The Hmong Institute: In Service to Community (Part 1 of 2)

Mai Zong Vue

Mai Zong Vue and her husband Peng Her founded The Hmong Institute to meet the holistic needs of the Hmong community.

by Jonathan Gramling

Mai Zong Vue and her husband Peng Her have been visible providing services to and representing the Hmong community since at least the 1990s. Whether it is emceeing the Hmong New Year, working withy Hmong dance troupes or giving guidance to mainstream agencies, they have been there to ulift the Hmong community and its culture.

At first, they used fiscal agents to handle the funds they raised to provide services. But in 2018, they decided to take their efforts to the next level.

“As our community work grew and grew and grew, it was just time to have our own entity so we could do work and not have to compete with funders through our fiscal agent,” Vue said. “2018 was just the right time where we felt that we needed to be born and learn to be a baby and grow up. And we did. We had been thinking about a non-profit for a long time. I was still working at the state. With the time that we had, we would rather devote it to the actual work rather than the development of an agency. As the projects grew from youth to community to women and the different issues, it was just time to have our own entity and be born.”

Thed Hmong Institute was established in 2018. And the preliminary work was done in Vue’s basement. They also ran a summer camp for Hmong youth at the Badger Rock Neighborhood Center when Her worked there as its associate director.

When Kajsiab House closed its doors, The Hmong Institute helped meet the needs of the Hmong elders who were left without services and companionship. The Instiotute obtained temporary quarters in the Catholic Multicultural Center’s cafeteria before finding a more permanent location at the Life Center noff of Stoughton Road in early 2019.

And they had only been providing services at Life Center for a year before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, sheltering the entire commun ity in place.

“When COVID-19 came, we were looking at ways to address the nutritional challenges for the elders whom we serve,” Vue said. “And so we opened a pantry where we provided food boxes for them with not only food, but also household items. We did that for a few months and then the Hmong community was asking, ‘Well what about us? We may not be your clients, but we also have needs.’ We opened it up and soon our distribution, within a month, went up from 50 to like 400 families. We did that. We are working with local food pantries so that they know  to serve our population as well. They are starting to put Asian items on their shelves and things like that. But it isn’t enough for the whole transition where we don’t have to do it anymore. We still do distribute food under a grant from the Dept. of Administration, which will end at the end of this year. From there, we’re not sure what we are going to do. There are a lot of families that are needing food. If only we had an angel who would drop down and help and say, ‘Here’s another grant for the next 4-5 years until the transition is complete from this pandemic.’ That’s a challenge that we continue to talk about. We are asking people to help.”

The Hmong Institute believes in meeting the holistic needs of the community. And on different levels, each generation of the Hmong community has been impacted by the move to America and the impact it has on Hmong culture.

Perhaps the hardest hit is Hmong elders.

“Support of the elders is very much an intricate part of the Hmong culture,” Vue said. “Elders are very respected in our culture traditionally because as the Hmong say, ‘They have more spoonfuls of rice,’ which means they are more experienced in life. And so we regard them as a source of important knowledge in the community where they provide the transition of the old stories to their grandkids. They watch over their adult children, making sure that they know how to practice the traditions and provide any advice that they can give. Elders are very important for us. Unfortunately it is sad that that value is not being practiced. It’s dying out because of the society that we live in where everyone is so busy making ends meet and oftentimes their adult children have to work. There is no one at home to care for the elders to look after them. And the elders often end up being home alone and they are not able to cook for themselves. You’re talking about loneliness. You’re talking about malnutrition. You’re talking about health limitations and many different things that come along as you age as an elder. That’s where we come in and we fill that gap. While their adult children may be at work, we take care of them and take them back home when the adult children are back home.”

The children are also being torn between the American and Hmong way of life.

“There is the high school pressure where you need to conform,” Vue said. “If you don’t know who you are, then that is very hard. Oftentimes, our children will have to ask hard questions. ‘Do I want to be Hmong? Or do I want to be American? Or can I be both?’ They don’t know that they can be both. They feel that they have to conform to societal pressure where they have to get rid of the Hmong identity in order to be accepted.”

And the structure of American life can disrupt the bonding between young and old.

“The respect for elders, children don’t know that,” Vue said. “It’s not like the good-old times when everyone from different generations did things together. Right now, everything is very divided into age groups. Children oftentimes don’t have time to interact with their grandparents unless they live with them and they can do that in the evenings when they are at home. But many people are not living with their grandparents because of housing size, for example. When you have mostly two-bedroom apartments, it is very hard to accommodate a three-generation family living together.”