redundant, with Hmong lacking the muscle to handle more than a single option.

“I told people, ‘Hey, two Hmong women running a race is everything we ever dreamed of.’ That is the type of representation that we want,” Cindy Yang says. “But a lot of folks operate from a position of scarcity instead of abundance.”

The same dynamic has re-emerged in a council race on St. Paul’s East Side.

Ward 6 is about 60 percent people of color, with 40 percent of residents living at or below the poverty line. It was represented by Dan Bostrom from 1996 until his abrupt retirement last year. Now Terri Thao and Nelsie Yang are leading a pack of candidates in a seat open for the first time in nearly a quarter century. Judging by fundraising goals, DFL endorsements, and the sheer makeup of yard signs, St. Paul will elect its first Hmong councilwoman on November 5.

It will be a milestone for whomever is most effective at captivating both mainstream and Hmong communities. The choice between two very different Hmong women will test voters’ ability to study their qualifications beyond the obvious.

Terri Thao is a second-generation Hmong American. Her parents were civil servants for the city and county who also dabbled in operating a video rental store and restaurant. Her uncle ran an insurance business, tax service, and the Hmong Pages newspaper.

She spent 15 years at the nonprofit Nexus—formerly Payne-Lake Community Partners—which focused on revitalizing St. Paul’s commercial corridors. Data pointed to the Twin Cities as being a great place to live. Her work involved trying to making that a reality for immigrants and refugees who’d taken advantage of relatively affordable housing to plant roots in blighted neighborhoods.

Former Mayor Chris Coleman appointed her to the city Planning Commission, where she practiced the Tetris game of housing, transit, and business development—while trying to divine St. Paul’s future needs. She’s eager to be a part of the Hillcrest Golf Club redevelopment, a $10 million, 112-acre site in the neighborhood that the Port Authority has destined for job and housing creation.

“Here in the East Side, a lot of people talk about property values. That’s because in disinvested communities, when they appreciate, they’re going to appreciate at higher levels, which translates into a higher tax bill,” Terri Thao says. “I’m really intrigued and want to do development without displacement.”

Nelsie Yang: “I’m the only person in my race to make a commitment and believe that our schools should be fully funded.”

Nelsie Yang: “I’m the only person in my race to make a commitment and believe that our schools should be fully funded.”

She envisions implementing policies like Minneapolis’ inclusionary zoning, which calls for private rental developments to reserve a certain percentage of units for affordable housing.

“At the end of the day, when we talk about deep, technical policy stuff, I would always go, ‘Well, could I go home and explain this to my mother-in-law?’ That to me is the litmus test.”

Nelsie Yang is also a second-generation Hmong American, a grassroots organizer, renter, and—at 24 years old—the youngest person to ever run for St. Paul City Council.

Born to refugee parents who raised five children on the wages of medical device assembly workers, she attended public schools lacking in opportunities afforded to wealthier students, and experienced foreclosure in 2013 with the repossession of the family home in Brooklyn Park. “When I think about macro-level systems, we actually have large corporations like banks perpetuating racism and classism and targeting low-income families with predatory loans without actually caring for them,” she says. “On top of that, we also have employers that choose not to pay livable wages. These contributed to my own family’s experience with foreclosure, but it’s a part of the larger cloth.”

She’s running to ensure the East Side gets its fair share of resources, that it becomes a walkable community with properly paved roads, public transit that runs on renewable energy, small businesses with access to fair banking practices and low-interest startup rates, all-day recreational centers, and jobs for youth.

“I’m the only person in my race to make a commitment and actually believe that our schools should be fully funded,” she says, promising bold leadership on issues of racial and gender equity.

According to campaign finance reports filed two weeks before election day, Nelsie Yang has raised $95,000 to Terri Thao’s $53,000.

Terri Thao: “I want to do developoment without displacement.”

Terri Thao: “I want to do developoment without displacement.”

Prof. Lee Pao Xiong, founding director of Concordia University’s Center for Hmong Studies, believes that while Terri Thao has proven herself in policy aptitude and earned the respect of mainstream leaders, Nelsie Yang has built more support among young progressives as well as Hmong elders. In a recent campaign video, she speaks perfect Hmong.

That’s a shrewd approach, says Xiong, who considers the backing of patriarchs and war veterans—on whose merits the Hmong arrived in America—critical.

Traditionally, the Hmong have self-governed via a hierarchical clan structure comprising 18 families, each led by a male head. The clans nominate a representative to the 18 Clan Council, a nonprofit in which all families participate, settling conflicts, arbitrating reparations, and galvanizing collective action.

The Hmong community’s built-in network translates naturally to political campaigns, Xiong says. Candidates who win the support of the patriarchs are guaranteed money, volunteers, and votes.

The documentary “The Time Is Right for Mee” captured this dynamic by tracking the strategy of Minnesota State Sen. Mee Moua, the first Hmong person elected to an American state legislature. To kickstart her campaign, she made her case to the Moua clan as the only woman in a room of male leaders.

“I’m your daughter. I’m not a threat to you,” Mee Moua framed her candidacy. “I’m a child that has come out of your home. What I’m doing, it’s for you. It’s not for me. It’s for you and the good of our whole community.”

Bo Thao-Urabe, executive director of the Coalition of Asian American Leaders, says the Hmong community still struggles with the perception that men are born leaders and women natural homemakers. In the old days, poor families couldn’t afford to send all their children to secondary school, so while boys got education, girls learned how to be good housewives, mothers, and daughters-in-law.

The reality is that over the last 40 years in America, Hmong women have seized their access to higher education and become trailblazers, directing political campaigns and becoming school board members and state legislators. But those accomplishments aren’t always recognized, Thao-Urabe says, and women haven’t made as many gains in intercommunity politics because the younger ones grow up questioning the relevance of systems like the 18 clans.

Thao-Urabe is also a co-founder of the political action committee Maiv-PAC, which endorses statewide candidates and provides a vehicle for Hmong women to talk about the multifaceted barriers they face in politics. “It’s been my experience watching the trajectory, and knowing most of the candidates who have ever run, that it always starts with other Hmong women supporting them.”

Terri Thao relies on the advice of her aunt, Choua Lee, who in 1991 became the first Hmong American elected to any public office in the United States.

Lee’s bid for the St. Paul school board came at a time when many Hmong students were acting as de facto translators between their teachers and non-English-speaking parents. Naturally, complaints of failing grades and truancy weren’t effectively communicated. She wanted professional translators and cultural awareness for students, yet was met with resistance from prominent Hmong men.

“There were some male factions in the community who would just say, outright, ‘If we’re men and we can’t even do that, what makes you think can? You’re Hmong, first of all, a minority. You’re a woman. And you’re young.’”

Lee was just 23 when she prevailed, largely without widespread Hmong support. She recalls public praise from leaders after her victory, followed by private whispers doubting her ability. They taught her not to worry about pleasing everyone, because she could never win in the eyes of those who couldn’t see past her most basic identity.

“The decisions I’d make would not just impact my Hmong community—they’d impact the entire community. And that becomes a part of your burden,” Lee tells Terri Thao. “You run for the East Side. It must be your priority. At the same time you’re allocating to the East Side, you’re also taking away from the other communities, so how do you balance that?”

“Campaigning, you can promise people all these things, but at the end of the day, there is a bigger morality out there that you also have to be aware of.”

Nelsie Yang recruited her clan early on before branching out to other Hmong families. She struggled with the apparent contradiction of campaigning on gender equity in public, then going home to cook and clean—duties still largely conferred to women.

“I felt like I wasn’t living out my values in both my public and my private life. But then I realized, a few years after I started organizing, that I also had to bring people along. With my family too, I had to help them see that gender equity is something really important, and changing the tradition within our Hmong people isn’t something that can be done overnight.”

When his Hmong students criticize the patriarchal clan structure, Lee Pao Xiong reminds them to give it time. The Hmong have survived this way for 5,000 years, and have only become Americans in the last 50. Today the most powerful Hmong in the world—the president of the National Assembly of Laos—is a woman. Meanwhile, the United States has yet to elect a female president, Minnesota has never had a female governor, and St. Paul has never had a female mayor.

If nothing else, enlisting clan leaders is a display of diplomacy skills, he says.

“I think if you have the backing of the community through the elders, the respect for the elders, who honor the elders, you’re going to do well. Those who shun the elders, it’ll be much harder to access the community.”

St. Paul Councilman Dai Thao says he has no knowledge of allegations that sexism played a role in his 2013 election. But he does recall fears that two Hmong candidates would split their support—echoes of which he hears in the Ward 6 race.

Contrary to popular opinion, it’s more strategic to offer multiple Hmong candidates in a ranked choice election because their collective energy brings out more Hmong voters, he says.

The hope is that this race can show the East Side’s Hmong that they have true choice, as well as a responsibility to inform that choice with study of the candidates, says Mai Chong Xiong, board chair of Take Action.

While she tries to balance work and her after-hours domestic roles as a traditional daughter-in-law, Xiong says she doesn’t feel completely apologetic when chores fall to the wayside of her public life. The small ways in which Hmong women reject tradition can feel deviant and disorderly, but venting them is how Hmong Women Disrupt hopes to erode the traditions that hold them down.

“At the end of the day, people are really proud when any Hmong person can take on a leadership role,” says LyLy Vang-Yang. “What I’m not so clear on is what does it look like when a Hmong woman is bold and unapologetic, takes a stance, and rejects some of our community norms.”

“I believe in my community and our ability to do better. I wouldn’t do this work if I didn’t.”