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.”
She was born as Nou Her 50 years ago. Her father was in the Laotian military that aided U.S. troops fighting in Vietnam. The family moved a lot, but they’d finally settled in a village where she remembers life as simple and fun. She and her brothers and sisters fed the ducks and chickens and gathered eggs.
Then one day in 1975, when she was 10, she remembers hearing a public announcement that blared through the village. “It said the Communists were going to wipe out the Hmong and kill them.”
That night, her father called a family meeting. “He told my mother and sister and me that he was leaving with my three brothers and going to Thailand. Later, he would send for [us] sisters and Mom.”
Her mother protested. “She insisted that the whole family would escape together.”
So in the middle of the night, both parents and their six children dressed in two or three layers of clothes and slipped out of the village. They were picked up by a large truck and lay quietly hidden until they reached the Thai border. An uncle, also an army officer, and his family escaped with them.
“Once we reached the border, my father hired a Laotian boatman to take us across the Mekong River to Thailand, and the other side of the world,” she says.
Crossing the mighty Mekong was dangerous. “It was the stopping point to either death or freedom,” says Her-Xiong. Many, including some of her more distant relatives, were shot and killed or drowned during the crossing.
“Others were robbed by pirates as they tried to escape,” she says. “We were fortunate.”
She remembers being cold and hungry once they were in Thailand, but not scared. They found refuge in a Buddhist monastery, then an army reserve camp. Finally, they moved to a refugee camp that was being built for other Southeast Asians fleeing the war zone. They were among the first wave of Hmong to flee Laos.
When the chance came, her father decided the family would immigrate to the U.S. because he had a younger brother who had settled in St. Paul, Minn. A Dutch Reformed church in Iowa sponsored her family.
For days, they were quarantined in Thailand. Her-Xiong remembers growing hungry because they’d missed several meals. She recalls a scene that happened when they were finally released from quarantine, and it still brings tears to her eyes. “I saw my mother, who was wearing the most beautiful pair of 24-carat gold earrings with rubies, take them off and give them to a street vendor in exchange for rice and chicken for us to eat.”
They boarded an airplane, and on the night of Dec. 13, 1976, the family landed in Des Moines, Iowa. “We arrived late and saw all these beautiful red, green and gold lights because it was the Christmas season,” she says. “We thought we were in heaven.”
The sponsoring family met the new immigrants and drove them to a house rented for them in Oskaloosa, Iowa.
The next morning, they ventured outside in the snow without socks, coats or gloves. “We saw all this white,” Her-Xiong says. “We didn’t know what it was.” Winter clothes were soon provided by their sponsors. “They were kind-hearted and generous people,” she says.
School was a new adventure. Her-Xiong’s teacher showed her how to hold a pencil and make continuous circles, the first step to learning cursive. She and a sister learned English quickly and helped their parents with translating and shopping.
Her father went to work in a factory. Her mother stayed home, but hosted tea parties for her sponsors and neighbors as a way to learn English. Her-Xiong worked at fast-food restaurants during high school to help with expenses.
It was while attending Central University of Iowa and working in the library that she found the book Contemporary Laos and learned an important lesson. She opened the book to the chapter on the Hmong.
She learned that the Hmong had been allies of the Americans and “strong and resourceful soldiers.” But then the Americans had pulled out of Indochina in April 1975, making hundreds of thousands of troops and civilians in the region vulnerable to the North Vietnamese Communist forces that were sweeping southward. “That’s how I found out why I came to the States,” she says.
It was a big revelation.
“I couldn’t believe that the Hmong had been such strong allies and soldiers,” Her-Xiong says. “I couldn’t believe we had such a rich history, and how proud we should be of who we are. I found it very positive and powerful. I wish someone had told me that.”
But those were sad and difficult times for her parents. “They had fought so hard, but they were left for dead. Therefore, they didn’t tell the children, because they didn’t want to talk about it.”
In college, Nou Her became a U.S. citizen and changed her first name to Chris, which she liked because of its gender-neutrality.
So it was that Chris Her graduated with a degree in art, and she hoped to teach to support herself. (She’d later earn an education degree from Alverno College.)
Hmong girls traditionally marry young, but she was now in her 20s and getting older. Through the tight-knit network of Hmong clans, news travels fast, and her family learned that the parents of Tou Bee Xiong wanted to find a suitable mate for their son. His father was a colonel, as well as one of the most respected members of the Hmong community.
A cousin introduced Chris and Tou Bee while they attended a summer Bible camp near North Platte, Neb. The two families arranged the union, following the Hmong tradition that marriage unites not only a couple, but the couple’s relatives, too. And though Her had never dated, she had her own criteria for a mate. “He had to be Hmong, a Christian and from a good family,” she says. He was all three. They were married, and she became Chris Her-Xiong.
That was 25 years ago, and soon afterward, she moved to Milwaukee, where his family had settled. A quiet man who also speaks French and loves sports, Tou Bee was studying English and welding at Milwaukee Area Technical College. He later worked at factories and assembly plants.
Her-Xiong got a job teaching at Story School, on the near West Side at 3815 W. Kilbourn Ave. At the time, it had an influx of Hmong refugee children, and she was the first bilingual Hmong teacher hired by Milwaukee Public Schools. She taught there for seven years before moving to 78th Street School, which is now the Academy of Accelerated Learning.
Her-Xiong says she was happy teaching. But then in 2000, she and Tou Bee took a trip, one that changed the course of their lives, and changed Milwaukee’s Hmong community, too. “We decided,” Her-Xiong says, “to go back to the refugee camps in Thailand to see the life of our people again.”
After all those years, they found conditions had worsened for children. “The camp was encircled with barbed wire,” Her-Xiong says. “Young girls were sold as prostitutes. Their lives were wasted. They had no hopes and no dreams.”
“We saw two worlds,” says Tou Bee Xiong. “One here with opportunity, and one there where none existed.” He is 5-foot-4 and slim, with neatly parted hair and glasses. He dresses casually and speaks softly, but with conviction. “We wanted to do something to give back and to move the community forward.”
And so, after many late-night conversations, they decided to start a school. “It was a 360-degree turn,” Her-Xiong says.
Although there was opportunity and freedom here, she says, many young people weren’t succeeding. Some were joining gangs. Some were going to suburban schools but not doing well. The culture of their Hmong homes and American schools clashed.
“We saw the need to teach young people who they are, where they come from,” Her-Xiong says, “because if you don’t know that, how can you be a proud citizen?”
She went back to Alverno to get a master’s degree in administrative leadership so she could become a principal.
The couple started speaking at churches and before Hmong groups. More than 500 responses of support for starting a school were gathered. But there were doubters. At one meeting, one man kept saying: “It’s impossible. It’s impossible.”
But the community, Her-Xiong says, knew that education is the key to advancement for their children. Grace Hmong Alliance Church had purchased the old St. Matthew Catholic Church on the South Side at 1418 S. Layton Blvd. The building had come with a school, and the church rented that to HAPA. Educators at Marquette University, among others, were consulted on curriculum and best practices.
“It was a lengthy process that took hard work and sacrifices,” Tou Bee says, “but we never gave up the dream. We kept moving forward.”
In August 2004, the Hmong American Peace Academy opened as a K-5 charter school under MPS with 200 students and Her-Xiong as principal. Tou Bee had been laid off from his job at an assembly plant, so he became a stay-at-home dad for their three sons. The sons are now ages 24, 22 and 19, and two of them attended HAPA.
Today, Tou Bee works in the school kitchen, assists with security and does “anything I can do to help,” he says.
When Her-Xiong speaks at community meetings, he accompanies her to show his support.
HAPA quickly outgrew its space at the old St. Matthew’s school and moved some classes to the basement at nearby Ascension Lutheran Church, 1236 S. Layton Blvd.
In 2010, HAPA bought the former Morse Middle School at 4601 N. 84th St. from MPS. Today, the thriving HAPA has 1,300 students in grades K-12. In 2012-13, it was named a Wisconsin School of Recognition by the Department of Public Instruction, and it earned 2014 Charter School of the Year honors from the Milwaukee Charter School Advocates. In 2015, it received bronze-medal recognition from U.S. News and World Report, which cites high schools for college readiness.
Dan McKinley, president and CEO of PAVE, the educational nonprofit that works with voucher and charter schools by training board members, has seen the school grow and flourish. “Chris is the embodiment of the vision for the school,” he says. “She was the first college graduate in her family; she was a teacher, and she knows the power of what education did for her own life. There’s a community vision for the school.”
In spring of 2015, two of its graduating seniors were among six in the state and 1,000 in the country to be named Gates Millennium Scholars, a college scholarship sponsored by Bill and Melinda Gates to assist outstanding minority students.
For her work, Her-Xiong has received recognition both inside and outside the Hmong community. She co-authored a book published by MPS in 1995 titled The Hmong: The People and their History, and in 2009, she was named Hmong Woman of the Year, awarded by the Hmong Consortium of Milwaukee. In 2014, she was named Outstanding Alumna of the Year by Alverno College.
She walks a fine line between adhering to Hmong ways and traditions that tend to be patriarchal, and her life as an American working woman. And not just a woman in any job, but one who operates a school dedicated to building peace and educating Hmong children so they can move out of poverty and into the middle class.
Ricardo Diaz is executive director of the South Side’s United Community Center, which also runs the Bruce Guadalupe Community School for a largely Latino population. He has become a mentor to Her-Xiong, and he’s watched her help an immigrant population use education as a path to better jobs.
“Education,” Diaz says, “is the one common denominator that transcends stereotypes, gives you credibility and bridges the gap.”
Kay Vang sent her youngest daughter, Hilary, to K4 when HAPA first started. Hilary is now in high school there, and can read, write and speak Hmong. She knows the culture and history better than her older siblings who attended suburban schools. “I also like the emphasis on peace at the school,” Kay Vang adds.
On the first day of school in 2004, a father brought his little boy named Ken to start second grade. “His dad said this school was their last hope, because his son had been suspended left and right, and was not wanted at other schools,” Her-Xiong remembers. “I turned to the boy and said, ‘Ken, at this school we don’t suspend children.’ He succeeded and stayed through sixth grade, when the family moved out of state.” No student has been suspended in the school’s 11 1/2 years.
Her-Xiong believes in a proactive approach. “I feel very strongly with all the struggles and hardships I’ve seen that the school needs to be a peace-builder, and students need to become peaceful thinkers and problem-solvers.”
Some 90 percent of the student body is Hmong, 98 percent speak a language other than English, and 87 percent are on free or reduced-price lunch. The goal, she says, is not only to get students to graduate from high school, but to graduate from college and move to good jobs. In spring, members of the first class of HAPA students will graduate from college, and Her-Xiong is anxious to see how many get a degree. “Even if it’s one, that’s better than zero.”
Wisconsin has the third-largest Hmong population in the country – behind only California and Minnesota – and it’s growing, according to the 2010 U.S. Census. Hmong have an average of 4.5 children per family, and about 30 percent statewide are in the school-age range of 5-17, Her-Xiong says.
Jason Handal, a regional vice president at Northwestern Mutual’s advanced markets department, has been on the school’s board since 2009 and now serves as its chairman. He calls Her-Xiong “a force of nature. Passionate, focused on the vision and unrelenting in her drive to move the school forward.” Parent participation is high, he says, and the school bustles with energy at school events.
The school’s strategic plan calls for enrollment to reach 2,000 students by 2025. The school sits on 15 acres, so there’s room to expand. But Her-Xiong also wants to increase educational services for parents and families. She dreams of developing a community center for the Hmong that offers services and programs from cradle to grave, including early education, parenting classes and a senior center.
Her-Xiong works hard and dreams big. But at times when she feels her energy lagging or questions creeping in, she heads to the kindergarten class of 4-year-olds.
Here are little ones who are learning how to be in school. She’ll watch them absorb the basics of letters and numbers. She’ll see their imaginations at work as their small hands create colorful art. She’ll eavesdrop as they listen to stories from their Hmong history. She’ll read books to them.
“They give me hugs and smiles and are happy to see me,” Her-Xiong says. “That gets me charged up again. Because when I look at those happy faces, I know we are making a difference, and all the hard work is worth it.
“Then I’m fine.”
Georgia Pabst is a Milwaukee-area freelance writer. Write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tune in to WUWM’s “Lake Effect” Jan. 14 at 10 a.m. to hear more about the story.