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About Nelsie

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I was told as a woman of color that I shouldn’t go out, shouldn’t talk to strangers, that I was going to get hurt, that if anything happened to me it would be my fault, for doing what I shouldn’t do. Living outside of that box, deciding what kinds of relationships I want to build and who I want to build them with, has been liberating. I want every other woman to be able to live outside of the box imposed on them.

Daughter of Refugees. 

To talk about me, I have to start with my parent’s history, growing up in Laos, experiencing the after-affects of the CIA’s “Secret War.” When the war ended, the Hmong in Laos faced persecution and genocide by the communists. My parents left behind family and made it through the jungle and across the Mekong River to a refugee camp. They ended up in Duluth, Minnesota in March, 1989.

 Cycle of Poverty Begun in Laos, Continued in Duluth.

I am the youngest of five children, all born in Duluth, back to back. Dad worked at bakery making $4 an hour while my mom stayed home with the babies.  We were living on welfare, in the Projects. My parents knew they were at the bottom of the economic and social ladder. Hardship was an experience they were all too familiar with, even when they lived overseas. I can still recall my father sharing  about walking miles to the grocery store to get medicine for my brother after the family car broke down.

North Minneapolis

My parents saw no way out of the cycle of poverty in Duluth, so they moved to North Minneapolis in pursuit of full-time jobs. We lived there from 1998 to 2004. I became an energetic Head Start student and then attended Shingle Creek Elementary School. Mom and Dad both got full-time jobs at St. Jude Medical, as medical-assembly workers. I have such fond memories of North Minneapolis. I never felt ostracized there. I saw people who looked like me in my neighborhood. Classism was not something I had to confront because everyone in the neighborhood accepted each other and had a similar upbringing as mine.

I'm the one with the blue sweatshirt. With my four siblings. 

I'm the one with the blue sweatshirt. With my four siblings. 

Dreams Foreclosed

Working full-time, my parents were able to move into a house in Brooklyn Park in 2004 with enough bedrooms for all the kids to sleep in, but the recession stripped away my parents American dream. Our house was foreclosed.  Why did that happen? It ties back to corporate greed. My parents did not earn livable wages, nor were they awarded equitable raises. They had no cushion. After working nearly two decades with their employer, they’re finally making a little over $15 an hour.

We lost our house two days before my high school graduation. That was really painful for me. I had so much fear. I thought: “Is this really all there is to life? Are we always going to be poor? I felt very angry, stuck, and hurt, like I didn’t have choices. As much as I was hurt, I knew it was worse for my parents. They felt they failed their children.

The anger and pain I felt drove me to get involved in the community and I become a community organizer. I didn’t want poverty to be the author of my destiny. I realized I need to get out of the back seat and take a leadership role, to make sure that my family has a better life; that everybody does.

Visiting Laos

After the house was foreclosed my parents moved to Frogtown in St. Paul. I didn’t live there much because I went off to college at Minnesota State University, Mankato. There I signed up for a study abroad trip to Thailand January-June in 2015.  It was a spiritual and life-changing journey for me. I was majoring in social work, studying at Chiang Mai University. I got a social work internship at an orphanage in Chiang Mai.

After the semester was over, I took a trip to Laos, to the village where my mother grew up. It was surreal. For years, I had heard about these family members and the pain of separation my mom experienced leaving them behind. Now I got to meet them. It was like we were never separated. These people I never met, treated me like they always knew me.  

The thing that hit me the most about that visit is that my relatives in Laos thought we had everything in the United States. They would always say, “You are doing so well. We want to come live with you. You don’t have to worry about anything. We are so envious.”

It gave me an empty feeling. My family was struggling in Minnesota and didn’t have enough. We might have made it to the U.S., but we still felt the pain of poverty. That parallel, between the way my family in Laos and Minnesota were living, shook me.

When I got home I looked for a way to take action. My college friend SuChann Yang, who had already graduated, said, “I will be volunteering for a Hmong council member Dai Thao.  Why don’t you come and help us reelect him?” I immediately said yes. It could have been anything that had to do with the community. I would have done it. There was so much energy built up in my heart, so much desire to do something.

I was extremely excited for this volunteer opportunity. Without getting prepped on what type of work I’d do, I got dressed up, wore four-inch heels, and had the brightest mood on. To my surprise, we went door-knocking. I was in my heels knocking on doors for the next four hours!

It was the most liberating experience of my life, meeting strangers, building relationships, talking about how we can unite. When I finished that volunteer shift they asked, “When are you going to come back? I said, “Tomorrow.”

I did the same thing, Monday through Thursday until my summer break ended. Even while attending school in Mankato, I returned on weekends to take a leadership role in the campaign.

In the following year, I accepted a position as DFL Campaign Coordinator for a congressional race and four state races during the 2016 election. I was a full-time student in the midst of this. I went to caucus and became a national delegate for Bernie Sanders — the youngest Hmong person to go to DNC. It is so important for people in marginalized communities to be in political spaces. It has always been their right, but the door was shut on them. I love to be the one to open doors for people and show them their voice matters and they belong.

Hmong Americans For Justice 

In 2015 Hmong Americans for Justice ran caucus trainings for people of color. I took the training and then began running them myself, training over 300 people after my trip to the DNC. Many of those people went out to caucus for the first time and became delegates. It was exciting to pass on my knowledge to others. I became a paid organizer in Summer 2017 through the end of the year, and later became chair of the organization this past April.

Hmong Americans for Justice is dedicated to securing economic, educational and social equity for all Hmong Americans. We are currently involved in raising minimum wage to $15 in St Paul. Whenever we see racial injustice we need to be there. We seek to be a political home for Hmong American who want to get involved.

Take Action Minnesota: 15Now and Criminal Justice Reform

I am an organizer at TakeAction Minnesota.  I run two campaigns. One focuses on getting east-siders in St. Paul involved in the $15 Now campaign and connected with the political process. The east side is an area in the state with the lowest voter turnout.

The other is working on criminal justice reform. What does reform mean to me?

We need to restore the vote for people in the criminal justice system.  We should never take it away.

We need to demand education for people who are incarcerated and expand educational opportunities for people so they don’t end up in the criminal justice system in the first place.

We need to limit background checks to increase housing and job accessibility for formerly incarcerated people.

We need to legalize marijuana and de-incarcerate those in jail for marijuana violations.

Ultimately we need to abolish the prison and jail system because there is no path to rehabilitation as the system exists now. It is dehumanizing. We lock people up without providing them with the direct services and programs they need to reenter the community. People need to feel dignified in order to give back to society.

Being a Young, Female, Hmong Organizer.  

A lot of people are amazed when they find out I am 23. Mostly they are happy and want to see me rise, but there is also this deeply rooted narrative that young people are not credible, that we don’t get the work done.  I love being one of those young leaders who breaks that narrative. I do that every day. I know how much power there is within young folk. People need to listen to us. In my organizing I make sure to listen across the age spectrum.

Patriarchy is deeply rooted in the Hmong community. My parents thought a woman organizing was abnormal. They were used to seeing me engaged in school, obedient, following the rules.  When I started organizing, protesting, campaigning, they worried. I started coming home late. I spent less time in the house. I was door-knocking, protesting, going to meetings, campaigning.

I was told as a woman of color that I shouldn’t go out, shouldn’t talk to strangers, that I was going to get hurt, that if anything happened to me it would be my fault, for doing what I shouldn’t do. Living outside of that box, deciding what kinds of relationships I want to build and who I want to build them with, has been liberating. I want every other woman to be able to live outside of the box imposed on them.

Speaking out Against Police Killing of
Thurman Blevins, June 23, 2018.  

I heard about the killing of Thurman Blevins from Cacje Henderson, a legislative aide for Minneapolis Council Member Jeremiah Ellison, who posted about it on Facebook. Cindy Yang, a candidate for Minnesota House District 40B, told me about the rally.  Earlier this year, Hmong Americans for Justice went out to protest when Phumee Lee was killed by police in the East Side of St. Paul. After Thurman Blevins was killed, I knew I had to be at the 4th Precinct in my old neighborhood of North Minneapolis, to speak out.   

It was heartbreaking. When I see men of color getting killed by police, it hits home for me. My brother was a victim of gun violence at a young age. Thankfully, he is alive and with us to this day. I know how easily my brother could have been Phumee Lee or Thurman Blevins, and I never want that pain for anyone to live through. The police target men of color because that’s what the historical system of policing set them up to do. That should concern everyone. White people who are low-income and, especially, women of color are targets of policing as well. When I think about this, it reminds me that a pain from one person trickles down to everybody.  

We look different on the outside, but we all can feel the same pain. I took the microphone at Blevins’ rally because when we don’t share stories of being interconnected, the bigger narrative of division pulls us further apart.

We need to stick together and heal together in public.  We need to share our stories, share our experiences. That is how we get to the type of world we should be living in, a world where there is no systemic oppression. A world where Blevins’ would still be alive with us today. A world where everyone lives a long, fulfilled life. That is the world I organize for every day.

Embedded in this tapestry was the story of a teenager who was bullied many times in at school. Sad and feeling defeated, this teenager gathered the resilience to join a leadership program called CLIMB and later became President of the United States of America. Created by my CLIMB friends and I in high school. (CLIMB, an afterschool youth leadership program)

Embedded in this tapestry was the story of a teenager who was bullied many times in at school. Sad and feeling defeated, this teenager gathered the resilience to join a leadership program called CLIMB and later became President of the United States of America. Created by my CLIMB friends and I in high school. (CLIMB, an afterschool youth leadership program)

Hope

I stay motivated by being with the community. They are my energy. I have so much hope about the vision I have for the world, where everyone lives in joy across race, class, gender and age. That world is there. We can get to it, because every time people have united in the past, they’ve always gotten a step further than where they started.

 

Written by Anne Winkler-Morey: turtleroad.org