Applying leadership and advocacy skills — for life

By Va Her

It’s been more than 20 years since I first clutched a piece of paper containing notes about myself and data about the Southeast Asian graduation rates of my community in California’s Central Valley.

I was on my way to the office of my House official, US Rep. Nancy Pelosi, alongside fellow Southeast Asian American advocates participating in SEARAC’s 2012 Leadership and Advocacy Training program. We met with her staff and asked the Congresswoman to draft a letter of support.

I still have that paper today. In fact, I just used it a few weeks ago.

As a proud Veteran (Operation Enduring Freedom & Iraqi Freedom, 2001-2005), my LAT experience had a very big impact on me and provided transferable leadership and advocacy skills that I apply in my current role leading a program called Citizen Empower: Understanding Local Government. Using a similar structure to LAT, this program empowers community members with in-depth knowledge of their local government system, specifically focusing on city government. Through interactive activities, discussions, and hands-on exercises, students gain a comprehensive understanding of local government structure, key decision-makers, and the tools to engage with elected officials. I give credit to SEARAC’s LAT for inspiring this program.

My LAT experience also contributed to my success in winning the 2020 election year for School Board of Trustees at Sanger Unified School District here in Sanger, CA. During my campaign, I passed out a one-pager about me and my platform as someone who was focused on dual enrollment. Every time I met with a voter, I would use my fact sheet to talk about myself and my ideas.

“You are in the land of democracy. They are your represntatives. They serve us, and we can question their authority.”

Ultimately, of the 4,000 votes, I won the majority in my precinct and am in my fourth and final year serving on the Sanger Unified School Board, making decisions for our schools. During this time, I’ve made a point to encourage my Hmong community to push back against the concept of Nom Tswv, which literally translates to ‘King and Lord.’ Back in the highlands of Southeast Asia, the term refers to a ruler of monarchy; originating from this history, Hmong community members in America may tend not to question authority or political figures. I have experienced this in my role on the school board, where parents will default to school authority as absolute because they value education and revere it with high respect. It’s a similar behavior with all levels of government.

This is where the one-page fact sheet, once again, comes in handy. I tell parents in my community, who have a curiosity in advocacy but don’t know where to start, that they have talking points. I reassure them that they no longer have to fear their government. I say, “You are in the land of democracy. They are your representatives. They serve us, and we can question their authority.”

Currently, I lead economic development at the Hmong Business Incubator Center. For over 20 years, I’ve used the lessons from LAT to help others succeed, applying my skills in planning, managing operations, and making things run smoother. Our center helps businesses with practical advice and supports them in growing, creating jobs, and staying strong.

I do this work because giving back is important to me.

Thank you, LAT.