The first Hmong candidates to win elected office were Minnesota women: Choua Lee on the St. Paul school board in 1991 and Mee Moua in the Minnesota Senate in 2002. Now, in 2016, Minnesota has the first Hmong women's political action committee: Maiv PAC. ("Maiv" is pronounced "my," which is a term of endearment.)

"Hmong women were already very active as campaign managers, doorknockers, fundraisers, and organizers," Maiv PAC board member Bo Thao-Urabe says. "Between all of us, we knew other people who were already doing a lot of work to engage our community."

Organizing a political action committee was a way to focus and strengthen their efforts, a way of participating in the political process that went beyond individual campaigns and beyond reacting to other people's policy initiatives.

"We are the experts on our lives and on our needs," board member Kaoly Ilean Her says. "Women have to speak up. Women have to organize if we want to elect someone who will care about us."

"We need people to understand that when women do well, communities do better," Thao-Urabe says. With a broad focus on racial equity, gender equity, and immigrant rights, Maiv PAC has "honed in on education, health and economics as priority issues that really matter to us right now."

Hmong-American people came to the United States "as refugees, with the luggage we could bring and very little income," explains Thao-Urabe. "Even though we've made great progress as a community, a majority of Hmong Americans have not achieved success." Thao-Urabe cites American Community Survey data showing income for Hmong households in Minnesota is $32,800, compared to a median income of $48,000 for all Minnesotans. Some 27 percent of Hmong Minnesotans live in poverty and another 34 percent near the poverty line, compared to 11 percent and 15 percent for all Minnesotans.

Besides fundamental economic issues, Her says, "Your history, my history have revolved around women's rights, particularly ending abusive international marriages and domestic violence." She cites safe harbor laws and sex trafficking laws as specific policy concerns.

Maiv PAC focuses on Minnesota and on state candidates, not on federal candidates. This year Maiv PAC endorsed and contributed to 24 legislative candidates. The endorsements, Her says, reflected the candidates' alignment with Maiv PAC's issues and a history of commitment to those issues. Some of the specific questions for candidates included equal pay, maternity leave, affordable childcare and making higher education affordable.

Beyond endorsements and campaigns, Maiv PAC wants to educate the community about civic engagement that goes beyond voting. By inspiring young people to participate, Thao-Urabe hopes that some day more will choose to run for office themselves. Maiv PAC has already inspired people in other parts of the country and in other immigrant communities to ask how they can create their own PACs. "It's been inspiring to us," Thao-Urabe says, "that something we thought was just for us is having an impact across the country."

What comes next? "We're learning as we're growing," Her says. "We're a bunch of smart women. I think we'll figure it out."

Donate or contact Maiv PAC through its Facebook page: