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Given that there are only 18 Hmong clans in existence, Cha Vang, 28, and Seng Vang, 27, joke that—while sharing a last name is happenstance—they just might be related somewhere down the bloodline. The two women do share commonalities:
They both came to America as young girls from refugee camps in Thailand, which became the site of a massive Hmong diaspora from Communist-overrun Laos starting around 1975. They both came of age here in Sacramento, part of the area’s growing—but politically ignored—Hmong community. Both women also work at the same service provider for Hmong women where, about a year ago, Cha and Seng arrived at the same conclusion: they needed to start their own thing.
Hmong Innovating Politics is that thing. Launched in July 2012, the small grassroots organization is made up of roughly a dozen young professionals looking to increase civic participation—and thus, influence—in the Hmong and other underrepresented communities.
Despite the curious name, baby-faced membership and unorthodox organizational structure, the fledgling group already has a profile most community groups would kill for.
HIP rocketed out of obscurity to become the primary opposition to the school-closures controversy in the Sacramento City Unified School District, played a role in Laotian-born Steve Ly’s election to the Elk Grove school board, and recently shook up the Twin Rivers Unified School District with its mere presence at a lone meeting earlier this month.
“It’s an amazing ensemble of young, talented Hmong folks who care,” said Twin Rivers Board of Education president Cortez Quinn, who was scheduled to meet with representatives on Wednesday regarding layoff notices to several Hmong para-educators. “They care not only about their voices, but the voices of the generations to come. I love that about their organization.”
HIP is looking to reverse the potential layoffs in a district with a heavy Hmong student body.
Kerri Asbury, a special education teacher in Twin Rivers who also heads the Democratic Party of Sacramento County, said her district sent more layoff notices to Hmong interpreters than Russian ones, despite a greater need for the former.
“I can’t even talk to anyone at the school anymore because there’s no one to translate,” she said. Asbury’s local Democratic contingent named HIP its “organization of the year” at a fundraiser this month. “Parents need to be engaged and we know how critical that is to give them a way to be engaged.”
It was that lack of engagement among Hmong elders, in particular, that got Cha, Seng and their 20-something partners thinking about new approaches to activism. During their day jobs, during grant meetings and youth empowerment gatherings, they realized just how little their people were represented at a policy level.
“Through that work, we discovered our group was always missing at the table,” Seng said. “And we thought, ‘Yeah, we could be that bridge to our community.'”
“When it comes to policy, these populations are left out because Asians as a group are looked at as doing very well,” added HIP organizer Jonathan Tran, who is of Chinese descent.
HIP organized a couple of well-attending voter education forums last year, just before the November presidential election, but it was when the Sacramento school-closures issue blew up that HIP really found its voice.
Scrambling to make the first school board meeting on the topic in January, representatives noticed few parents from their community, even though Susan B. Anthony Elementary School, with its many Hmong students and parents, was on the chopping block.
HIP quickly dove in, assigning members to each targeted school and appearing at every school board meeting. Members spoke publicly, but not before reaching out to individual board members and district officials in the hopes of creating a dialogue. When that didn’t happen, HIP took off the gloves.
The group is now the face of a federal injunction effort against the school closures.
And all this without an office.
Members, most of whom live in south Sacramento, keep in touch through linked Gmail accounts. There is no traditional leader, with responsibilities assigned out and each person held accountable by the group. Each member also takes a turn in the spotlight, and is pushed to take on tasks outside his or her comfort zone.
“In our own work life, we’ve seen that not to work,” Seng told me about traditional hierarchical structures. “So if we’re going to be Hmong Innovating Politics, we’re going to innovate ourselves, too.”
If it wants a place at the table, the old Sacramento establishment better adapt.