“[...] When we sometimes say, ‘This person empowered me,’ I always say, ‘No, nobody empowered anyone. People create platforms of empowerment so that we step into those platforms to empower ourselves.’ And I think that’s what my mother did to me, and many women and men who looked straight into my eyes and saw something that I wasn’t seeing and created that platform - yes, it’s a platform. A very big platform.”
- Dr. Tererai Trent, an internationally acclaimed voice for women’s empowerment and education & Oprah Winfrey’s “all-time favorite guest”
On October 27th, 2017 in our hometown of Eau Claire, WI, my sister Nancy and I got dressed and on our way out, we bid farewell to our family. My mom was the last person we spoke to as she loaded fresh produce into the van to be sold at the farmer’s market the next morning.
“Neb yuav mus dabtsi os? Where are you two going?”
“Wb yuav mus koom lawv ib lub rooj sab laj nyob tim UW-Eau Claire. We’re attending a conference at UW-Eau Claire.”
“Los? Mus cev rov qab los tsev. Tsis txhob nyob lig lig os. Is that right? Well, go and come back home. Don’t stay out too late.”
We nodded and quickly left.
That night, I was awarded the Authentic Emergent Leadership Award.
The award goes to “a Hmong woman who is emerging and has exhibited qualities of authentic leadership through her actions to inspire others to seek challenges and personal growth, and has qualities of showing up as a leader.”
Yes, I know. Really. Deep. Stuff.
When I received the phone call in early August, I thought long and hard: Who was awarding this to me?
The award selection process belonged to the founders and planning committee of the Hmong Women Summit: The Authenticity Project (HWSTAP).
The summit’s intentions are to “educate and empower women from various backgrounds on the topic of Authentic Leadership. Through workshops and collaboration, the summit seeks to create a space for participants to come together, dialogue, and learn from one another about being an authentic Hmong leader.”
As a 2x summit participant (I blogged about my first time here), HWSTAP undoubtedly fulfills that intention.
On this night, I had prepared a short acceptance speech. But minutes before accepting the award, I soon realized I was completely unprepared for what was happening right before my eyes.
Caitlin Lee, one of the co-founders of HWSTAP, came onstage to start the award ceremony. She then began to speak directly to me and Mai Zong Vue, a phenomenal Hmong woman pioneer, who would accept the Authentic Leadership Impact Award that same night.
The words Caitlin said that stirred my heart and remained with me were:
“Please keep doing what you’re doing. Keep doing what you’re doing.”
And then Mai Zong Vue took the stage to accept her award. I’ve known Mai Zong for years. We’ve sat hotel poolside, chatting until my eyes could no longer stay open. Mai Zong continues to inspire me, and this award night was no exception. I felt a deep honor to have received an award alongside an exemplary mentor and Hmong leader.
Next, to introduce me, Mai Vang, a co-founder of HWSTAP, shared a story only my siblings knew (which of course is how she found out. Thanks, Nancy.).
Long story short: I always, always played the role of niam whenever my siblings and I played house as little kids. I took that role very seriously.
And then this video came on.
You see, I filmed, edited, and watched this video 10x before it was submitted to HWSTAP. I knew what to expect. No surprises.
But when it came on, I lost it.
How do you sit in a room full of leaders, mentors, role models, idols, allies, aunts, uncles, cousins and friends -- many whom you’ve looked up to since you were a kid -- who are now all watching you as you accept an award you never, ever expected to receive?
I could feel the energy of each one of them.
A Hmong sister from Hnub Tshiab who I had just met, who melted my heart with her moving story of her late mother.
My oldest sister who was sitting right beside me, who paved the way for me to attend college away from home.
The HWSTAP co-founder who inspired me years ago when I saw her front page feature in the newspaper as "the very first female president of the board of directors for the Eau Claire Hmong Mutual Assistance Association Inc. — notably the first woman to do so out of the 14 statewide HMAA boards in Wisconsin."
How do you sit in the same room and not wonder how you got here?
How do you sit in the same room and act as if that’s not you in the video?
How do you sit in the same room and believe that it is you in the video?
I watched myself on the screen and for the first time, I felt the emotions of an outsider looking in on a Hmong American female music artist named Pagnia Xiong and her work.
I unexpectedly felt the effect of my being, the effect of my work.
So when I got onstage to accept the award, I pulled out two tissues. I was speechless. Tears beat my tongue. This was definitely not a part of my acceptance speech.
To all the leaders, mentors, role models, idols, allies, siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins, friends, and HWSTAP -- many of whom I’ve looked up to since I was a child:
I received this special award, because you created a platform of empowerment so that I could step in it. You saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself. And I am so honored and still at a loss for words.
Thank you, for the platform you've provided I can empower myself and live and lead authentically.
Oh, and Niam, I also received an award that night. I’ll show you next time now that the farmers market season is over and you have more time. I love you.
Until next time…