Hmong Activist Gives Back
Alumna Pakou Hang embraces ‘the arena of possibility'.
Pakou Hang (M.A. ‘09) was just 15 days old when her parents immigrated to the U.S. from Thailand. She was a fifth grader when her parents relocated to St. Paul. “I grew up with parents who didn’t speak or read English, and so, like many first-generation children of immigrants, I frequently acted as an interpreter and in many ways, behaved more like a parent than a child,” she says.
The experience would prove to be a potent object lesson in the power of using one’s voice, and when coupled with Hang’s Catholic school education, it gave rise to a skilled activist. “I was taught primarily by nuns, so I grew up surrounded by female leaders,” Hang says. “The church’s emphasis on social justice had a profound impact on me; parables like the Good Samaritan are deeply resonant.”
These forces influenced Hang as she pursued her education, studying revolutions in Latin America while working toward a bachelor’s in political science at Yale University and exploring political psychology and voting behavior while earning a master’s in political science at the U of M. In the years since, she has sought to effect change in society politically and economically, always with the goal of empowering others.
Hang cut her teeth at Boston-based KLD Research and Analytics, Inc., a firm that advises clients on socially responsible investments. “My time at KLD was pivotal for me as an activist,” she says. “I had amazing mentors. Libby Edgerly taught me to write effectively, and Steve Lydenberg, a cofounder of the Domini 400 Social Index [which helps socially conscious investors weigh social and environmental factors in their investments], really opened my eyes to the power of socially responsible investments.”
Hang ultimately returned to the Twin Cities and immersed herself in civic life. In 2002, she ran her cousin Mee Moua’s successful state Senate campaign and served as deputy political director for Senator Paul Wellstone’s reelection campaign. In November 2011, she joined forces with her brother, Janssen, and a group of Hmong farmers to create the Hmong American Farmers Association (HAFA), where she served as executive director for the next eight years.
“HAFA grew out of my 2011 Bush Leadership Fellowship,” she explains. “I wanted to explore the challenges and opportunities facing Hmong farmers like my parents following the great recession of 2008. Many Hmong people had been working in manufacturing and when those jobs went away, they fell back on farming.” With HAFA, Hang realized that long-term access to land was the key to farmers’ financial viability. Thus began HAFA’s six-year quest to find land to purchase. That journey is nearing its end; the organization is now finalizing plans to purchase 155 acres just 15 minutes outside of St. Paul.
“Purchasing this tract of land is a game changer for farmers, not only in their ability to provide for their families by raising and selling crops but also to build intergenerational wealth,” Hang says. The land purchase illustrates the power of community and demonstrates how working together lifts everyone, she adds. “I could have hoarded my knowledge and experience and only helped my family, but instead I shared it and the entire Hmong community has benefited. The importance of giving back is something I learned from my parents; it’s an essential part of the fabric of Hmong culture.”
Now Hang sees the opportunity to help another constituency through her new role as chief program officer for Vote Run Lead, a nonprofit that trains women to run for office in the U.S. “I loved my time with HAFA, but just as the land has seasons, so do I, and I feel like it’s time to enter a new season in my professional life.” Hang cofounded Vote Run Lead in 2012 and welcomes the chance to return there. “Rejoining the organization was as much a homecoming as leaving HAFA was a departure.”
Minnesota is currently the epicenter of the awakening of racial justice for the U.S., Hang observes. That, together with the pandemic-induced shift to constituencyfocused leadership, leaves Hang feeling she’s in the right place at the right time. “I’m rediscovering that there are many ways to get to social justice,” Hang says. “For some it’s in the streets, for others it’s at the polls, and for yet others, it’s in casting votes as a company shareholder.”
Hang plans to support the next generation of women leaders, particularly those from immigrant communities.
“I believe that women are at the forefront of the push to forge a better democracy, one that we all deserve,” she says. “I’m grateful for the chance to bring my knowledge and experience to Vote Run Lead. It’s exciting to work in the arena of possibility.”
Lori Ferguson is a freelance writer based in Sarasota, Florida.