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Conferring rights; New generation of Hmong geared to have a more active role in U.S.

By: JAMES H. BURNETT III of the Journal Sentinel staff, April 14, 2002 Sunday

American civil rights historians may not recognize the name Vang Pao.

But to the 1,000 or so Hmong converging on Milwaukee over the next few days, Pao is well-known and revered for his activism and fight to gain civil rights for Hmong.

Pao, the top Hmong military commander during the conflicts against communist forces from the 1950s to the '70s in Laos and Vietnam, has influenced a new generation of Hmong Americans gathering for the Hmong National Conference.

The event, which begins today, runs through Tuesday at the Hyatt Regency Hotel, 333 W. Kilbourn Ave. Talks will focus on establishing cultural identity, breaking ground in business, and community and political activism. Among the featured speakers is Lee Pao Xiong, commissioner of the White House Initiative on Asian American and Pacific Islanders.

"Though he was a military leader in Laos, General Pao has been a great source of inspiration to Hmong people," explained Dao Vang, a Hmong community development specialist at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

"He fought for something he strongly believed. Even today as he works as a Hmong leader in the United States, he continues to do so -- building one's community within a larger greater community of different people.

"It's interesting to watch as younger generations of Hmong grow up and learn about people like General Pao and the contributions he gave," Vang said.

Bo Thao, executive director of Hmong National Development Inc., noted that the recent election of Mee Moua to the Minnesota Senate was a source of pride to the Hmong community.

"She's certainly a role model and, at 32 years old, a perfect example of a different generation."

Thao's vision of new leadership isn't just a pipe dream, experts say.

More Hmong residents hold public office in Wisconsin than in any other state, Vang said.

And according to U.S. Census Bureau data, the Hmong are the fastest-growing Asian Pacific group in the United States.

The same holds true in Milwaukee, where estimates place the Hmong population between 13,000 and 16,000.

"I think this growth is great," Milwaukee Mayor John O. Norquist said. "Not only are the Hmong growing faster than any other group in Milwaukee, they're doing well here, too." Only 5% to 10% use any public assistance, down from more than 75% a decade ago, he said.

Norquist pointed out local investors are taking an interest in several blocks around W. National Ave. and S. 39th St. because of it's growing Hmong presence.

Business and politics aside, Hmong such as May Ly Moua, 80, view the conference as hopeful for another reason: a sense of belonging.

Moua took a break from her citizenship class last week at Milwaukee's Lao Family Community Center to explain.

"This is all about being a part of America, not just being here," she said through an interpreter.

Moua hopes her "children" -- anyone more than a few years younger than herself -- impart upon one another an urgency to fit in by sharing Hmong cultural traditions.

"That way they can also help the elders learn and grow," Moua said.