In 1979, the first three Hmong refugee families arrived in Minneapolis as a result of the American war in Southeast Asia. Sponsored by her aunt and uncle, two-year-old Hli Xyooj was a child of one of these families, arriving with her parents and older brother. Today, in a state with one of the largest Hmong populations in the United States, Xyooj empowers Hmong farmers, women, LGBTQ+ people, and youth.
Xyooj grew up understanding poverty. Her parents both worked multiple full-time jobs for years to support her and her five brothers. From a young age, Xyooj wanted more for herself and other Hmong Minnesotans. “I don’t want to work as hard as my parents [had to],” she says. However, she adds, “It was not poverty that influenced me to do community work. It was the love, care, and kindness that my parents gifted to others, even when we had so little, that motivated me to be someone who can make positive and meaningful changes in my community. My mother is still farming and selling her vegetables at farmers’ markets. She supports other widowed Hmong women farmers by trading labors, or giving her vegetables to families who are financially stressed.”
Xyooj’s drive for change also stemmed from the weight of the gendered norms expected of her. She explains, “To have a life in the Hmong community is to be married well, to be a good wife, and to be a good daughter.”
As the only daughter in her family, Xyooj felt that she couldn’t speak out. She wanted to achieve what her brothers were expected to do, which made her determined to challenge Hmong norms. “Part of [what led me to do community work] is self-empowerment,” Xyooj says. “How do I empower myself by empowering my community?”
After graduating from Mitchell Hamline School of Law, she worked as a licensed attorney with the Farmers’ Legal Action Group. She helped Hmong farmers navigate complicated legal and policy systems, using education as a tool to exercise their rights and access land and resources.
In 2014, a few years after getting an MBA from Hamline School of Business, Xyooj and others saw the need for culturally relevant services to help Hmong survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault. After Xyooj attended a Global Hmong Women’s Summit in Thailand, she and three others had the energy and inspiration to make their dream a reality. They co-founded Transforming Generations to create networks, educate, and organize in order to end gender-based violence in the Hmong community. Today the organization has 10 employees.
Xyooj is transitioning out of Transforming Generations into Advancement of Hmong Americans, which she co-founded in 2019 to bring more focus to environmental justice issues. The organization both supports farmers and creates opportunities for Twin Cities–based Hmong youth and families to connect outdoors through kayaking, camping, and hiking.
“In the Hmong community, we are [traditionally] connected to the natural world. But growing up in the United States, there’s a disconnect. Being outdoors is healing for our community,” she says. “A lot of Hmong women, especially older women, farm not only because it’s a source of income, but because it is socially and spiritually healing.”
At least half of the vendors at Minnesota farmers’ markets are Hmong, which means the community’s livelihood and connection to land is threatened by the growing impacts of climate issues. Xyooj sees a future bridging local Hmong generations around environmental issues.
“We had a hotter, longer summer, which really impacted farmers,” she says. “Their crops are not coming in. They also are dealing with heat stroke and other heat-related ailments. Our younger generations are more conscious of these issues. I’m hoping to learn more from our young folks.”
For Xyooj, serving in multiple roles is simply about valuing labors of love that serve community. In 2022, she also stepped into a role as vice president of programs and services at New Millennium Academy, a charter school that serves Hmong students. Her team brings in strategic resources and services to develop culturally responsive after-school and summer programming.
She ties this work to her own next generation, saying, “How do I start to create a world in which my daughter doesn’t have to work as hard as I do? How do I reduce oppression, so she can do better?”
Xyooj offers respect to her past. “I’ve been given opportunities and experiences by other Hmong leaders,” she says. “They’ve shown me there’s a different possibility for our community. Others have provided opportunities for us, and we must leave doors open for those who come next.”