Phoua Vang's parents resettled in Providence, Rhode Island from Laos and Thailand in 1978. Her father, Za Moua Vang, served as a guerilla soldier on behalf of the C.I.A. During a mission, in order to avoid open fire Vang's father jumped into a ditch and broke his back ribs as he watched the blast kill his close friend. They were barely teenagers.
In the United States, Vang's family grew with the addition of 5 more children. While in Manitowoc, WI, she lived with her siblings, mother, father and paternal grandmother, in a 3 bedroom apartment. Although they did not have many resources, they never hesitated to help their community members. At one point, they hosted a couple of newly arrived Hmong refugee families and 21 people lived under the same roof. Some Hmong newcomers did not know what to do or where to start and Vang's family was their starting point.
Born in the US, Phoua Vang had one foot in Hmong culture and the other in mainstream culture. She explains, "I grew up feeling like there were margins that I had to live within, including race." Vang and her female siblings went to private school because her parents were afraid that the girls might sneak off to get married. In Hmong tradition, back when Vang's parents were in Laos and Thailand, young girls would often get married. The Vangs did not want that for their girls. School kept the kids focused on learning. Therefore, when Phoua was 14 years old, she focused on work and school.
Because Vang was Hmong, children at school were mean to her. Most students were not accustomed to interacting with someone who was Hmong and poor. Even adults in the community would call her names like "gook" or "chink." One time Vang encountered someone who seemed to be an old Vietnam War veteran in a wheelchair. He yelled at her saying, "you did this to me!" He did not know that Vang's father was on the side of the US forces.
When her parents soon put her in public school, Vang was happy. She enjoyed public school because of the support from teachers, students, and resources. After graduation she went to Alverno College. College was alien and unfamiliar. Her parents were very worried. Nevertheless, her mom convinced her father to allow Vang to attend college. Everyday he drove her to college and reminded her that he supported and loved her. Eventually, he let go of his fears. Vang remembers, "I spent the summer debating if I was going to go or not, but I had already registered for Alverno and I had gotten accepted so I spent the summer saving up money."
Her parents love and respect for people rubbed off on Phoua Vang. Once, she met an elder Hmong woman. She approached her saying, "Hi grandmother!" Soon afterwards, she found out that her grandparents had lived next this woman and her husband back in the refugee camps of Southeast Asia. About 3 years later, the Hmong grandma did not remember Vang, nor did she remember anything from the refugee camps. Nevertheless "It was perfect timing for a personal connection" explained Vang. Her paternal grandparents are deceased and so this encounter meant a lot her.
Vang's parents were always big on volunteering. Her father as a loyal and patriotic man who was proud of his family. Her mother was a strong woman with a fiery and nurturing spirit. Both parents were very active throughout Wisconsin. They housed refugees and translated Hmong to English for church services and hospital patients. They went to a protest in Oshkosh when Vang was 6 to support General Vang, who was unjustly imprisoned but too old to fight his own battle. Vang's father had served under him back in Laos.
That love for community continues to frame Vang's life. "I believe in the structure of having residents present and pitch in their ideas for projects that exists in the community" said Vang as she explained her reasons for working as a community organizer. Vang began working with Washington Park Partners (WPP) indirectly through another non-profit agencies. Her team knocked door to door informing everyone that they were present and there to help. Today, as the WPP's Sustainable Community Officer, Vang organizes events and budgets, facilitates community meetings, and, along with two other team mates, coordinates community projects.
Vang noticed that many Hmong residents of Washington Park wanted to garden but did not know where to start. She gathered about 30 families of gardeners from the neighborhood to discuss their general needs. Since then, the families using these gardens have increased to 40.
While in the Washington Park neighborhoods, Vang met up with a woman named Vicki Fox. Fox explained how a child was gunned down in their community at the corner of 41st Street. The neighborhood created a makeshift memorial for him by decorating that specific street corner with balloons, flowers, candles, bears, and photos. The families feared that their children were not safe even though the park was across the street. There was a chance of being shot in this area. In addition, most cars don't slow down enough to allow children cross safely. Vang and Fox wanted to keep the children busy and safe. So Vang began to hang out in the corner, keeping a vigilant eye on the children. She played football with the children in a nearby field. The children remembered her and what she did for them. A couple of years later, she was walking out of a store and a child yelled, "Hey football lady! When are you going to come back and play?"
Phoua Vang, Interviewed by Alessandra Maurtua, June 2013
Sustainable Community Officer for Washington Park Partners
"I envision this program to have more community residents who are ready to take the leadership and to also share the accountability of the plan whether or not it is successful. To share in the fact that there are disappointments on the way; that every project and goal and plan that everyone has in mind works out, but that there's always going to be opportunities to develop resolutions together and plans to cope together."