A few years ago when a Hmong woman was killed by her estranged husband, there was no one to bury her, Pa Vang says.
The husband’s family said she was seeing another man and therefore it was not its responsibility.
Members of her family said that because she was no longer part of the clan, they believed they could not risk upsetting the spirits by burying her.
So a group of Hmong women pooled their resources to pay for the woman’s burial, says Vang, a senior outreach specialist in the school of continuing education at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and the former chair of the Hmong American Women’s Association.
“It was an eye-opening experience for us and it pushed us to organize a giving circle, so that if anything like that happened again we would have the resources,” says MayTong Chang, director of the Hmong association.
For years, Hmong women have worked to end violence against women and to assist new refugees in settling into their new lives, Vang says. Since the mid-’90s, the association has tried to educate, advocate and reach out to women about violence and other issues.
But Vang, Chang and others say they began to see that they needed to do more, so they created an unrestricted fund to support Hmong women in crisis and to provide resources for women to start a business or “do extraordinary things.”
Now the group has formalized the Hmong Women’s Giving Circle through the Women’s Fund of Greater Milwaukee to raise money to assist Hmong women and girls. In Hmong the words viv ncaus mean sisters, and they’ve added those words to their fund to signify it is “a sisterhood funded by sisters,” says Nor Yang, a co-founder of the Hmong American Women’s Association.
“Hmong women give, but we don’t think of ourselves as philanthropists,” Vang says.
When she got involved in a philanthropy incubator program at Cardinal Stritch University and then the Women’s Fund, she and the group discovered that philanthropy can be created and developed.
“Hmong women have always been very resourceful and creative in responding to different issues,” she says. “We want to develop a plan to create opportunity for girls and women and help them turn their ideas into something tangible outside normal funding sources.”
Elaine Maly, executive director of the fund, said: “We’re excited about adding the Hmong Fund because the mission of the Women’s Fund is to engage women in philanthropy as tools for changes they want to see in the world.
“We want to be inclusive and show that women have a voice. We want to show that women don’t have to be the object of charity, but charitable themselves and that they can impact the community by driving the solutions themselves.”
While assets from other funds, such as Latinas en Accion and the Lesbian Fund, are invested with the Greater Milwaukee Foundation to build assets, the Hmong Fund will raise money and then make direct grants to the community, she says.
The goal is to raise $10,000 in the next year, Vang says. Grant applications won’t have to come through established agencies but can be made by the women themselves, she says. If a woman can’t read or write, a video can be submitted, she says.
The fund will assist other women and show that Hmong women can put their money where their mouth is, Vang says.
“And money means power,” Vang says. “It means we will be taken more seriously.”
The giving circle’s guiding principles are that women “have the right to equality, safety, opportunity and self-determination.” The fund seeks to improve the lives of Hmong women and girls to support innovative community-based efforts and to support organizations and grass-root efforts run by and for Hmong women and girls.
“We hope people will look at this as something positive in the midst of many of the tragedies women and children still too often face,” Nor Yang says. “We want to keep encouraging young women that there’s something better out there and hope that this will become a steppingstone.”
A lot of women want to help other families during times of crisis, but they can’t do it because of the consequences they will face at home, Vang says.
“Contributing a few dollars to the fund is something they can do to feel they are part of the solution and not being silent,” she says.
Tammi Xiong, 24, a HAWA volunteer and the daughter of Nor Yang, says that in addition to building resources, the fund will allow Hmong women to work together and get to know each other, whether it’s helping a 7-year-old with her lemonade stand or teaching others to plant a garden.
Other founding members of the giving circle are Kabzuag Vaj of Madison and Chai Moua of Stevens Point.
By Georgia Pabst
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel