For Hmong Farmers, By Hmong Farmers, Led By Hmong Farmers
February 10, 2014
The conference room table at the Hmong American Farmers Association (HAFA) was cluttered with papers, spreadsheets, and projectors. Around the table, three HAFA staffers peppered a farm service agency representative with questions about policies, strategies, and ways to connect more immigrant farmers to vital micro-loans to grow their businesses.
As the organization’s senior community organizer, Janssen Hang puts it, “HAFA is a grassroots nonprofit for Hmong farmers, founded by Hmong farmers and led by Hmong farmers. We use an organizing approach to work with our members to learn about the barriers they face, develop shared solutions, and put the structures in place to help them build wealth and community assets so that they can lift their families out of poverty. ” It’s an important cause. Hmong American farmers make up over 50% of the farmers at farmers markets in the Twin Cities, but face unique challenges when it comes to access to capital, land, training, and alternative markets.
So HAFA has set out to advance the economic, social and cultural prosperity of Hmong American farmers. And they set out to do it the Wellstone Way.
The roots of HAFA won’t be particularly surprising to people around the 2002 Wellstone senate campaign and the Wellstone Action family. Pakou Hang served on Senator Wellstone’s 2002 campaign and has been an integral friend, trainers, and supporter of Wellstone Action in the years since. So when she started HAFA in 2011 it’s no wonder she built the organization through a community organizing approach, empowering its members through trainings, one-on-ones, and community meetings to better access land, equipment, and capital so that they can expand and improve their farming operations. Pakou says, “We support farmers to build wealth and assets, not just income. Income feeds our stomachs but wealth feeds our minds and frees us to reimage what can be possible.”
Since its inception, HAFA has tripled in sized and added many new community organizers including Janssen, and Viva Yang, who works part of the time for an organization helping people achieve financial stability, and part time as HAFA’s business development organizer.
So when Viva and Janssen heard that Camp Wellstone was coming to Minnesota, it was a no brainer to sign up. As Viva explains, “I don’t have a traditional organizing background, and at HAFA we approach everything we do as community organizers, so I went to Camp Wellstone hoping to infuse my current experience with a sense of how to be a great organizer.”
And that’s what they got.
“All I can say is, ‘wow.”’ Adds Janssen, “Before Camp Wellstone I never really saw myself as an organizer, now I know that I am, and it’s a big role. As an organizer you are a leader. Camp Wellstone is intense and a crash course in being an organizer the Wellstone Way: leading ethically, strategically, always trying to be better.”
Attending Camp Wellstone means that Janssen and Viva are even better connected with Pakou’s vision, says Janssen, “I learned a little bit more about Pakou, at Camp Wellstone. It was a peek into her mind. Now I see why she’s’ so strategic, and why she’s so passionate about organizing.”
As HAFA grows and strengthens its connection with more Hmong farmers, training them to train each other to better connected with resources and best practices, Camp Wellstone will continue to serve Viva and Janssen, “There was so much synergy in the room. More than any single lesson, I learned that the Wellstone Triangle is in all of us. It’s in our daily lives, it’s our ability to not just give a damn, but to do something about it.”
Helping to build the capacity of HAFA is deeply rooted in our legacy. In 2002 Senator Wellstone co-authored the Hmong Veterans Naturalization Act which allowed Hmong veterans and their widows to take the citizenship test in Hmong. This resulted in over 2,000 Hmong elders across the country being able to become U.S. citizens.
Pakou, Viva, Janssen and their families grew up farming. Today, organizing for a better life for Hmong farmers across the region, is a passion for all three, rooted in family bonds, the Wellstone Triangle, and a deep belief in a world where we all do better when we all do better.