Asian ethnic network helps fight youth violence

August 16, 2010

By Matt Perry

The violence between rival Sacramento gangs with Southeast Asian lineage veils a complex set of internal conflicts that circle a core problem: how to successfully integrate into American life.

Increasingly, leaders from the Hmong, Mien and Laotian communities have come to realize that violence between enemy gangs mirrors far more than just disaffected youth: it shrouds an ever-expanding generation gap between parents and children, poor performance at school, excess gambling, and relentless separation from the cultural mainstream.

Founders of the Hmong Mien Lao Community Action Network (HMLCAN) are now helping local and state policy-makers recognize that the needs of these new immigrants are vastly different from their assimilated Asian counterparts from countries like China and Vietnam. Typically grouped together as “Asian,” these relative newcomers have distinct cultural differences that make assimilation impossible.

The group’s primary goal is to improve understanding between the three ethnic populations to reduce violence – both between gangs and against their families. It’s also reaching out to Sacramento area education and government officials to recognize their constituents as cultural outsiders who need special attention, particularly at school.

The ethnic coalition is looking to produce results by engaging younger members from each community. Its youth council, the Eternal Growth Group (EGG), is comprised of 18 youth ranging in age from 14 to 18, who are being groomed for leadership positions.

“Youth is our strategy,” said Koua Franz, one of the network’s founders and executive director of the Hmong Women’s Heritage Association.

“They’re the ones who become ambassadors of peace,” echoed Dr. Chiem Seng Yaangh, another co-founder of the group who serves as board president of the United Iu-Mien Community. The youth council, he added, has mentored more than 50 children.

In 2009, a “The Hip Hop Summit” hosted 400 students – most but not all from the HML community. By exploring graffiti art, break dancing, MC’ing, be-bopping and fashion, the event fused separate communities with a common bond: hip-hop culture.

This July, the youth leadership retreat “A Collaboration of Empowerment: Southeast Asian Leaders In the Making” shepherded 29 youth participants involved in team building exercises and workshops covering history, identity, leadership, advocacy, and “challenging comfort zones.”

“Our hope at this retreat was to discover our individual identities and our collective identity, and to think critically and deeply about the meaning of the Southeast Asian experience,” said Seng Moua, program coordinator for HWHA and an HMLCAN member. Adult mentors and youth leaders also participated.

Pow Vang, 18, born in California and a recent graduate of McClatchy High School in Sacramento, said his family experience is symptomatic of problems in the Hmong community. While his friendships span the Hmong, Mien, Lao, African-American and Latino communities, his male cousins keep strictly within the Hmong orbit. These cousins are frequently involved in gang fights with other southeast Asians and provide him with lurid tales of violence, including drive-by shootings.

As a member of the Eternal Growth Group, Vang participated in the Youth Summit where he explored cultural similarities.

“If you compare Hmong dancing to Lao dancing, they’re really similar,” said Vang. “It kind of shows that we’re not different, but the same.”

The Hmong-Mien-Laotian network is anchored by three organizations: The Hmong Women’s Heritage Association (HWHA), the United Iu-Mien Community, Inc., and Southeast Asian Assistance Center. The Sacramento region is home to an estimated 50,000 Hmong, 12,000 Mien, and 3,000 Laotian citizens. More Hmong live in California than any other state in the country.

Franz said the group has spent the last two years laying an organizational framework. It now works closely with California’s Office of Youth Development and recently welcomed Sacramento superintendent of schools Jonathan Raymond to discuss the “achievement gap” of HML students. They hope to increase representation throughout the school district in all areas – principals, administrators, and teachers – and are asking local non-profits to hire its members.

Attending a June outreach meeting were California Assembly member Dave Jones, Sacramento City Councilmember Kevin McCarty, and Sacramento Counter Supervisor Roger Dickinson, who were shown the organization’s strategic plan.

“If we’re not visible,” said Franz, “we’re a marginalized community.”

Hmong, Mien and Lao immigrants hail from rural mountain regions and arrive in the United States with few language or technical skills, said Dr. Yaangh, who has studied the issue in depth as part of his doctorate in Education.

Their low-tech, “pre-modern” farming communities were further devastated by the effects of the Vietnam War, he pointed out. Once in the United States, these immigrants and their families frequently live in isolation within their own small communities.

These typically large families often do not speak English at home. Children circle the American cultural mainstream. Frustrated youth gravitate towards gangs and gang violence – which is often perpetrated against other Southeastern Asians or within the community.

On the evening of Thanksgiving, 2005, a 13-year-old boy of mixed Mien/Lao lineage was killed in his home by a drive-by shooter, possibly Hmong. The community outrage and threats of retaliation codified the need for a unified group.

The formation of the Hmong Mien Lao Commnity Task Force followed in January, 2006. This eventually became HMLCAN earlier this year after receiving a grant from the California Endowment. (Disclosure: the Endowment is also an initial funder of this website, HealthyCal.org.)

“Our community intervention has contributed to the decline (in violence),” said Dr. Yaang.

Franz said one of the group’s highest priorities is to collect information that splits out members from the larger “Asian” population – called “disaggregation data.”

“When they classify us under ‘Asian,’ the large majority are Chinese or Japanese,” said Franz. The resulting statistics on employment and education don’t accurately reflect the economic or educational status of its Hmong, Mien or Lao citizens.

A recent study confirmed that Hmong students scored the lowest of any ethnic group in the Sacramento City Unified School District. (Only 48% of the Hmong population is proficient in English, and 94% of Hmong families still speak Hmong exclusively at home.)

“If the schools don’t embrace them, if the teachers don’t embrace them, they don’t perform well,” said Dr. Yiaang, an administrator for the Sacramento schools tasked with increasing parent involvement.

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