Saint Paul-Based Nonprofit Engages Hmong Youth Through Art and Activism

May 31, 2019

Photo courtesy of CHAT

Saint Paul, Minnesota is home to almost 30,000 Hmong Americans, making the city the center of the largest concentrated Hmong community in the nation.

Based in St. Paul, the Center for Hmong Arts and Talent (CHAT) serves the local Hmong community through arts and enrichment classes, activities and community events.

CHAT grew out of Pom Siab Hmoob Theatre (PSHT), which was the first Hmong theater company in the world. From 1990-1997, PSHT wrote and produced five successful, community-based, and three professionally staged, theatrical productions. In 1998, PSHT organizers decided to expand their focus beyond theater arts in order to serve more Hmong artists. PSHT changed its name to the Center for Hmong Arts and Talent (CHAT) and expanded its reach into multiple disciplines—making it the first and only multidisciplinary Hmong arts organization in the United States. 

“There was a real need for resources and also to have like-minded people to just give you emotional support to let kids know it’s okay to be artists,” said CHAT’s Executive Director Steve Thao. “A lot of Asian Americans and first-generation Asian Americans — the parents want their kids to be doctors or lawyers. They feel those are very solid careers. To be an artist, a lot of parents have an understanding that you can’t make a true living as an artist unless you’re really lucky. Now, 20 years later, we still have a lot of parents nervous about their children going into an artist path, but we also have enough parents understanding graphic design, illustration, painting, digital media and seeing that there are some people who are making it.”

Since its inception, CHAT has transformed into a social justice arts organization that engages the community to better understand and meet the needs of the people most affected by their services. CHAT frequently uses innovative strategies from the community to address social issues affecting the community. For nearly 20 years, CHAT has been nurturing Hmong artists, creating a platform for them to share their art and advocating for a more vibrant Hmong community through the arts.  

“One of the things we’re looking at is civic engagement,” said Thao. “We want to make sure Hmong, Asian Americans and people of color have a voice and are at the table in terms of policy change. Our emphasis and core values are art, so we want to try to see how we can do it and how we can create change through art and through artists being involved.”

When Thao first came on board as executive director, St. Paul had just instated a new chief of police, and Thao saw this as a great opportunity to create a dialogue between the police department and the community members.

“I’d been working in the youth development space and one of the issues with police and law enforcement is their interaction with the youth of color,” said Thao. “I wanted to make sure our youth leadership group was actively reaching out to the new chief of police to say, ‘Here we are and here are our concerns. Let’s build a bridge and start communicating.’ We had a summit to have a conversation with the new chief of police. We want to make the community a better place. So, we do that through the lens of art and use art as a catalyst to create change.”

CHAT has a long history of getting involved with Hmong youth. Three main programs make up the heart of CHAT’s efforts: Art Saves Us, Youth Leadership Group and Fresh Tradition.

Art Saves Us (ASU) is a summer program where students learn how to play an instrument, such as the guitar or keyboard, or learn to sing or write a song. CHAT also has a modern/pop dance group as well.

Youth Leadership Group is more of a theater group and is really the heart of CHAT. The students involved in this group talk about issues that affect them and then at the end of the year, they write a play and perform it for the community. Through their conversations and engagement with one another, youth participating in YLG identify and constructively present issues facing their people.

CHAT also facilitates a program called Fresh Tradition, which is a fashion program. Six to eight applicants are accepted and are mentored as they create their own original pieces. The culminating event is a fashion show in the spring.

Additionally, CHAT organizes music concerts, a paint night and an event called CHATfest for local community members.

As is the case for most nonprofits, CHAT relies heavily upon the contributions of their teachers and volunteers. Although the instructors receive a modest stipend for their role with the children, it hardly covers the cost of trips back and forth to the center, let alone the hours of time spent above and beyond their explicit duties.

A teacher and full-time foster parent, Chris Keng Yang has been working with CHAT as a guitar teacher with the Art Saves Us program since 2017.

“I teach mainly guitar music which extends to theory, fret board biology, and song building,” said Yang. “I’ve come to find that I love working with children and teaching them music. It’s amazing to see their curious minds search for the music that they love and put into expression through their own hands. One of the most fulfilling things that I’ve had the chance to experience with my work with CHAT is the family atmosphere. I don’t know much about those who came before, but the ASU staff/teachers and students all treat each other like family. We’ve taken time to not only teach well but also made it a point to host hangouts and eat-outs for our students and teachers so that we grow closer as a team.”

Xena Lee is a former member of the Youth Leadership Group who believed so strongly in CHAT’s mission that she continues to support the organization as a board member and YLG counselor.

“Being a part of YLG has really boosted my confidence as a person, a performer and a leader. I have always been a supporter and had a passion for the arts. YLG provided me opportunities to showcase my talents, meet different artists, but most importantly, create relationships. My relationship with my mentors is something I couldn't be more grateful for. They have always been the backbone of YLG. I was so thankful to be able to learn from them when I was a student. They have pushed me out of my comfort zone to always improve as an artist and also as a person. 

CHAT is important to the community because it provides opportunities for those who enjoy the arts and to those who want to become artists. There aren’t a lot of Hmong art organizations that provide the services that CHAT does. It's important to the Hmong youth in Minnesota because it gives the youth a voice, a platform to showcase their art and also connections with other organizations in Minnesota.”

As CHAT moves into the future, they hope to engage with even more of the local Hmong population.

“Historically, CHAT has had a very strong connection with youth,” said Thao. “High school through college to early 20s. We want to leverage that but also understand that the community has different layers. Older people certainly have artistic inclinations and we’re reaching out to elders and the general population in terms of what we do with arts programming. Leveraging the power of youth has been a great strategy in the past, but now as the needs of nonprofits change, we have to reach out to all generations of the Hmong community. And we’re also trying to organize some events for elders in the community, in order to expand our community reach.”

CHAT also hopes to diversify their outreach beyond the Hmong community. “I understand the responsibility of supporting Hmong artists, but I think sometimes the narrative gets confusing because I want us to be leading the multicultural conversation, and I think creating these bridges and connections only helps and strengthens us moving forward,” said Thao. “We want to try to invite other communities but realize this is Hmong-led. Strategically though, we want to work with other Asian Americans as well. We’re Hmong, we’re Asian American and we’re American. We’re all of that.”


Kelley Still

Arts and Culture Editor

Kelley Still is a writer, editor, and communications professional. Although she spent over a decade living and working in the San Francisco Bay area, she recently returned home to Minnesota, where she grew up. A Korean adoptee and mother of two, young girls, Kelley began her career in arts journalism and in addition to writing, has also spent time in education. She's interested in exploring the cultural identities of Asian adoptees.