Hmong parents find their footing in the year of COVID

Groundbreaking Hmong PTA blends identity and advocacy in Wisconsin public schools at a critical time

“It was in fifth grade when a girl that I thought was my really good friend came and told me, ‘My mom doesn’t want me to play with people like you,’” says Caitlin Lee, who, like thousands of Hmong Americans, was born in a Vietnam War-initiated refugee camp and moved to the United States at age four. Now, she says, “I’m just a concerned parent.”

She may be downplaying her role in the greater Eau Claire, Wisconsin community, where she serves as President of the Hmong Parent-Teacher Association, the first Hmong PTA in the state and probably in the nation. Hmong residents are the largest minority ethnic group in Eau Claire, a small city in northwestern Wisconsin, which is over 90 percent white.  Minneapolis, the nearest metropolitan to Eau Claire, was home to a number of voluntary agencies that organized resettlement of Hmong refugees with the U.S. State Department in the late 1970s.

Knowing she and others don’t want their children to grow up with the exclusion and discrimination she faced a generation ago, Hmong parents are embedding themselves in public education like never before.

“It’s engagement with the school district in a way that has never been engaged at all,” says Lee, who herself grew up in the Eau Claire Area School District. “I think [Hmong] parents have never been heard.”

The Hmong PTA was formally established in early March 2020 as an association serving the entirety of Wisconsin’s eighth-largest school district. That same month, COVID-19 upended society; Governor Tony Evers ordered all schools to switch to virtual or at-home learning on March 13.

Certainly, the pandemic has affected certain populations in the area much differently than others, highlighting the need for advocacy like that of a Hmong PTA. Lee says the balancing act of safety from the virus and access to public education requires direct input from Hmong families. Some of the Hmong PTA’s earliest advocacy has sprung from the fact that Hmong families commonly live in multigenerational households and often include essential workers–a reflection of the persistent income disparities between the region’s Hmong residents and the general population.

“They don’t want to come to school and get COVID and bring it home to Grandma and Grandpa, and so the option is to be virtual,” Lee says. “Mom and Dad are essential workers. They’ve gotta work, so the kids are at home with Grandma. Grandma doesn’t know how to turn on the iPad and get them on [to the virtual learning platform].”

She says this circumstance was common over the past year. Advocating for those families is the role of a Hmong PTA.

Beyond the widened disparities and heightened anti-Asian racism that have come alongside the pandemic, the Hmong PTA’s mission is the same as its participants always intended: “We wanted to make sure our students felt represented in the school district in terms of instruction as well as representation,” Lee says.

As people have spent significant time away from public spaces like schools and classrooms, the Hmong PTA has focused on using its voice to get public schools to incorporate Hmong identity and culture into the curriculum.

Four-and-a-half decades after Hmong refugee families arrived in the Upper Midwest in the late 1970s, Lee says she still encounters a shocking lack of awareness about her community. To this day, she says some Eau Claire residents have asked her, “Who are the Hmong and why are you here?”

“You shouldn’t be inviting me to come in and talk to you giving you Hmong 101 training on why we’re here,” she says. “If you are a child that grew up here in Eau Claire, there should be no question as to why you have Hmong children in the classroom learning with you.”

That’s where a cultural- and racial-affinity PTA really comes in. Persistent lack of awareness, she says, is at the root of racism, microaggressions, and bullying – all of which may be worse due to the pandemic and extended time segregated from other kids while staying at home. It also reveals what she sees as an urgent need to involve Hmong families in shaping curriculum.

Participating in perhaps the most public of public spaces – local schools – the Hmong PTA seeks to blend academics and cultural identity. “That’s the challenge we face,” Lee says. “The academic identity of Hmong children gets touched on, but it’s not fully realized in some ways. My full academic identity didn’t come into play until I was in college, and that’s something that I would never want for my children.”

By organizing families in the school district, she and other involved parents can shape curriculum and social consciousness. In a first year no one could’ve prepared for, the association’s role is unmistakable.

“When Hmong PTA comes through, comes forward, and starts advocating for things, we want our allies to be supportive of that.”