‘America is not somebody else; America is us’: Civil rights organizer Bo Thao-Urabe wants Minnesota to measure success differently

Bo Thao-Urabe
CAAL executive and network director Bo Thao-Urabe poses at her Eagan, Minn. home on April 30, 2021.
Ben Hovland | Sahan Journal

By Ben Hovland, Sahan Journal

In celebration of Asian and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, MPR News and Sahan Journal are featuring Asian Minnesotans making history.

Bo Thao-Urabe, 51, has served as the executive and network director for the Coalition of Asian American Leaders (CAAL) since 2014. Thao-Urabe is Hmong, and her family originally moved to the United States in 1979 after fleeing Laos during the Vietnam War and spending three years in a refugee camp in Thailand. 

At CAAL, Thao-Urabe helps create space for Asian Minnesota leaders to do social justice organizing. Their work embraces a range of tactics, from work groups tackling economic and education policy at the state level to connecting informal mutual aid programs offering COVID-19 assistance. CAAL also seeks to empower young Asian leaders through trainings, networking opportunities and community leadership grants.

Recently, Thao-Urabe has sought to strengthen solidarity between Asian communities while honoring the cultural differences between them. The majority of Asian immigrants in Minnesota are from Southeast Asia, but she hopes that challenging racist beliefs in Minnesota — like the idea that Asians are culturally monolithic — will help all communities impacted by white supremacy, especially in light of the recent explosion of anti-Asian hate crimes.

In a conversation at her home in Eagan on April 30, Thao-Urabe challenged Minnesotans to embrace the complex diversity of Asian communities that live here.

Editor's note: The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What does it mean to be AAPI in Minnesota right now?

To me, being AAPI in Minnesota right now means that we have this really ripe moment to own who we are. It’s really important for me to understand that my family and my peoples coming here means that I automatically became a part of a country where racism shaped its whole being.

I need to bring my own identity because I don’t naturally define myself as an Asian American. I’m Hmong by heritage; it’s the cultural community and the language that I identify with. But as soon as I got here, I was lumped in as Asian. What does Asian really mean?

We have to be critical of that, if we want something different, and we should not just blindly accept these categorizations and racialization of our communities. There has been so much systemic harm. We have to build with other communities within the diverse AAPI community to create the systems we believe can be abundant and caring of more people.

The AAPI community here is really unique in that 60 percent are Southeast Asians who came post the wars in Southeast Asia, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia, and then more recently in Myanmar. We have this really high concentration of refugee populations, which is unlike any other place in the U.S., where Southeast Asians make up less than 10 percent of the Asian population. 

But we also have Medical Alley [an association of Minnesota-based health technology companies] that is now bringing in a lot of educated workers from China and India. At the same time, we have a religious culture that has created a lot of presumed generosity that led to the adoptions of Chinese and Korean babies. 

So you have this dichotomy of established communities who came here three or four generations ago, and then you have this wave of Southeast Asian refugees and adoptees. 

You have this complexity, and we should embrace that. But what does it mean for us to actually embrace that without erasing it?

What figures have shaped you and who you are?

I have a hodgepodge of people that are luminaries that I will never meet, like Martin Luther King Jr. He was so important in my life because in my K-12 education, he was the only person of color that I actually ever studied. I certainly didn’t read anything about Asian American leaders or history, so I just didn’t even realize that there were actually Asian American leaders. So I had that sense of affinity to him, as a person of color who was different from everybody else that I was studying.

As I was growing up, I was always surrounded by my mother, Mai Vang Thao, who I saw as this really strong person who never went to school and gave up her whole life to bring us here. Because I also grew up in a patriarchal culture, I understood what it meant for her to be who she was. She didn’t follow the molds of traditional Hmong women.

For her, it was not about academic learning, but it was about wisdom that was passed down through generations. I feel so fortunate that I was her daughter. She recently passed on, and it just makes me so grateful that she never felt like she couldn’t do something because she didn’t have a degree.

She was the child care provider for all of us, because culturally it made sense. But she was so smart — she got licensed so that she could actually write off her expenses and her home. She had the savviness to understand that.

What’s your vision for future generations of AAPI people in Minnesota?

My vision for the future of AAPIs in Minnesota is that we don’t live in fear of showing up — that we own our power and wield it to create a state that is more welcoming, that is more prosperous, that is more inclusive to everyone. We live in the richest country in the world, and we have the ability to take care of everybody, yet we don’t.

Those decisions are up to us. As much as people say, it’s up to people who are elected. We put those people in office, right? So we have the ability to bring all of our histories, our connections to the world, and not to see those as deficits because America is us. America is not somebody else; America is us. 

The history of racism makes us feel like we have to measure ourselves by the degrees, the letters behind our names or how well we speak English. My parents, who never went to formal education, could speak three or four languages. All of us who inherit those cultures in those languages — that’s an asset. I hope to see a different type of Americanization when we come here that’s really built on our assets and our potential. 

When I was on a trip to Laos, visiting monk elders in a village, I realized we actually know how to care for each other. Whether we had a lot or a little, we know how to heal and mend. That’s what the world needs now. It should not just be this constant breaking apart of communities. 

How do we return to our traditions of herbal medicine or our traditions of family and communal care? We’ve always come from cultures who understood that you can’t get to self-actualization until everybody is well. 

This race to the top that is all individual — that’s not us.