[sound of graduation procession music]
Pauline: School graduations… They’re almost a universal experience in the U.S. And each event comes with similar pomp and circumstance. The procession of graduates, the cap and gown, and the dreary speeches.
[sound of Hmong language]
Pauline: But you’ve probably never experienced a graduation like this one at Susan B. Anthony grade school in Meadowview. It’s a Hmong language immersion school.
[sound of teacher: “good morning… parents, guardians, staff and students. I am the Hmong dual language immersion resource teacher…”]
Pauline: The Hmong are an ethnic minority from Southeast Asia, with origins dating back to ancient China. After the Vietnam War, thousands of Hmong people emigrated to places like California and Minnesota. There’s a large Hmong community in Meadowview, and some of their kids go to this school.
[sound of Mai Vang speaking in Hmong]
Mai Vang speaking to students: My name is Mai Vang, and I am your school board member...
Pauline: Mai Vang was a sort-of key-note speaker that morning in June… Her grandparents moved to Meadowview as refugees from the Vietnam War. Now, after being the first in her family to get a college degree, she’s back working for the schools that helped raise her, as a publicly elected board member for Sacramento city schools.
Mai Vang speaking at graduation: Education was my pathway out of poverty. My parents knew that getting an education was really important, and that knowledge is something no one can ever take away from me.
Pauline: This particular school has a special place in Mai Vang’s history. It was one of 11 schools slated to be closed six years ago. But Mai Vang and other Hmong organizers stepped up to convince the school district to keep its doors open.
[sound of graduation “...first up we have Jose Alvarez…” [applause]]
Pauline: Now, Susan B. Anthony has dozens of six graders a year… Mai Vang was pleased to watch this class graduate.
Mai Vang: Susan B. Anthony is very dear to my heart because of my history of how I started organizing Sacramento. That’s how I began...
[sound of TV news anchor fades in: “...on the picket lines this noon, on a one-day strike by Sacramento teachers…”]
Pauline: But the public school crisis is not over in Sacramento. And Mai Vang again finds herself in the thick of it. Sac schools have a recurring multi-million dollar budget hole and a seemingly permanent specter of a state takeover. Teachers went on strike, and are still deadlocked with the district. Mai is now on the receiving end of the bullhorn.
[sound of news reporter at teacher strike fades in: “...there’s probably about six or seven hundred people right now…”]
Mai Vang: I started organizing because of school closures, and now on the Sacramento City School Board, I’m doing everything I can to make sure that we don’t head in that direction.
[music comes in, runs under Pauline]
Pauline: On this episode of Making Meadowview - we follow a rising political star in South Sacramento. A home-grown hero who’s at the center one of the city’s biggest problems: public schools.
Mai has high aspirations. But what's it like to try to rise to the top, when you're committed to working for those at the bottom?
Pauline: I’m Pauline Bartolone, your host of Making Meadowview, a documentary podcast from Capital Public Radio’s, The View from Here.
[music fades out]
[... sound of car driving by teacher strike and honking...man chanting on bullhorn: “chop chop from the top!”]
Pauline: On April 11th, 2019, over two thousand Sacramento teachers and school employees went on strike, in the first district wide walkout in 30 years.
[sound of superintendent talking at press conference: “...emotions are running high...” [camera clicking]]
Pauline: The superintendent and school board members held a small press conference on a black top of a school yard in Meadowview that morning. They looked stunned and weary.
[sound of Mai speaking at press conference: “...you know, every week I’m always on the ground visiting my neighborhood schools and talking to teachers...”]
Pauline: Mai Vang stood in front of cameras and microphones next to her board member colleagues that day. She was confident on TV, but when I talked to her one-on-one afterward, she seemed conflicted. Her job as an elected official is to keep schools and their finances in order. But just a few years ago, she was on the streets like the teachers, protesting against school closures. Mai says if teachers’ conflict and the massive budget woes drag on, students will be the ones who suffer.
Mai Vang on strike day: I'm thinking about the long term effects, especially for our black and brown students, our English language learners and our students with special needs. It's gonna be absolutely critical that we do everything we can because the students and families that are gonna hurt most are students, especially in the Meadowview area and in the South Sacramento area. Because we know during a state takeover, the first thing to go are the services that are not obligated cost by a school district. And those are usually critical student support services that are, that our low income students need.
[sound of kids playing outside, Mai walking]
Pauline: Mai Vang was one of those poor kids in South Sacramento once. But she left to get a couple of graduate degrees in Los Angeles before coming back in her mid-twenties. Now she lives in Meadowview where her refugee grandparents first settled.
[sound of Mai walking, talking: “what you do is walk around here, towards the entrance…”]
Pauline: She gave me a walking tour around her home. It looked just like any other suburban neighborhood. Kids played in the school nearby. Lawnmowers blared. Mai has a quick pace, and I could barely keep up with her.
Mai Vang walking: I can walk slower because I walk…. OK. [laughs] …so I am the eldest of sixteen children in my family. I have six sisters and nine brothers...
Pauline: Just in case you missed that—I’ll repeat: Mai is the oldest of 16 children.
Mai Vang walking: We definitely grew up poor but we knew how to take care of each other. My parents would go to the farm and, like, get a pig or a cow, right. We would have this big freezer in our garage and that meat would last us for a good you know five months or so. And then most of the vegetables we grew in our backyard. And so that's kind of how we lived growing up.
[sound of Mai walking into her house, talking to someone]
Pauline: Mai is still all about family. Her siblings move in with her when they’re ready to move away from her parents.
Mai Vang: I feel like as soon as I could walk I've been helping my parents raise my brothers and sisters and that's been my whole life, like just taking care of family and community.
Pauline: It seems everything she does is about helping young folks. Her day job is running a scholarship program for underserved kids, and of course, she’s a school board member.
Mai Vang: It's pretty hectic and crazy but I think my life have always been very full and busy. So this is kind of like the norm for me.
[sound of Mai talking to a waiter in Hmong]
Pauline: Mai’s mom is still very much in the picture. She meets with Mai a couple of times a month for lunch. Today it’s at a local Thai restaurant.
Mai Vang: We ordered papaya salad. It's like one of my mom's favorite appetizer dishes, a salad.
[sound of Mai talking to a waiter in Hmong]
Kathleen Vang: My name is Kathleen Vang. I am Mai's mom… Sometimes she calls to say, ‘Mom, can I take you to lunch?’... And we talk about [laughs] her work. How is she doing? And then she check on me. How I doing my work....
Mai Vang: It's funny, though, because you wanted me to become a doctor,.
Kathleen Vang: I know.
Mai Vang: Haha she said, I know. Sorry ma, I didn't become a doctor...You're not mad though. Right, mom?
Kathleen Vang: No, I'm not. Actually, I'm very happy that they choose the way they want it. Now she's in the public service though. She's helping people. So similar to doctor, too.
[Kathleen Vang laughs and trails under]
Pauline: When Mai’s mom was a girl, her family fled Laos because of the Vietnam War. Her father helped US forces against communist Vietnamese forces. After a week long journey, they settled into a refugee camp in Thailand. They were there for a couple of years before arriving in the U.S.
Kathleen Vang: I remember we walked through the forest and its raining and my brother he cry a lot. And then my dad told my mom, say, you need to calm him down because they will go after us if they hear it. So we walked night and day, so doing day time when we were on the small road. I can see people die. I don't know how they die. But they die on that side and they you just walk by. And a very scary, though. Very scary.
Pauline: When Mai’s mother and grandparents came to Sacramento, they settled in Meadowview, because housing was cheap. At 15 years old, Mai’s mother was illiterate and didn’t know how to count. She had Mai a couple of years later, and then 15 kids after her.
Kathleen Vang: She is the older. So she helped me a lot. Taking care of the little one. When I'm busy, I will ask her, can you check your sister diaper? And then she would change diaper and then she would take to the bathroom and change and wash and she will clean the bottle and then put milk in and give it to the little one. And then after she finished, she would say mom. I'm done. Well, what do you need me to do?
Mai Vang: I can't even imagine having 12 kids right now like in my early 30s having 12 kids. I don't know how you did it mom.
Kathleen Vang: I know sometime I look back. I don't know how I do it too. Very difficult. Yeah struggle a lot.
Mai Vang: You’re awesome mom.
Pauline: You’re listening to Making Meadowview. A series from Capital Public Radio’s podcast, The View From Here. I’m Pauline Bartolone. When we get back, more about Mai Vang’s journey from community organizer to politician.
Pauline: As a school board member, Mai has spoken out about issues affecting communities of color and low income kids, the students she represents in her district, Meadowview. At public board meetings, she’s been skeptical of police officers on school grounds, and has applauded the ethnic studies curricula in high schools.
Mai Vang: Having SROs on campus doesn’t necessarily mean that our students feel safe. Especially for our black and brown students... As a board we talk about addressing inequities, and that means not being part of the system we’re trying to fight against. And that means colluding and being part of the school to prison pipeline.
Mai Vang: This is really happening. Like we are making ethnic studies a requirement It’s really exciting for me in particular because for me, going through this school district, I didn’t even learn about my own history until I went to college and took a sociology class and ethnic studies class, and that class transformed my life.
Cha Vang: Mai is our energy. She definitely brings a lot of fire...
Pauline: Cha Vang is a political organizer who helped prevent school closures back in 2013 with Mai.
Cha Vang: She's like always like thinking about how we can do. How can we organize our communities better? How can we support them better?
Pauline: Cha Vang says education is a core issue in Sacramento’s Hmong community, which is as many as 40,000 strong. She says it’s a really young community… the average age is 23.. Cha Vang says it was the school closures in 2013 that sparked her and Mai to form the organization Hmong Innovating Politics.
Cha Vang: After the school closures, where we you know, I think we wasn't really organized yet. We're just a of this running joke that we were these crazy angry young kids who like we're just like taking on stuff. And so we decided that we needed to be more formal... That’s where Mai had come in.
Pauline: It wasn’t too long ago that Mai was leading street marches against the very school district she now works for. But now, Cha Vang says Mai now is able to balance the values of both on-the-ground organizer and politician. She says to Mai, winning isn’t the only important part of campaigning.
Cha Vang: She's running, she's always thinking about like, I'm running my campaign. But I also want to develop our communities. And that this isn't about me, but it's about like, what are we building for the future, for our communities. During her school board race. Like even though she had no opponent, she her thing was Ike. I want to make sure that we are still canvassing so that our communities know there's an election...because ultimately my campaign was a vehicle to get people out to vote on other stuff... I think on my end, I feel I don't always agree because... My thing is we want to win. And so we can develop people. Let's also win.
Pauline: Mai Vang’s political skills are being tested by the seemingly unending school budget wpes and clashes with the teachers’ union. In the lead up to the teachers strike in April 2019, emotions at board meetings were sky high.
[sound of angry teacher: “This is a self-inflicted budget crisis. At no time ...”]
Pauline: Teachers and parents reprimanded board members for their handling of the multi-million dollar budget hole. And board members welled up in tears on the dais.
[sound of board member: “My heart hurts for all of our students and everybody that is going through this with us.”]
Pauline: All through the spring of 2019, people wondered if teachers and administrators would agree on a contract, and if the district would close the budget gap and avoid a state take over. When the budget vote day came June 20th, I asked Mai how she was feeling as she walked in before board meeting. She didn’t look happy.
Mai Vang: I’m um, you know, uh… focused. This is a very important meeting, and I just want to make sure that I’m leaning in and really hearring what the community has to say. The board is…. I’m looking forward to that robust conversation tonight.
Pauline: Like many school board meetings, it was a long night. The budget vote didn’t come until after midnight. Mai and other board members spoke on the dais in front of a room of empty chairs.
Mai Vang: I’m incredibly concerned about the budget we’re submitting… and I know we’re not going to make any reductions this upcoming school year…
Pauline: Sacramento schools managed to avoid a state takeover and cuts to student programs that night. But it was a short-term fix. The school district is still at war with teachers, and will be challenged to balance the budget in future years.
Mai Vang: It’s very concerning to me that we don’t have a plan… I mean, the plan is to reduce $16M in 20-21...
[talking fades under Pauline]
Pauline: Cha Vang says the clashes between teachers union and school administrators have been particularly hard on Mai as a politician.
Cha Vang: She's been trying to, like, balance the two. At times she does feel like there is a heavy burden on her. I see it as a friend, too. Like I see her worries… Like, how do I support both teachers and also the community members. And then not leaving out the parents, right.
Pauline: During a lull in Sacramento’s school budget woes, Mai Vang gave herself a new challenge. After we’d been following her for several months, she decided to run for city council… representing District 8, which serves Meadowview. She has full support from her mom.
[sound of serving food]
Mai Vang: You can eat sticky rice, right, mom? I have regular rice.
Kathleen Vang: Sometimes she asked me Ma if I do this. How do you feel. I just say go for it if your heart feel, you know. and I support you 100 percent...When she decide to do something. She focus on it and she get it. I think she was born with that.
[Mai and Kathleen continue talking during lunch]
Pauline: But Mai says she’s also learned a lot about leadership from her family and Hmong culture, particularly, her grandfather. He was a clan leader, which meant he solved a lot of community problems.
Mai Vang: I remember as a kid, I always saw, you know, many Hmong folks coming to my grandma and grandpa's house whenever there's like a family conflict or there's an issue. And he also he would be like the negotiator, kind of like mediating the issue. Right. And I think for him, he's always been a really good problem solver and trying to find common ground…
Pauline: That’s what Mai says she’s trying to do on the school board, trying to find common ground between the teachers and administrators. She personally meets with the union regularly. But that’s not the only thing she’s learned from her elders.
Mai Vang: I think there’s also this idea of collectivism, right. That like no one does anything ever alone. So there's always this idea of collectivism.
[sound of Rice Bowl Fundraiser]
Pauline: And that collectivism was out in full force for Mai at one of her fundraisers for her city council race in 2020. A few hundred supporters showed up at Rice Bowl one Friday night, a huge Chinese dining hall that could easily seat a large wedding party.
Mai Vang: So this fundraiser, this was put on by the elders. So it’s the Hmong community banquet.
[music and singing in Hmong]
Pauline: There was a lot of family there sitting at circular tables. Businesses and labor groups were there to support her too. But one notable union didn’t back her. The Sacramento teachers union. It decided to go with a different candidate. Mai says she’s still trying to win their support.
[singing in Hmong]
Pauline: Mai’s grandfather was there, Tou Xai. He’s a shaman now. He says that’s kind of like a doctor who heals people’s spirit, not their bodies. He didn’t take credit for Mai’s leadership style and he says there’s no such thing as a Hmong style of leadership.
[Tou Xai speaking in the Hmong language]
Mai’s distant cousin, Dao Yang translated for him.
Tou Xai: Mai's leadership style is not just like Hmong style, because there's really no such thing
Tou Xai: I believe that her strong leadership actually came from multiple sources. First of all, she learns from from us elders in the community. At the same time, she learned from school. She's a highly educated Hmong woman. And so her leadership actually stemmed from all these sources where she's a person who's always evolving, learning more.
[Tou Xai continues speaking in the Hmong language]
Tou Xai: She she has the potential and the love to become a leader in the community. And I see her as a strong future leader, not just for my community, but for the community at large.
Pauline: Mai says even if she isn’t elected to city council, she’ll still find ways to work for South Sacramento. As a school board member, Mai’s the first Hmong woman to be elected in Sacramento… and her friend Cha says, that’s significant even outside city limits.
Tou Xai: Hmong culture is built on patriarchy. And so the leadership has always been men. And so to see like Hmong women in positions of power in the U.S. is a really a challenge and a change for our communities.
[sound of Mai speaking at fundraiser trails off]
[music continues and comes to an end]
Pauline: That’s it for this episode. Making Meadowview was edited by John Biewen and Joe Barr. Jen Picard is our senior producer. Jesikah Maria Ross heads up community engagement. Olivia Henry, Erica Anderson and Mounia O’Neal were part of her team.
Sally Schilling, Gabriela Fernandez, Paul Conley and Linnea Edmeier also helped produce this episode.
Our Digital Editor is Chris Hagan. Our web site was built by Renee Thompson, Veronika Nagy and Katie Kidwell.
Our Chief Content Officer is Joe Barr.
Tell us what you think of this episode, or any of the previous Making Meadowview stories. Email: [email protected]
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Special thanks to the Sacramento Public Library, the Sacramento Area Council of Governments, the Listening Post Collective. Our music is from blue dot sessions.
I’m Pauline Bartolone…. Thanks for listening to Making Meadowview...from The View From Here and Capital Public Radio.