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Tammie Xiong: inspiring youth to embrace solidarity

Tammie Xiong is the executive director of the Hmong American Women’s Association (HAWA), a group that “advocates for social justice within the Hmong community through social action.” HAWA has provided social services, cultural programming, and leadership development for Hmong women and girls in Milwaukee since 1996. Tammie works to build up leadership among Hmong girls so they can be the ones leading and working to create positive change in their own community.

William: What challenges face the Hmong community in Milwaukee, especially among Hmong women?

Tammie: Being from sort of a history of refugees and being here after the Vietnam war and being resettled in different parts of the world, particularly here in Milwaukee, I think we still have a lot of challenges that we’re working through. Our community has only been in the United States for about 40 years, so there’s still a lot we have to learn about how we fit into this U.S. context. We still continue to be one of the poorest ethnic communities in the U.S., so there’s still a lot to be done about economic security. There’s still a lot to be done about academic achievement. A lot of the issues that we face still have a lot to do with our being acclimated to the [Milwaukee] community. So there are a lot of issues, but across the board I would say, especially among Hmong women, we try to really have a sense of our own identity here, and that sense of identity is really important to us.

W: How do you and HAWA approach creating positive social change and building strong communities?

T: For the last couple of years, the last decade really, we’ve tried to really focus a lot on gender-based violence work and trying to work on gender equity within our community. Our organization is about empowering the Hmong community and really trying to work within our community to achieve gender justice because we understand that when all of us as men and women are treated equally and fairly, then that also helps to make our community not only better, but safer… We always say in our gender violence-based work that healthy relationships allow us to have healthy communities, and when we have healthy communities, that’s really when we’re able to really help support each other and lift each other up, and I think that’s what it’s really all about.

W: Do you consider yourself an activist?

T: You know, I used to not like the word activist. I never really thought too much about it because I always just thought, ‘I do what I can for my community and I give back as much as I possibly can and use my talents to make a positive impact.’ I never really saw myself as an activist, but the more and more that I continue to learn, and the more that I am in the work, I think I’m starting to really embrace the fact that activism is a good thing, right? And it’s not something that people should shy away from. I’m still in the process of trying to embrace that and own that.

W: What is your fight?

T: My fight is for the liberation of all people. When those who are most impacted by the things that hold us down are free, then we all are free. That still continues to be the fight, and I think that even though I work within my community, it’s really about also working with and across communities. I really try to fight for the rights of not only my own community, but for all communities, because we’re all sort of struggling, and we all have our own challenges.

W: What can you learn from activists who came before you?

T: I think one thing that I have really learned is that when you’re in a leadership position, it’s okay to be bold, and part of being bold is also being confident. Like all the marchers that came before me, I’m still trying to practice being led by love, being led by passion, being led by peace… I can tell you that the work that we continue to do here in Milwaukee is built on the social justice movement from years and years ago. A lot of the work that we do now within our organization, we’ve really learned from the Black movement. We’ve really tried to advocate and march for justice and to march for equality, and so I would say that the [Civil Rights and Fair Housing] movements have been our teachers and our example of how to advocate for our community.

W: How do you feel that social justice issues have changed in Milwaukee over the past 50 years?

T: The movements then and today are pretty much still the same in terms of the struggle that is still there. It’s still really difficult. There are still a lot of folks who aren’t really on board, who aren’t there quite yet, but I think that now more than ever we have really learned from some of the work that has come before.

W: What do you hope for young people to contribute for the Hmong community?

T: Youth play a huge part in our work. Youth right now are full of energy, passion, new ideas, new perspectives, and visions of the future, and I think that’s something to be embraced. I think that there’s a lot of room for youth to be engaged and to make a positive change in the community even if that just means having the energy to organize events that really help to build community. I mean that’s what we really need, right? We need to continue to build our communities up and build it together, and a lot of that work has really come and should come from the youth because it’s really about how they see us all supporting each other and supporting the future.