For those familiar with the Twin Cities activism scene, Marny Xiong is a household name. Mention her to an educator, and they might beam with gratitude. Mention her within the Hmong community, and you might get stories about the difference that she made in each person’s life. Mention her at a protest, and you might see a wave of grief and pride wash over the crowd.
Xiong died of COVID in June. Two of her sisters, Amee Xiong and Mary Xyooj, remember her as a fierce advocate for racial and gender justice from an early age.
“Marny was always a courageous child growing up. Our mom shared that when Marny was in kindergarten, she received a call from the principal informing her that Marny had stood up for others against a bully who wouldn’t let anyone enter the front door of the school after getting dropped off by the buses,” says Amee Xiong.
When Xiong was attending the University of Minnesota-Duluth, she organized Black, Asian, Latinx, and LGBTQ+ students after the Multicultural Center was vandalized. The students successfully convinced administrators to conduct one of the first campus climate surveys and create a Black studies degree program.
From a student, to a school administrative manager at Minneapolis Public Schools Hmong International Academy, to chairwoman of the St. Paul Board of Education, Xiong was an advocate for education.
“Marny believed the school system is a crucial tool to uplift students out of poverty and prepare them to have the skills to reach their dreams and goals,” Amee Xiong says. “Marny also saw how, through her education, she was never taught about her own history of Hmong descent, or the true history of Black Americans.”
In May, Xiong organized and gathered all of Minnesota’s Asian American elected officials to write a letter denouncing racism after Donald Trump began using the term “Chinese virus” and anti-Asian hate crimes spiked.
“The forces of white supremacy will continue trying to scapegoat and divide us to distract from the massive gaps in social safety nets and worker protections, a broken healthcare system, longstanding structural racism and more,” the letter read. “While they brew hate, we are building a powerful movement for change.”
As one of her final acts on the school board, she worked to reach a settlement ending a historic teacher’s strike over pay and classroom practices. “Her legacy will be that all educators can see that same potential in every child in our school district,” St. Paul’s superintendent Joe Gothard told EdWeek.
Xiong was known for her ability to build connections between marginalized communities to create action.
“Marny said that she envisioned a world where the education system reflects the values of all our communities, and that students are at the center of it all. In April 2020, she initiated a policy to encourage safe spaces in the St. Paul Public School district from racism, xenophobia, and stereotypes during the pandemic,” Amee Xiong says. “She wanted to see all young people succeed and have mentors and support.”
One of her goals was to purchase a home for her parents and her siblings. “She loved to surround herself with family and friends,” Mary Xyooj says. “She remembered birthdays and surprised family members with birthday cake. She was very inclusive of people, ranging from elders to youth. She would brighten people’s day with her smile, conversations, and stories.”
Xiong had been caring for her father, who was diagnosed with coronavirus, and she was admitted to the hospital a day before he was. Marny Xiong died with her mother and Mary by her side. Other family members were virtually present via iPad.
As Xiong once said during a speech, “We all contribute, show up, and give back differently to uplift the community. Never give up hope that change can happen, and that your impact could make a difference.”
Marny’s mother, See Xiong, who worked to care for both her husband (who survived the virus) and her daughter as they battled COVID-19, is hoping to change the name of Washington High School in St. Paul to Marny Xiong High School. To offer support, email Amee Xiong at [email protected]