Demonstrating his commitment to a balanced city workforce that better reflects its population, newly elected St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman held fast to his pre-election vision of balance when he appointed three Asian-Americans to very high posts at city hall.
“There is no question the city needs to improve both its relations in the Hmong community and its approach toward diversity in city hall,” Mayor Coleman assured during a pre-election interview with Hmong Today. “I will direct each department director to set specific goals on hiring people of color, and they will meet those goals.”
With nearly 30 percent of the public school enrollment, the Hmong will continue to play a prominent role in the future of St. Paul. With education as one of his top priorities, Coleman hired Vallay Moua Varro as Education Director to oversee the initiatives that he hopes to implement
Dedicated to improving the neighborhoods, Coleman assembled his advisory team to include four community outreach specialists; Va-megn Thoj being one of them.
And for the first time in St. Paul’s history, an Asian-American will be its top lawyer as John Choi was appointed City Attorney by Coleman.
With no disillusion to the overwhelming nature of her position, Vallay is also aware that education is on the top of the mayor’s list of priorities. With her education and work experience at the Minnesota Literacy Council, however, Vallay is confident that she is prepared her for the long road ahead of her.
Having worked extensively with early childhood learning while at the Literacy Council, Vallay will use her hands-on experience to help expand on the highly successful “Capitol City Education Initiatives” that was put in place by former mayor Randy Kelly.
“There are currently 3,000 VISTA Volunteers in the program,” Vallay remarks on one of the first projects she’ll be working on. “We’re going to expand the program to junior high and high schools and shoot for 4,000 volunteers.”
On the other side of the education spectrum, Vallay will also represent the city in helping to develop the “Power of You” program which is a brand-new collaborative between the city, area colleges and a number of philanthropic foundations that will offer a two year college education to qualified city dwelling students.
“One of my strengths is being able to get the right people at the table to find solutions and resources,” Vallay explains about her strategy to accomplish big projects.
At the end of her tenure, Vallay hopes she can make a big difference on how parents currently participate in their kid’s lives and education.
“One of the most important things that I learned at the Literacy Council is how valuable parental involvement is for the future of a child. As a Hmong, I know there are many challenges and misunderstandings Hmong parents have with their children. My goal is to close this gap and have parents participating in their kid’s lives. Everything else will fall into place after that.”
Appointed to the six-person policy advisory team led by Policy Director Nancy Homans, Va-megn is pleased to see the direction in which the new mayor is taking.
“Coleman’s commitment to the neighborhoods and his efforts to reach the community is apparent by who he hired to help advise him on policy issues,” Va-megn explains. “Of the five Policy Associates, four of us are community outreach workers, quite a difference from past mayoral appointments.”
His faith in Coleman is what drove him to eventually take the job after it had been offered to him.
After completing his Masters in Public Administration from the Humphrey Institute (University of Minnesota), Va-megn was determined to finish some very important projects he had in the works.
“But in sharing the same vision as this mayor, I knew I could make a difference in the mayor’s office, so I reluctantly took the job,” Va-megn reveals with no remorse.
An established filmmaker, Va-megn graduated from Indiana University in 1993 with a degree in comparative literature and film.
Having freshly arrived in Minnesota, one of the first things Va-megn did was to lead a community protest against popular radio host Tom Barnard and KQRS for statements he had made ridiculing the Hmong.
The movement which was named CAAR (Community Action Against Racism) made headline news after several large advertisers pulled their spots off the air, forcing KQRS to concede to demands made by CAAR, including a rare on-air apology.
His leadership in CAAR helped to catapult Va-megn into the public eye and more importantly aligned him with social and political groups that he is still very much involved with today.
Working on tough assignments and having to reach agreements with hard-nosed negotiators is something Va-megn seems very prepared to do.
And although he will not always work specifically on Hmong issues, Va-megn understands that he is the key adviser on issues concerning the Hmong.
“But what’s very important to me is to make sure the mayor hears more than one voice from the Hmong community. My job is to get everyone involved so that decisions are not made based solely from one viewpoint. I’ve been working from the outside this whole time and now that I’m on the inside, I feel I have a great advantage because I’ve been there and I know what the people want.”