War changed her life, chasing Chris Her-Xiong from a childhood home in Laos all the way to America. Now, her Hmong American Peace Academy is changing the lives of Milwaukee’s children and its Hmong community.
Chris Her-Xiong walks down the hallway of the Hmong American Peace Academy and pauses to show a large painting created by the school’s seniors. Two scenes are depicted.
On the right side of the mural, brown hills and green palm trees sprawl across the quiet landscape of a rural village in Laos. Over on the left side, there’s a bustling United States city that’s crowded with factories, tall buildings and houses colored in red, white, blue and yellow.
An ocean separates the scenes, and flying overhead is an airplane that’s headed from the village to the city, presumably ferrying passengers between the two distinct lands.
The painting, like much of the art in Hmong culture, tells a vivid story. It’s the story of the journey the Hmong people have made over the last 40 years, from villages and refugee camps in Laos and Thailand to cities and towns in the U.S., including the city of Milwaukee.
“It’s a great representation that shows the two worlds of the parents and grandparents of the students,” says Her-Xiong, founder of the only Hmong school in Wisconsin and an influential Hmong leader in the city.
It’s a story close to her heart, because it’s her story, too.
Her-Xiong was a child when she and her family made that trip to a new world. She had lived a carefree life on a farm in Laos, a narrow, mountainous country between Vietnam to the east and Thailand and Cambodia to the west and south. There was no school. So when she first stepped into a U.S. classroom at age 11, she didn’t even know how to hold a pencil.
She learned quickly. “I loved school because, for the first time, I could read other people’s stories. I could learn and explore,” Her-Xiong says. She’s sitting in a conference room at the Hmong American Peace Academy (HAPA) that she founded 11 1/2 years ago. Today, it teaches 1,300 students. It’s a school dedicated to the principles of academic achievement, preparing students for high school graduation and college, developing character and leadership, problem-solving through peace, and preserving Hmong cultural traditions and history. These are also principles that have guided Her-Xiong’s own life.
Standing just 5 feet tall, with black hair and a quiet, calm demeanor, Her-Xiong is now HAPA’s executive director and principal. She generally dons the clothes of a school exec – dresses or suits – but her outfits usually include something purple, like a jacket. It’s become such a trademark that when she’s doesn’t wear purple, some notice and comment. “I love purple,” she says. “As I worked to define myself, purple became my favorite color and the color I identified with.” To her, it signifies holiness, integrity and the values she tries to cultivate in students and the school.
Although Her-Xiong is personally modest and humble, her goals are lofty. “I want to give back to the community and give hope, so that students become inspired to get an education, and move beyond poverty and into the middle class.”