Activist Pakou Hang: Growing leadership

Pakou Hang. Photo by Mike Hazard.

There were strong women all around me. They weren’t ostracized. They weren’t demonized. I had men around me who valued smart women, women who had initiative.

– Pakou Hang

Growing up farming, pulling weeds and working in the hot sun from the age of five might turn some people away from the land forever. Not Pakou Hang, who says farming is “part of our life, part of our blood in some ways.”

As founder and executive director of the Hmong American Farmers Association (HAFA), Hang lives farming year-round. She is committed to a triple bottom line of environment, economy and community, and to a fourth bottom-line goal: changing the distribution of wealth for the Hmong community.

As the second-oldest of seven children, Hang says she started farming very young with her parents, who did migrant farm-work. By the time she reached middle-school age, her family was raising food for the farmers’ market.

Since she and her siblings spoke English, they helped other Hmong families as well as their parents, serving as a bridge between the Hmong parents and English-speaking customers. Even now, she says, “On the weekends, we’re all at the farmers’ markets, helping our parents sell.”

Minnesota, Hang says, leads the country in organic farming, natural food co-ops and farmers’ markets – due, in large part, to Hmong farmers. She sees her work as being a bridge between the local food movement and Hmong immigrant farmers for “these really dynamic conversations that are happening around food justice and immigrant farming.”

She emphasizes that they are farmers, not just people in community gardens. Small producers may have five, ten or even 15 acres, but that’s small compared to the big-agricultural operations of a thousand acres or more.

Family and politics

Growing up, Hang says, she didn’t plan to farm. Her family had a strong commitment to education, and used the income from farmers’ markets to send the children to private schools.

Yao Yang, who works at HAFA as an organizer and researcher, says that “My whole life, I heard, ‘You guys have to excel in education like Aunty Pakou.’

“I actually have known Pakou all my life. … She’s like third cousins with my mom, so I call her Aunty.”

After graduating from Mounds Park Academy, Hang got a scholarship to Yale, where she studied political science. She worked as an analyst for a social-investment research firm for a while after college, and then came back to Minnesota, where she worked for the Paul Wellstone campaign as an organizer and later with Progressive Minnesota. She managed Mee Moua’s first campaign for the Minnesota State Senate in 2001.

Hang ran for city council in 2007, but didn’t win that election. She has served on the St. Paul Farmer’s Market Board of Directors, with the University of Minnesota’s Healthy Foods Healthy Lives Institute and with the Latino Economic Development Center on issues confronting immigrant farmers.

Along the way, she also completed a master’s degree in political science at the University of Minnesota and received honors such as the Hubert H. Humphrey Public Leadership Award, the Paul and Daisy Soros Fellowship for New Americans and the Bush Leadership Fellowship.

Opportunities open up

Hang grew up in a culturally traditional family, but one that was progressive in important ways. “There were strong women all around me,” she explains. “They weren’t ostracized. They weren’t demonized. I had men around me who valued smart women, women who had initiative.”

Her father and mother encouraged her to take leadership roles. As a leader, she says, “I had to be smart and I had to have honor, I had to follow through and be committed. If you say you are going to do something, you have to do it. It was a badge of honor, but also a privilege. That’s what I grew up in.”

Acknowledging that there are elements of patriarchy in the Hmong culture, Hang insists that there are also “elements of our cultural traditions that are really powerful for women.” She says that farming is central to the Hmong culture, and women traditionally are in charge of farming and gardening.

“She’s very highly thought of and respected both inside and outside of farming communities,” says Becky Balk, who works with immigrant farmers as a land-use program manager at the Minnesota Department of Agriculture.

The respect for Hang’s work goes beyond the Hmong community. “She is a visionary,” Balk says. “I think she’s a genius. She’s strategic; she’s humble; she’s passionate.” Other organizations working with immigrant farmers have “the greatest respect” for Hang, says Balk, as do financial institutions working with farmers.

Citing the importance of her mother as a role model – “hard working, entrepreneurial, innovative” – Hang says she was fortunate to grow up among strong women.

“I’ve been really lucky,” Hang says, reflecting on her career path. “I’ve been at the right place at the right time when these paradigm shifts occurred and was able to actively participate in moving them.” She cites specific instances: Mee Moua’s campaign, Paul Wellstone’s campaign and the rise of the local food movement. Overall, Hang says, “I’ve been blessed to be at the nexus of history.”

FFI: Hmong American Farmers Association,