In the spotlight with Hmong Youth Leadership Group counselor Jennifer Thao

I had the great pleasure to sit down with recent University of Minnesota CEHD graduate and new CHAT Youth Leadership Group Counselor, Jennifer Thao at the charming picturesque Nina’s Coffee Cafe, located in Cathedral Hill of St Paul. As a Board member and arts lover, I must say I am proud that CHAT has a bright and talented young leader guiding the Youth Leadership Group (YLG).

YLG is a year-long commitment for high school youth to develop their leadership skills through community organizing, peer learning, and interaction with Hmong professionals. In addition, the group works with professional artists to create an original, creative campaign in the form of a public theater piece, tackling and presenting issues young Hmong Americans face. YLG is a great way for youth to build community and get a sense of self identity while have fun and gaining great memories and experiences.

YLG Counselor Jennifer Thao began her internship with CHAT in the summer of 2013, and has since played a key role in the group’s success, leading projects such as the YLG Frogtown Lot Squats and Friday Night Lights Open Mics. Jennifer is also heavily involved in the planning of this year’s CHAT Freedom Festival: The 11th Annual Hmong Arts and Music festival. Among all the exciting community projects on her plate, she is also a Document Coordinator at a local credit union.

C: What was your first experience with CHAT?

J: My first experience with CHAT was during my freshman year of college back in 2009-2010. I was challenged to research an organization that served a specific community, and struck a chord with me. I sought an organization that served the Hmong community, and happened to stumble upon CHAT. I interviewed Kathy Mouacheupao, the then Executive Director for CHAT. When it came time to seek internships during my last year at the U, out of curiousity, I went to CHAT.

C: What motivated you to become a part of CHAT?

J: I really wanted to find an internship that would provide me experience working with youth, especially Hmong youth who were doing great things for the community. Aside from having done previous research on CHAT, it was one of the many organizations listing available internship opportunities. I emailed the organization with my interest and desire to be involved. Immediately, Executive Director Fres Thao contacted me for an interview and I’ve been there ever since.

C: What would you say is the most rewarding part of your role as the Youth Leadership Group Counselor?

J: The most rewarding piece about my responsibilities is that I get the to meet and work with really awesome people and organizations! I used to be very reserved; the type who didn’t often go outside of my comfort zone. After the many experiences and opportunities CHAT provided, I now can’t get enough exploring, and believe it’s important to gain and share knowledge. I’m really fortunate to have had the chance to take on a role working closely with CHAT staff, Board, artists and particularly, youth!

C: What was your process, or experience at CHAT?

J: My original internship as the Youth Programs Specialist Intern (that’s quite a mouthful!) came to an end in the winter of 2013; this also coincided with my graduation. I couldn’t find the courage to cut my relationship with the organization, the people, and the Youth Leadership Group I love. We developed such an organic, family-like relationship. I mean, I don’t just see the YLG as Hmong youth; they’re my youth, my community’s youth. They call me Mama J! As a Mama, I can’t just leave them behind, so I wanted to do more for them. Relationships take time to build trust and honesty. Among the fast pace, and age of social media, it can be challenging to build a trusting relationship with.

Although I have a busy schedule, I stayed active as a volunteer. Eventually, there were some funds secured to provide me a small stipend and Fres invited me on as the YLG Counselor.

Another thing I learned from Fres is to have fun. Have fun while you’re on your job because the purpose is to enjoy the experience. Since then I have shared this idea, and carry on this moral with the Youth Leadership Group. They are youth, and the new leaders of our community; they should find enjoyment in everything they do!

C: What was your focus at the University of Minnesota, and what are your plans moving forward?

J: I graduated this December with a BS major in Family Social Science with a minor in Leadership. It’s funny how in school things seems clear and directional, there’s a somewhat structure and schedule to things, then you’re done, you’re free, the structures gone, and you’re off to explore and define your success! I find that exciting and scary at the same time. Anyways, I anticipate pursuing my Masters in Educational Psychology, or Guidance Counseling. I’ve been looking at graduate programs for the past few months now, but nothing is set in stone yet.

C: What are some of your aspirations and goals?

J: A short term goal of is to attend graduate school and continue my learning experience. Another one is to get a new car!

A long term goal is to apply my experiences and education in a high school or college environment as an academic counselor. I have a deep passion for assisting and guiding young people to make positive and healthy choices. As a Hmong American, I know the many struggles that refugee/immigrant, and underserved students go through. I know it can be difficult, and a struggle to not have the proper support and attention. I want to help make education more accessible and inclusive. On top of that, there’s a generation gap between the young and the elder Hmong that can prohibit healthy learning environments. I aim to be a positive and uplifting role model for our young Hmong leaders. I want to be a resource for them to be comfortable accessing.

C: What are some of your visions for the future of CHAT and/or YLG?

J: One piece I envision is to increase CHAT’s Youth Leadership Group participants and capacity. There are currently less than 15 members, but I would like to see more Hmong youth be impacted by such a meaningful experience and program. I know this takes more than outreach, but also growing the capacity of CHAT’s staff, resources and partnerships. I’d also like to see an increase in interracial, intercommunity and intergenerational interaction between groups from different communities of the Twin Cities. Internally, I’d also like to help develop a more solid marketing plan for CHAT and YLG in order to reach a more broad audience with the great things happening in our organization. There’s been many changes in the past year, including the leadership transition and addition of staff and Board; it feels like we’re tackling everything quickly and spontaneously, and although we want to let things build organically, I believe a solid plan will be very beneficial. We are steadily creating our toolkits and learning from our peers, partners and resources; I’m excited for what’s to come!

C: Besides nurturing and developing young Hmong leaders, what are your hobbies? Interests?

J: I really enjoy music and singing. Singing is a favorite pastime! I’m not the greatest whatsoever, but if there’s an opportunity for me to perform live, I’m there! During my free time, I really enjoy spending time with my nieces. Despite their unexpected mood swings and at times, challenging “personalities”, I love them so much! I’m often the go-to babysitter in the family, but I find it very revitalizing. Oh yea, and I love fish! I love aquariums! I love all things fish related; mostly creating and maintaining fish aquariums!

C: Any last comments for our readers?

J: GO PHOENIX! (I graduated from Arlington High School.) Also, CHAT’s Youth Leadership Group is still recruiting new members through August of 2014. It’s a great safe space for youth! We offer a lot of unique experiences and opportunities. You get to meet great new people and organizations, create new relationships, experience behind-the-scenes of magnificent events, and express and share among like-minded young leaders. We also provide free transportation for St. Paul residents! You don’t have to be an artist, but do need to be open to learning, teaching and growing as a community.

With delight, I’m glad to have had the chance to interview the new CHAT’s YLG Counselor. Getting to know her personally gives me confidence that CHAT’s youth programming is up to great and innovate things. Jennifer is an amazing individual who has a bright future ahead of her. Keep an eye and ear out for her and CHAT’s Youth Leadership Group. Their first Friday Night Lights Open Mic of the season is on Friday, April 18, 6-9PM at CHAT’s Studio 220 located on the second floor of the Sunrise Plaza. See you there!

Jennifer, CHAT’s 2014 Youth Leadership Group and Fres Thao at SOY’s 2014 New Year Party

If you’re interested or know someone who is interested in joining YLG, please contact Jennifer at thaox337 [at] umn [dot] edu, or call 651-603-6971. Don’t forget to save the date for April 18th from 6-9PM, where YLG will be hosting their first YLG Friday Night Lights Open Mic of the season located at CHAT’s Studio 220.