Language, culture reinforce inequality on East Side of St. Paul

Mai Lor Xiong grew up in a Hmong family that spoke no English, and has lived much of her life on St. Paul’s East Side. Today, Mai is Housing Resources Coordinator for the East Side Neighborhood Development Company (ESNDC). ESNDC works on housing, economic development, and community engagement initiatives. Skills Mai developed at a young age, assisting her parents as a translator and helping them locate resources, are serving her well in the work she does. Mai understands the challenges and inequities that East Side residents face because she’s experienced so many of them herself.

Xiong is one of the people we interviewed as part of TC Daily Planet's coverage of the huge racial equity gap that impacts nearly every realm of life, in Minnesota as well as nationally. Her work brings her in daily contact with people struggling to overcome the gap.

As you travel around St. Paul’s East Side, what signs of inequality do you see?

Housing. People in poverty not being able to afford homes. Job loss. People having kids at a young age and then not being able to complete school, earn a diploma. Language barriers. Transportation. Food. Eating healthy is a factor, too.

Can you give examples of how all of this plays out in the everyday lives of residents?

With food, there are places like food co-ops that offer classes about eating healthy, but they don’t have people on staff who can translate to teach people who don’t speak English. The same thing happens with housing. The Minnesota Home Ownership Center doesn’t have staff who can translate into every language to explain to people what they need to do to buy a home or keep their home. They partner with Hmong Housing Resources. But what about other languages, like the Karen (St. Paul is home to the largest population of Karen refugees from Myanmar, formerly Burma, in the U.S.)? There’s been a huge influx of Karen coming here. Not having translators can leave them without the information they need.

So language is one of the biggest barriers?

When I approach Karen people, in my work as Housing Resources Coordinator, they’ll talk with me, but if I try to give them resources they won’t understand what I’m saying. Before I started working here, Hmong people couldn’t take advantage of ESNDC’s services because of language barriers with the staff. After I was hired, I started walking around the neighborhood. It was hard to translate certain things like about lead paint, but once they knew what we could do for them at EDNDC, then they were really interested. Others learned through word of mouth.

Compared to other parts of the city, how has the East Side felt the impact of the mortgage foreclosure crisis?

It hit the East Side really hard. The house value, if someone wants to sell, they won’t be able to get what they paid for it. Plus having empty homes attracts crime. If there are different colored pieces of paper plastered all over the door, then it’s obvious no one lives there. Lots of times there will be people outside those houses loitering and even fighting. That keeps people who are looking at houses from wanting to buy there.

What about rental properties?

The same goes for rental places. Landlords need to be more responsible. I see families, Hmong families of 12, living in a two- or three-bedroom apartment. I’ll ask, ‘Does the landlord knows about this?’ Some landlords don’t do criminal background checks. I know this from my own situation. It makes me feel unsafe. I have three young children. They’re ages six, five, and three. After 6:00 at night we don’t leave the apartment. I’ve lived there about 10 months. My husband got a gross misdemeanor about three years ago. It made it hard to find a place. We had no other choice. But it makes me wonder about the other people they let in.

In terms of housing, it sounds like you’ve experienced some of the same inequities as the people ESNDC serves.

We’ll probably move next month. We’ll build our credit up, but we wonder if we can afford a home, and whether we’ll be able to buy some place that’s safe. So we’re having second thoughts. That’s a form of inequality for people trying to find a safe place for their families to live.

What is ESNDC doing to address economic disparities, including around housing?

As housing resources coordinator, I help families get into housing rehab and loans programs. We have two programs. One is a lead poisoning and window replacement program. The Department of Public Health comes and does an inspection and then if lead is found we help with replacement. We have another program called Brush with Kindness where we partner with Habitat for Humanity. It helps homeowners who need help maintaining or restoring their homes. I also refer families to different agencies and programs. And we have a leadership institute. We spot people who are very committed to the neighborhood. Then we bring eight of them to a training to learn what leadership means. They work on a project like beautification. It’s been around for about three years.

What are some of the beautification projects that teams have done?

The first group gardened. The second group did a thing called ‘What does the East Side mean to you?’ It used photography, similar to the University Avenue Project. The third group is getting the youth and elderly together to paint murals. We have two murals that were completed through something called ‘Paint the Pavement.’ My husband did one of the murals.

Are there other promising solutions out there — any programs, for example, that are making, or could make a difference in helping to close economic gaps and improve quality of life on the East Side?

The Wilder Foundation; I really like the programs they have. They have an East Side residents leadership program. I send a lot of young referrals to that. I went through it myself. They teach cultural competence, so you can understand where people are coming from, and know how to talk to them. You learn how to put yourselves in someone else’s shoes. It affects how people think about their neighborhood. Wilder also offers anger management classes. They help you figure out how to approach people without causing a problem.

Can you give an example of how those programs benefit the community?

There was an older lady, a Caucasian lady, who wanted to engage with Hmong families but when she came with a dish for a ceremony she felt pushed away. She didn’t understand the culture. A ceremony usually means that something bad has happened. So I explained the culture to her. She really didn’t understand that by you coming in you might do something that could result in something bad happening to the family. I said I could help introduce her to the families by translating and explaining who she is. Now the kids are playing together.

Are there ways that St. Paul’s Hmong community is especially affected by economic, cultural, and/or racial inequities?

They probably don’t know what inequity or inequality or disparities means. I’m just learning about it myself. I’ve been doing an equity training the past two weeks so that I better understand it and can explain it. I went to the Equity Summit in Detroit, on a scholarship through LISC (Local Initiatives Support Corporation). [Mai was a 2010-2011 Twin Cities LISC AmeriCorps member.] I felt so empowered by all of the people who were there. The speakers were so powerful and strong. I took classes on leadership and transportation.

On buses everything is all in English, and maybe Spanish. I know it’s difficult to translate into all other languages, but it’s a problem. With University Avenue, buses are going to be cut, light rail’s going to affect businesses, parking, homes, the whole community. It’s hard to get information out to different communities, including the Hmong, about what’s going on because of the language barriers.

What did you take away from the Equity Summit in Detroit?

I took a leadership class offered by three facilitators in their 20s. The first speaker talked about how she was part of a group that spotted youth in the community who wanted activities, but caused trouble because there weren’t any. They raised money to do their own programs and offer tutoring. They became leaders, and now they staff a rec center. Now they’re having lots of programs for youth at the rec center, to help keep them out of crime.

Another of the facilitators, a Latino girl who couldn’t apply for scholarships because she wasn’t legally in the country, was paying her own way through school, working lots of jobs. She started doing outreach in the community and discovered she wasn’t the only one. It started a movement. She’s working with others to change things so that they can get educations. Her story was very powerful.

Did what you heard at the Summit resonate with your own story and experiences?

I’m only 23. My family used to live in Little Canada. But due to language barriers and other problems my parents couldn’t refinance our home there and had to leave. I was translating for them when I was eight-years old. We were the only Asian family, the only Hmong family living there. Our neighbors would burn our door and throw eggs at our house. Something like that would happen every day. My grandmother started taking vegetables around the neighborhood to give to neighbors. Then they started seeing us as not so bad. But then they didn’t understand our ceremonies and would complain, so we ended up moving to the East Side when I was 16. I got married then. I was pregnant and I couldn’t go to school. I was still helping my family by translating. They always blessed me, and said that what I was doing would be put to good use.

How did you end up working at ESNDC?

One day ESNDC was doing outreach. They found me outside our house. I told the woman I wasn’t smart enough to work for them, that I didn’t have an education. But I went for an interview and was hired in 20 minutes. It really depends on whether you are passionate. I’ve been doing this kind of work, outreach, since I was eight, so it came naturally to me. Even if someone in the community doesn’t need help with housing, they need help with other things, like finding a food shelf. I know how to answer their questions because I’ve been doing it all my life.

Have your parents learned English?

I still serve as a translator. My parents needed to work to support us, so they didn’t get an education. They never got the chance to learn English. Three of my siblings are disabled. When they went to school there weren’t any translators, and they don’t want to talk with other people. So I have to go to translate all the time.

What roles do you try to serve in the lives of other young people?

It’s tough because part of you, it’s cultural, it’s like there are two voices in your head, one that sees yourself as Hmong and one that sees you wanting to live the American Dream. It’s really confusing. It’s really challenging. I try to tell the young people I work with how to manage their situation. I’m really passionate about sharing my story with them. It really gives them something to aspire to.

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    Bruce Johansen's picture
    Bruce Johansen

    Bruce Johansen (brucejohansen [at] tcdailyplanet [dot] net) is programs manager, education and community engagement, for the Twin Cities Media Alliance, and an active resident of Minneapolis's Seward neigbhorhood.


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    Thanks to the writer and to Mai Lor Xiong



    Mai Lor Xiong has shared an honest view of her experience which is similiar to the experience of many of our neighbors. She is to be highly commended for her hard work on behalf of the community.  Thanks for doing this interview and for publishign a good story of someone who is using her talents for the betterment of everyone in the neighborhood.

    Proud of Mai!

    As ESNDC Board President, I can't tell you how proud we are of Mai's efforts and honesty in dealing with the issues of our neighborhoods.  Thanks for shining a spotlight on a bright light within our organization.  Ron Williams, ESNDC Board President