Freedom Inc.'s Kabzuag Vaj Received a White
House Champions of Change Recognition:
Walking a Thin Cultural Line
unfair because maybe all of the good stuff was eaten first. We would have family gatherings and it would be in our homes. I remember
going into the small little kitchen and eating first and thinking to myself that I ate first so there is no injustice here. And I would be eating
for my sister and my mom and my aunties. I felt a gratification that it was equal now. So I think even at a very young age that I knew
what I was living through wasn’t something that I wanted.”
Vaj is quick to point out that she doesn’t reject Hmong culture. She loves the gatherings like the Hmong New Year and cultural fashions
and Hmong food. It’s just that she doesn’t care for women’s traditional role and has been seeking a better life. And she became known
as being different.
“I think I kind of branded myself like ‘Oh that is just Kabzuag,’” Vaj said. “’She is just going to do what she wants.’”
Her differentness would lead her on a search for identity for her and other Hmong youth. As a 16-year-old student at UW-Madison, Vaj
ended up providing overnight housing to Hmong youth who were visiting Madison and needed a place to stay.
“I found myself becoming a refuge for girls who would come into town that was with boys,” Vaj recalled. “I would open my door so that
they would have a place to sleep and have a place to be in my dorm room. I remember one day, I got into trouble and the campus police
came. It was because one of the parents was unhappy and said I was harboring teens. But in reality, what I said to them was, ‘Would
you rather this child be here or in the streets?’ So that was resolved.”
After college, Vaj got a job working on domestic violence issues for the Hmong American Women Association out of Milwaukee. Vaj
noticed that many Hmong youth were hanging out in the Bayview area and ended up meeting with them every Tuesday on her own at the
Bayview Community Center. It was through these groups that she found her life’s calling.
“For one year, every Tuesday, if they didn’t come or they came, I would be right here in this room and offer them political education,
education about culture and history, anything that I felt helped me in my journey,” Vaj said. “So one week we would talk about poverty.
One week we would talk about immigration. One week we would just talk about police. Whatever it was within that one year, I saw a
group of kids, young teenagers, — two were homeless and the majority did not have a GED — who were not homeless anymore. They
went from, ‘My next goal is to clean my car’ to ‘I put in an application for college. That’s when I thought I was onto something. Out of the
10 of them, all of them have made it through and are doing something different and it’s not the same hanging out.”
When her employment with the Hmong American Women Association ran out, Vaj wanted to continue to work with Hmong and other
youth and give them a safe space within American society.
“I wanted to create something that I wanted to work at and create a world that I wanted to live in,” Vaj emphasized. “That’s when this
concept and idea of a collective — what it would mean to have an agency that’s different — came about. We got some of our ideas from
Sister to Sister out of New York. They had their own collective and they gave us some ideas on how to start. So that is how Freedom,
Inc. came about.”
Freedom Inc. is a non-profit that isn’t organized like a typical Madison non-profit. The logo for Freedom Inc. is a flower and the
organizational structure of the agency is a flower as well.
“On the stem, you see the board members,” Vaj explained. “They make sure that we are financially stable and viable. And they act as
advisory committees. Then in the middle of the seed of the flower is the community. And then you will see beautiful, colorful petals.
Those petals represent each of the different programs. And each year, a petal can drop off or a new petal can grow on. Each of those
petals are pretty much run and coordinated by a different person. And all of those petals answer to each other. And at the end of the day,
those petals answer to the seed, the community. That vision came about like, ‘This is how we should do this. We want to live in a world
where people’s academic achievement doesn’t overshadow or become more important that people’s life experiences.’ It was a
conscious decision on my part to say that eventually everyone should get paid equally regardless of gender and age because we work
with poor kids and poor families. When people were paying kids $5 per hour, I said, ‘No we have to pay them at least $10.50,’ because
these kids are not buying tennis shoes when they go home. They are buying food or they are paying rent even at 15-16 years old. I
remember I was doing that or buying clothes for my brothers so that they could go to school because we couldn’t make it. This is the
Freedom, Inc. vision to eventually become a collective that respects each others voices and holds each other accountable.”
In many ways, Vaj has operated on the edge of two cultures, Hmong and American mainstream. There were elements of each that she
enjoys and cherishes. But especially during the early years of Freedom Inc., Vaj was not totally accepted in either.
“The beginning of Freedom, Inc was very hard because first of all, we are women-led and youth-led,” Vaj said. “And in the Hmong
community, in the hierarchical system, there are the elders and the men. I think people for a long time thought that it was a joke. ‘Oh
that little play thing.’ I remember an agency that even had my own family in it and would not partner with us. We couldn’t get them to
basically co-sponsor anything with us because people thought that we were just playing around. It was a kids’ thing, a women’s thing
because it isn’t usual to have a Hmong woman who says, ‘I’m just going to start something on my own. I think that is the way that
people treated us, not only in our own community, but also I don’t think anyone thought that we would last this long. Even in mainstream
communities, I think it is hard for people to see a strong woman-of-color led agency.”
As a strong-willed woman of color, Vaj continued to grow Freedom Inc.
Next issue: Fighting domestic violence
Freedom Inc. staffers Meng Vang (l-r), Kabzuag Vaj,
Pahua Vang, and True Thao
By Jonathan Gramling
Part 1 of 2
Kabzuag Vaj is a pioneer of sorts. She came to the U.S. from Laos via
Thailand when she was six-years-old as a refugee sponsored by a
church as so many Hmong were sponsored back in the 1970-1980s.
The Hmong community was a patriarchal society in which the elders
and men came first — much like the rest of American society — and
the women came later and last in almost everything. Vaj, who was
honored in October with a Champion for Change recognition for her
work in the area of domestic violence by the White House, realized
early on that she didn’t fit into that patriarchal system as a young lady
living with her family in Bayview.
“When we had family gatherings, the men would eat first and the
women would have to wait,” Vaj said. “I always thought that was so