MN VOICES | Sai Vang combines art and activism at Center for Hmong Arts and Talent

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Sai Vang began to look at activism differently when she was a high school student at South High school in Minneapolis. “It was around the time that a Hmong girl in Wisconsin was at her prom,” she recalls. “She had given birth to a stillborn and she threw it in the trash. KQRS made racist and prejudiced comments about her situation and the [Hmong] community in general.”

Some people organizing around the issue came and spoke at an assembly at South. “I was just kind of like, ‘Whatever, this is just another presentation,’” says Vang. “During the Q&A section, some of the white male students spoke up and made the same comments that the KQRS DJ had made and that got me really angry. At the end of the presentation, they asked us if we wanted to be a part of the movement, take action, and protest against this radio station, and I went along. That was the first time that I realized that there are injustices in our world and that I could do something.”

Vang went on to St. Catherine University in St. Paul, where she got her degree in studio arts with a concentration in photography. “St. Kate’s is a very social justice-focused school,” said Vang, “so it really helped me channel all that anger, all that fear, and my identity issues that I was going through and really put them into context for me. Those were really informative years for me. I really got to study and learn about things that I really cared about or that I had passion for.”

Right out of college, Vang was hired by the Minnesota Immigrant Freedom Network to work with a photographer. Their project involved driving through Minnesota with a truck full of photos of immigrants and the stories that they’d shared. This, she believes, is what inspired her passions for art, working with others, and exploring her culture. Vang says that it was “eye-opening to really see how we can really use art outside of the context of a gallery to really shape the way our community understands issues.”

Sai Vang describes herself as a Hmong American artist, community organizer and now, the executive director of the Center for Hmong Arts and Talent (CHAT).

CHAT‘s mission states that the organization “exists to nurture, explore and illuminate the Hmong American experience through artistic expressions.” The organization, located in St. Paul, adopted its mission in 2008 and continues to “address social injustices through Hmong American artists and youth that express their inner truths through contemporary arts by 1) raising awareness, 2) initiating action, and 3) building community.”

As the executive director, explains Vang, “My main task is the day-to-day running of the organization. It’s also setting the ground for the vision of the organization and making sure that we lift up the voices of our community, my Hmong community, by bringing our voices and artistic expression to the forefront of the Minnesota art scene and creating awareness about what other issues are going on in our community. I work so that our voices are reflected in the policies that are made in the state of Minnesota and for us to really have an influence and build our culture and heritage and embrace our culture as well.

“Art is something I’m very passionate about. Young people are something I’m very passionate about, too. I did a lot of youth development work before I came to CHAT. It’s about understanding the role models that you’ve had in your life: seeing how important it is to have individuals who support you, who understand you, encourage you and challenge you to do things outside of your comfort zone. So I continue to do that.”

Vang wasn’t sure when she realized what she wanted to do with her life. “I think it just happened,” she said. “I don’t know what I would be doing if I didn’t take that job right out of college and went around Minnesota with that mobile gallery. At the time, I definitely knew that I didn’t want to do commercial photography and that I wanted t focus on fine arts and continue to document what I thought was important involving my life and my identity.

“I think that things happen for a reason, so I think it was just what my destiny was calling for. I don’t know if that was the right move, but I know that all of the things that happened, happened for a reason and I couldn’t be where I am today if I didn’t experience those things.”

Vang said she is still trying to achieve balance in her life. “I’m still very young and I’ve got a lot to learn, but I also understand how important it is to find a balance in life. Part of that is having a support network that supports you and I’m very fortunate that I have a great family that supports me and also friends, allies and mentors that are also there for me. They keep me sane. But finding a balance is learning about your own individual boundaries as well. I’ve come to learn about where I need to step back for my own sanity and my own health. It’s a continuous journey – a continuous process, and hopefully I’ll find it one day.”

Vang’s words of wisdom: “Do what you love. Everything else will fall into place.”