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Cultural change begins in small ways. Some Hmong women in St. Paul are starting with themselves. MPR's Roseanne Pereira reports on The Hmong Women Leadership Institute, which works to foster leadership skills in young Hmong women. It’s a small, but impactful, change to centuries' old Hmong social order.


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ROSEANNE PEREIRA: A remarkable thing happened to 25-year-old Sia Ha the other day. Her father asked her opinion about the latest news of General Vang Pao, the former Hmong military leader.

SIA HER: My father called me while he was at work. And he was like, Sia, tell me about the latest international policies with regards to terrorism? It's amazing that my father would call me and would ask me that kind of question.

ROSEANNE PEREIRA: Her says most Hmong men her father's age would not engage in that kind of conversations with their daughters. Like many Hmong parents, Her's mother and father wanted boys. After three girls, they even went to a medicine woman to try to improve their chances of having a boy.

But times are changing, even for the centuries old Hmong social order. Her is one of 12 women in a new leadership institute, targeted specifically for Hmong women. Most are in their 20s and 30s. They're all already leaders in some capacity, even if they don't hold a high profile position.

The group will meet once a month till the end of the year. At one session, the women flip through magazines searching for images. They're making collages that showcase their leadership values. On Sia Her's collage, there is a long, brown table.

SIA HER: The table is always a big symbol for me. We talk about women not only having a place at the table, but having a seat at the head of the table.


ROSEANNE PEREIRA: Her says this session got her thinking about family. For her parents' generation, life in America wasn't about leadership. It was about survival.

SIA HER: My parents and others like them, really said, you know, I can't be blamed for not having a place at that table. But me, I'm a different generation. I'm growing up in a different place and time. I don't have that excuse.

ROSEANNE PEREIRA: Her says that, though, it may seem that the women in the group are straying from traditional Hmong culture, their history is actually what motivates them. That kind of discovery is part of what Mai Moua was after when she created the Culturally Specific Leadership Institute.

Moua is an independent consultant, who works on leadership training for a variety of organizations. She says, often, corporate managers hold stereotypes, even when they don't realize it.

MAI MOUA: If I've never thought about a Hmong woman as a leader, that's not going to come into my mind when I think about hiring somebody for a position.

ROSEANNE PEREIRA: Moua says that when Hmong women apply for leadership positions, they're often met with skepticism, people wondering if they're really up to the task. Michael Hahn agrees. She's part of the Hmong women's group that is sponsoring the Leadership Institute. Hahn is self-assured and looks you right in the eye when she speaks. But she'll be the first to tell you that to get here, was a struggle.

MICHAEL HAHN: I remember the first time I saw like Connie Chung on TV, I thought, wow, she's an Asian woman. And look at her, she's on TV. And she's like a reporter. And that is just so cool because she broke some of those stereotypes for me about, OK, what I could accomplish and what I could achieve.

ROSEANNE PEREIRA: Michael Hahn wasn't always so focused on long-term change. 10 years ago, she had a different focus, domestic violence. She and a group of women did things like slip cards to Hmong women they suspected were being abused.

The cards had advice for where to seek help. But Hahn says, eventually, they realized that, in order for domestic violence to end in their community, some long-standing beliefs about women also needed to change.

MICHAEL HAHN: I mean, Hmong girls, in my generation, weren't necessarily allowed to study far away from home because the thought was, well, you know, I get pregnant. And I would come home in shame. And then what would my family do with me?

ROSEANNE PEREIRA: Hahn says many Hmong families treat their sons and daughters differently because of the structure of the clan system. Sons will always stay with their family. So it's worth investing money in their education. Daughters, on the other hand, leave when they marry and join their husband's clan.

So educating girls isn't as valuable. Hahn knows not everyone feels the way she does. She has been publicly denounced for her views and received calls threatening her life. She knows the change she's seeking for Hmong women is hard for people to understand.

MICHAEL HAHN: Some of them don't know what to make of it. Some of them think it's just a violation of the social order. Some of them think it's a violation of the cosmic order, in terms of turning their universe and the world upside down. I mean, I've heard that before.

ROSEANNE PEREIRA: And turning the universe upside down may be what's required to change beliefs rooted through centuries of tradition. The Hmong women Leadership Institute represents a new frontier for Hmong culture.

The challenge for the women involved will be to stay rooted in the parts of their culture that make them Hmong, while still carving out new territory for themselves. I'm Roseanne Pereira, Minnesota Public Radio news.


Digitization made possible by the State of Minnesota Legacy Amendment’s Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund, approved by voters in 2008.

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