Hmong Women Summit held in Davies

This year’s theme was “The Authenticity Project: Leadership Through Critical Learning”


Photo by Submitted

Caitlin Lee is one of the co-founders for the Hmong Women Summit, which took place in Davies on Nov. 1-2.

Davies Student Center’s third floor rang out with the sounds of laughter and women’s voices. A vendor with jewelry had a booth set up in the hallway. There were several tables laden with goods — such as a traditional Hmong outfit for an infant, adult-sized t-shirts and other paraphernalia — for sale via a silent auction.

The Hmong Women Summit was born in 2014, Caitlin Lee, a co-founder of the event, said. Lee, who works in the Affirmative Action office at UW-Eau Claire and as a specialist for the Equal Opportunity Program, said the first summit was held in 2015 and has taken place every other year. This year, it was held on Nov. 1-2.

“(We) built the summit around challenging the norms,” Lee said. “Trying to create space for Hmong women voices in leadership. We recognize that, traditionally, leadership in our community is usually male and older. That really doesn’t leave much room for women.”

But Lee said they recognize the growing need for women in leadership, and that one of the main goals of the summit is to prepare some of the women in the Hmong community to take up the mantle of leadership.

This year, the summit’s theme was “The Authenticity Project: Leadership Through Critical Learning.” 

“It’s called the Authenticity Project because it started out — and it still is a project — really couched in the work that we do critically in authentic leadership,” Lee said. “Showing up as yourself, being authentically you. We thought that resonated well with the Hmong identity.”

Lee said Hmong women often have multiple identities that come together, and she wanted to acknowledge that. 

“We thought that authentic leadership was the vehicle to help us have those conversations about these intersecting identities that we have as Hmong women,” Lee said.

Lee said the summit is a journey of self-growth and seeing what women can learn from one another by sitting and visiting with others. They intentionally only put names on the attendees badges — no identifying positions or institutions.

The goal, Lee said, was to teach and generate healthy dialogue among the women, and to increase self-reflection for them as well — all while building leadership. 

These new leaders are not just for within Hmong communities, Lee said. 

“The goal of the women’s summit is that we are here to produce a new breed of leadership,” Lee said. “We’re not talking about someone who is ‘culturally competent.’ We’re talking about ‘hybridized leadership.’ Women that can oscillate between the Hmong community and the at-large community, and can be a leader for both and all.”

Mai H. Vang was another co-founder of the Hmong Women Summit, Lee said. They met in a professional capacity — Vang was the director of the Affirmative Action office for UW-Stevens Point when they met, Lee said.

Their friendship grew, and although Vang left her position as director and moved to Boston, where she is now working at the University of Massachusetts Boston, the two continued to work together to create these events. 

Despite requests nationwide for Lee and Vang to take the summit elsewhere, they have no plans to do so, Lee said. 

“We would like to make sure that it stays intrinsically a Hmong Wisconsin idea,” Lee said. 

Although the summit itself is geared toward Hmong women and their experiences specifically, Lee said the content they teach is universal. 

“There’s no exclusion here,” Lee said. “We invite everybody to be in this space.” 

Mina Yang graduated from UW-Eau Claire in 2017 with a degree in biochemistry. She has been a part of the last two Hmong Women’s Summits. During her first year, she was a videographer for the event. This year, she’s part of the Communications/PR Committee, where she helped promote the event through videos, social media and more. 

Yang said she likes being a part of this group of bold women.

“There’s already this feeling of connectedness, where we kind of understand each other because we have similar histories and culture,” Yang said. “There’s just this spiritual connectedness. I can’t really explain it, it just feels kind of like home.” 

Yang also described the event as “empowering” and “inspiring.” 

Although Yang hasn’t found a job in her field yet, she said through events like this, she’s learned she’s not so alone, and that through discussions with other women she’s worked with, she knows finding the right path can take time, and that’s okay. 

Cultivating those relationships is important to Lee.

“We’re all about building relationships,” Lee said. 

Hagmann can be reached at [email protected]