Hmong Women’s Leadership Institute

By Amy Doeun

“In recent years, Hmong women have recognized the need to build a strong Hmong women’s organization that focuses on both the assets that Hmong women have as well as addressing more directly the deep cultural changes that are occurring for Hmong women in our community,” says Chee Lor of the Hnub Tshiab Hmong Women’s Leadership Institute (HWLI) when asked how the Hmong Women’s Leadership Institute (HWLI), a core program of Hnub Tshiab: Hmong Women Achieving Together.

She was a new member of the board in 2017, but also a WHLI alumni. “HWLI changed my life and I am committed to sustaining this program for Hmong women going forward. I want to pay it forward for other Hmong women like myself because we need to invest in ourselves and be the best version of who we are but we cannot do that alone and without the right tools we cannot reach our dreams.”

Lor is not the only one who feels strongly about the program, “Previous HWLI participants have shared how powerful this opportunity has been in shaping their identity as a Hmong woman and unshackling the bounds of their dreams and potentials. The cohort exists to support women in becoming agents of change and discovering themselves with other Hmong women. I personally have created many unbreakable bonds of sisterhood in addition to everything else which would never had happened without HWLI’s existence and the fierce Hmong women who put blood, sweat and tears into this work.”

“Our mission focuses on social, cultural, and institutional change. This means that the Board, its members, and staff are willing to tackle controversial issues such as polygamy, sexuality, and divorce in addition to focus areas such as leadership development and research. Hmong Women Achieving Together: Hnub Tshiab (HWAT) tackles difficult cultural and social change issues and works actively to engage the community in solving and responding to these issues. HWLI emerged as a tool to help Hmong women and girls build skills and relationship so that they too can be successful in their roles while being able to navigate and address these issues.”

HWLI began in 2007, and this year marks its 9th cohort. Lor explained that as a non-profit there were years when “We did not have the capacity to hold HWLI, but that is changing. It is our goal to keep holding space for programs such as HWLI and making it possible for Hmong women and girls to be leaders.”

The mission of Hnub Tshiab Hmong Women Achieving Together is to be a catalyst for lasting cultural, institutional and social change to improve the lives of Hmong women. HWLI is one of the “core programs we’ve developed to rid of limiting beliefs about Hmong women and girls.”

This year there are 13 women participating in the program. Lor explained, “The group is left intentionally small, due to the size, not only do Hmong women get a personalized experience but most if not all women have noted that a strong sisterhood is formed and kept long after the program ends. This year Nou Yang will be leading HWLI as the facilitator and co-facilitating with Paj Nyiag Yaj. Both Nou and Paj Nyiag are part of the Amherst H. Wilder Foundation. Nou is a leader and part of the Youth Leadership Initiative a multicultural program designed to help youth develop strong, effective leadership skills to work in diverse community setting. Paj Nyiag is a HWLI alumni who is passionate about research. In total, it would be accurate to say 15 Hmong women including our amazing facilitators.”

“Women of all backgrounds are encouraged to apply. Backgrounds for this year’s session include, nursing, education, social work, human resources, political science, youth education, research, law and much more. HWLI is open to Hmong women of all walks of life and experiences. The most important piece is identifying within themselves if HWLI is a good fit for where they are in their journey. Many of the Hmong women who have participated in the past sought HWLI as an opportunity to develop leadership skills in their professional careers, network with other Hmong women, build relationships and share narratives and support each other in similar struggles which may entail their identities as a Hmong woman, daughter, sister, community member and more.”

“The session began in January and runs until June, in a safe space where all participants can come and learn and voice their experiences and questions. HWLI includes a leadership curriculum, leadership assessment, community dialogues, mentoring and evaluation of activities. A typical meeting starts with dinner, refreshments and just settling down from the long day as many of the Hmong women who participate in HWLI are working adults. The sessions are always filled with critical thinking and learning from guest speakers, readings, frameworks and most importantly each other. Everyone checks in and starts with themselves. From there, the real work and learning happens.” Past speakers include MayKao Hang, Bo Urabe-Thao, Mai Neng Moua and Bee Vang come in to speak about various topics such as gender equity, systems, and cultural issues on all levels and systems.

In June the program ends. “It is a requirement that each participant completes a community research project addressing an issue of their interest. All participants will have attended all sessions and engaged thoughtfully in each. Graduating does not mean the learning and growing ends. HWAT believes HWLI is one step in the direction of supporting Hmong women discover themselves and that when participants leave the program – they are instilled with questions and curiosity to be agents of change in their community and find their own answers.”