A remarkable thing happened to 25-year-old Sia Her the other day. Her father asked her opinion about the latest news of General Vang Pao, the former Hmong military leader.
"My father called me while he was at work and said, 'Sia, tell me about the latest international policies related to terrorism.' It's amazing that my dad would call me to talk about that," says Her.
Her says most Hmong men her father's age would not engage in that kind of conversation with their daughters. Like many Hmong parents, Her's mother and father wanted boys. After three girls, they even went to a medicine woman to try to improve their chances of having a boy.
But times are changing, even for the centuries-old Hmong social order. Her is one of 12 women in a new leadership institute targeted specifically for Hmong women. Most are in their 20s and 30s. They're all already leaders in some capacity, even if they don't hold a high-profile position. The group will meet once a month until the end of the year.
At one session, the women flip through magazines searching for images. They're making collages that showcase their leadership values. On Sia Her's collage, there is a long, brown table.
"The table is always a big symbol for me. We talk about women having a seat at the head of the table," says Her.
Her says this session got her thinking about her family. For her parents' generation, life wasn't about leadership; it was about survival.
"My parents and others like them said, 'I can't be blamed for not having a place at that table,'" says Her. "But me, I'm a different generation, I'm growing up in a different time. I don't have that excuse."
Her says that though it may seem that the women in the group are straying from traditional Hmong culture, their history is actually what motivates them.
That kind of discovery is part of what Mai Moua was after when she created the culturally specific leadership institute. Moua is an independent consultant who works on leadership training for a variety of organizations. She says often corporate managers hold stereotypes even when they don't realize it.
"If I have never thought about a Hmong woman as a leader, that's not going to come into my mind when I think of hiring somebody for a position," says Moua.
Moua says that when Hmong women apply for leadership positions, they are often met with skepticism, people wondering if they are really up to the task.
MayKao Hang agrees. She's part of Hnub Tshiab: Hmong Women Achieving Together (HWAT), the Hmong women's group that is sponsoring the leadership institute. Hang is self-assured and looks you right in the eye when she speaks, but she'll be the first to tell you that to get here was a struggle.
"I remember the first time I saw Connie Chung on TV. She's an Asian women and look at her; she's on TV. And she's a reporter and that is so cool," says Hang. "She broke some of those stereotypes for me about what I can accomplish about what I could achieve."
MayKao Hang wasn't always so focused on long-term change. Ten years ago, she had a different focus: domestic violence. She and a group of women did things like slip cards to Hmong women they suspected were being abused. The cards had advice for where to seek help. But Hang says, eventually they realized that in order for domestic violence to end in their community, some long-standing beliefs about women also needed to change.
"Hmong girls in my generation weren't necessarily allowed to study far away from home," says Hang. "The thought was I'd get pregnant and come home in shame and then what would my family do with me?"
Hang says many Hmong families treat their sons and daughters differently because of the clan system. Sons will always stay with their family, so it is worth investing money in their education. Daughters, on the other hand, leave when they marry and join their husband's clan, so educating girls isn't as valuable.
Hang knows not everyone feels the way she does. She has been publicly denounced for her views and received calls threatening her life. She knows the change she's seeking for Hmong women is hard for people to understand.
"Some of them don't know what to make of it, some of them think it's a violation of the social order, some of them think it's a violation of the cosmic order, in terms of turning the universe upside down. I've heard that before," says Hang.
And turning the universe upside down may be what's required to change beliefs rooted through centuries of tradition. The Hmong Women Leadership Institute represents a new frontier for Hmong culture. The challenge for the women involved will be to stay rooted in the parts of their culture that make them Hmong, while still carving out new territory for themselves.
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