Mee Moua's Remarks at 2016 Humphrey School Commencement
May 15, 2016—The Humphrey School of Public Affairs' 2016 commencement speaker, Mee Moua, has dedicated her life to advocating for Asian American and other vulnerable communities. She is president and executive director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice AAJC in Washington, DC, and is a former Minnesota state senator. As the first Hmong American elected to the Minnesota Legislature, and the first Hmong American elected to any state legislature in the U.S., her election made national history, broke barriers for Hmong women, and had lasting political and cultural impacts on the entire Minnesota Hmong community. Watch video.
Mee Moua's remarks, as prepared for delivery:
Great afternoon! Before I give my remarks, I want to thank Dean Schwartz, the faculty and staff, parents and the graduating class of the Hubert H. Humphrey School of Public Affairs for this homecoming opportunity for me to address everyone here today. Thank you!
I was born in a thatched-roof bamboo hut in a small jungle village in northern Laos, where there was no electricity or running water. My personal journey from the mountains of war-torn Laos to a refugee camp in Thailand, to the halls of the Minnesota Senate and now the steps of our nation’s Capitol is an improbable story that can happen only in America.
While much of my own memory of my family’s journey to the United States has been recreated from years of re-telling by my parents, the moments of real recollection for me are not only dark and painful, but also significant in shaping my world view and life experience.
While I don’t recall many of the details, I do remember walking for days and days by foot, arriving in the middle of the night at a river bank that was the border between fear of persecution and death, and fear of life and the unknown. I remember getting into a very small row boat and getting off on a very wet, slippery and muddy river bank.
I have flashbacks to those long, hot nights struggling to fall asleep inside the airless makeshift army tents, fighting for space among the restless mass of bodies twisting and turning under the cover of mosquito nets. I’m sure some of them were trying to find relief from the sticky humidity of the night, but others were seeking refuge, however briefly, from the nightmares that haunted them even in their sleep.
I remember that my mom was pregnant at the time, and then gave birth to my sister in the temporary refugee compound that the Thai military, with the assistance and supervision of the United Nations, had set up. I can vividly relive the image of my mother wrapping my baby sister in a single surgical scrub shirt that my father had brought back from the refugee health center where he was working as a nursing assistant. Before our escape out of the country, my father was a USAID-trained medic during the Secret War in Laos, the clandestine CIA operation established to stop the flow of weapons and soldiers from North Vietnam into the South.
I remember standing in line for every meal and recall that the food didn’t taste like anything I had ever seen or eaten before, but I ate it anyway because I didn’t know what the next meal was going to look like, or when it would come again. I also remember how good it was to finally eat a bowl of white rice in water, while sparingly licking a cube of sugar. I was 7 years old at the time.
Coming to the United States as a political refugee, growing up Hmong American in the Midwest and now working as national advocate for social and civil rights in our nation’s capital, sometimes I feel as if I have literally traveled through a warp of space and time seemingly at random. Yet at the same time, I find myself in awe of the destiny I am so fortunate to manifest. I would like to believe that it’s the wondrous work of the spirits of the ancestors.
Those early days of our refugee resettlement experience were really tough for those of us who were part of the largest wave of Asians who came to this country in the late 1970s and ‘80s, and yet, we thrived despite the overt racism and bigotry we encountered. Compared to so many of our relatives who perished along our flight to freedom, we survived and were given the chance to live.
In the deepest parts of my soul, I always knew that I owed it to all those who didn’t or couldn’t make it to take full advantage of every opportunity that came my way in this great country. Most importantly, I have struggled to make sure that my parents know, in their life time, that their quest to bring us to safety was not in vain.
In the late 1970s, when our family came to the United States, we moved to a very small city where we became some of the first Asian American faces to ever live in that community. With the Vietnam War as their only point of reference, many of our Anglo-American neighbors saw us as surrogates for America’s enemies in Southeast Asia, and we would often get called “chink or gook,” and often endured showers of spit or trash as we walked to school.
I recall one event in particular that still has the power to anger me, even today. It was a beautiful summer day, and my mother and I were sitting by our big bay window—she was trying to teach me how to do traditional Hmong embroidery. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw three young men riding by on their bicycles. As they drew near the window, one of the boys threw a handful of eggs at the window. As the eggs were streaking down one side of the window, they came back from the other direction, and the second boy threw another handful of eggs on the other side of the window.
Though I was shocked and afraid, I also wanted to see these boys closer, so I went up to the window. And as I was trying to identify them, the third boy came up our lawn on his bicycle, looked me in the eyes and spat at the window. As the three of them rode away, as the eggs were streaking down the sides of the window and the wad of spit was running down the center of the window, I became so angry and enraged.
I went to our closet and took out my three aluminum tee-ball bats. I put the bats by the door and I asked my parents what they were going to do about the situation, for I was prepared to take some action. While my father told me to just ignore them, my mother said some things that provided a direction for my life and gave me a greater reason to make something of myself.
My mother said, “These people don’t know who we are, where we came from or even what kind of people we are. All they see is our skin color and the fact that we are different from them.” She said, “In life, and in the reality of living the rest of our lives in America, no matter how American we become, we will never be able to change the shape of our eyes, the texture of our hair and the color of our skin—someone, somewhere, will never like you because of the way you look.” Then she said, “This is why you must study hard, you must finish high school, and go to college and come back and be their boss. In your lifetime, many people will never like you because of the way you look, but some people will have to respect you because of who you are!”
As disrespected and as violated as I felt, I did not resort to violence, and my mother’s words gave me strength and direction. I graduated from high school and went to college.
As a first-year student at the university, I discovered, for the first time, words and vocabularies that spoke to my negative experiences—words that articulated and gave voice to that heavy, silent weight in the pit of my stomach.
I became a student activist and embarked on a personal journey to find my political identity -- as a refugee, as Asian, and woman of color living in America. I tasted, and tested the principles of diversity, racism and pluralism -- and my newfound understanding of these principles liberated me, gave me a political voice and helped to shape me into the political person I am today.
I will always be grateful for the many supportive professors at the Taubman Center at Brown University who did a fairly good job of liberalizing this refugee kid from the Midwest, and turned her from an organic chemistry-failing, biology major “wannabe” into a campus-protesting, public policy-changing, university-hall occupying radical!
One of these individuals is, in fact, with us today—Dr. Edith Barrett, whose son is a member of this graduating class! Thanks to Professor Barrett and others at the public policy center, I went on to the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas to further focus on poverty policy and eventually ended up here at home at the University of Minnesota Law School.
It really was this homecoming that gave me the opportunities to work for local political candidates, engage in issue campaigns, and work to register new American voters that led to political organizing and running for the Minnesota State Senate.
I’m often asked what made me decided to run for public office. While I would love to be able to say that I was pushed by outrage or inspired by righteous issue anger—it wouldn’t be true. I was inspired to run out of a deep sense of gratitude and awareness of how lucky I was to be living in this country.
In my efforts to register new Americans to vote, I saw that they were struggling to connect to our democratic process in an intentional and meaningful way, a struggle that is magnified by the failure of mainstream candidates and political parties to prioritize and civically engage these often neglected and invisible voting blocs. In fact, I decided to run precisely because I didn’t think that I would win, so there was no risk in the face of a grand opportunity to energize and bring new Americans and disenfranchised voices to the political process.
All my life, I could never tell which was the worst burden to overcome--being a political refugee or being poor. What I did know, however, was that in either situation, I was too often living under someone else’s rules. I think my decision to concentrate in public policy, to obtain a law degree and to work to change public policy, whether as a legislator or now working in Washington DC, stems from a deep dissatisfaction with living by other people’s rules and a belief that I could make a better difference if I had a place at the rule-making table.
When I first ran for office, a woman came up to me and told me she was glad I was running for office. She said, “If you don’t make room for yourself at the table, you will end up on the menu.” When I was in the Senate, and sometimes even today as we fight against the erosion of our civil rights, protect immigrant rights and voting rights, I think about her and how important it is to fight for a place at the table.
I have learned that when good, thoughtful, passionate and skilled public policy graduates like us are at the table, we always ask the questions about the unintended consequences of public policies, the costs and benefits to the affected communities, especially and specifically those who are underrepresented and most vulnerable, and the empowerment or injustices to those who are voiceless. I have seen that while there are many smart people who can identify and analyze the problems, it takes a depth and breadth of diverse experiences to craft solutions that do not leave entire categories of peoples disadvantaged nor render them completely invisible.
On the night I got elected, I was so struck with emotions, I couldn’t deliver my victory speech. While most people told me to stop crying and start acting like a leader, my grandmother slowly walked up to me, put her hand on my head as only the elders are allowed to do, and spoke softly into my ears.
She told me to take as much the time as I needed to gather myself. Then she said to me, “When you are ready, you go up to that microphone and you speak. And today and every day from this day forward, when you speak, you speak loudly and clearly, especially when you feel that ball of tears gathering in your throat. For those tears represent the hundreds and thousands of souls who have never been heard. Today, your voice is no longer yours. Whenever you get to speak, you are giving voice to those who have never been heard.”
We live in interesting times. By your presence here, you’ve embarked on a leadership journey at a time when the voices of the future—our children and our youth, as so capably demonstrated by the Black Lives Matter movement—are hungry and inpatient for partnerships to co-create the best possible future for all of us by addressing long-standing inequities that continue to strangle some of us.
By your presence here today, you have accepted the leadership mantle to envision and redesign and re-invest in the most basic and fundamental institutions that are necessary for the economic growth and vitality of our collective future. The fact is, in the year 2044, this nation will reach a demographic tipping point, and there will be a need for leaders who are prepared to harness this opportunity.
One challenge, according to my friend, Manuel Pastor, is to address what he calls the racial generation gap--the phenomenon where the older, whiter population do not see themselves reflected in the younger, browner population, thereby resulting in disinvestments in basic infrastructures like K-12 education. In a recent conversation posted by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, he suggests that:
“We need to change that by changing the narrative and helping the older generation see itself more in the younger generation. And part of that is recognizing that the workers of the future, the producers of the future, the folks who are going to be chipping into social security and Medicare and keeping those systems solvent--it's this younger cohort of color which is both coming into working age and moving into prime working age. Unless we're making the investments to make sure that younger generation is productive and not over-incarcerated, it's working at full speed and not threatened by deportation, we're not going to be able to have a thriving American economy moving forward.”
Finally, your arrival at this ceremony today demonstrates that you are willing to entertain how we govern in a world where we will soon be obsolete. And while we are still debating, our children are already living the reality.
Let me tell you a quick story to illustrate. In my family, we like to play board games. One of these games is the game called Life. You may recall that in the game of Life, as you travel through the paths of life, you spin the wheel of fate and it will dictate where you land. Sometimes you are dealt with a certain set of cards which carries with it peril or fortune. With this game comes a defined set of rules which dictates specific paths about career, marriage, having children and so on.
Last winter, my 9-year-old daughter wanted to play, so we decided to reacquaint ourselves with the rules of the game and began to play. Halfway through the game, she grabbed a Post-It pad and began scribbling notes. When I asked her what she was doing, she proceeded to tell me that she was dissatisfied with the rules and wanted to propose some amendments.
Her amendments went like this: If you land on a space that says you have to get married, you do not have to get married but you will have to pay a single-person penalty to the bank. If you do choose to get married, you should be allowed marry a boy or a girl of the same gender, because after all, the law of this country protects that right.
If you land in a space that says you have to have a child and you are a girl, you can pay a penalty and don’t have to add a child, because it is your right to choose. If, however, you land on this space and you are single or a single-gender couple, and you want a child, you can have one because now you can adopt. Finally, she said, “Mom, at any time in this game, if you choose to get a divorce, you can, but you must keep your kids.”
Kids today live in a reality that is different from what we have been used to seeing. We need to wake up and catch up, or we will be left behind. If my 9-year old child can assert her sense of rights to amend the rules in the game of Life, it feels absurd that these realities are still being debated.
As you leave here today, I commit to you my grandmother’s wish—with your credentials and your knowledge and your life experiences, you are eminently qualified and will be positioned to be a voice for the voiceless. You will have many opportunities to speak, so when you do get to speak, speak loudly and clearly because you are giving voice to the countless souls who are agitating to be heard.
In your worst moments and toughest times, I hope you will let my mother’s advice, my grandmother’s words and my daughter’s story give you inspiration and direction, for they have certainly given me strength and guidance.