May 16, 2022 - News

Meet the Asian Americans tackling next generation challenges in Des Moines

Jade Song (left) and Christine Her (right). Photos courtesy of Song and Her

Whenever Jade Song was going through a hard time, her mom would tell her, "ua siab ntev."

  • The Hmong phrase is used to tell someone to be patient. And for many older Asian immigrants, assimilating and not stirring things up was a means of survival when settling in the U.S.

But Song, who is second generation, is ready to demand change as she builds her life here in Des Moines.

  • "I'm tired of being patient," the 34-year-old said.

Driving the news: May marks Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. To commemorate, Axios Des Moines spoke to the children of refugees who fled the Vietnam War about how they're shaping the future of the local AAPI community, decades later.

Christine Her, 31, is a Hmong American who was born in Des Moines and attended East High School. She runs ArtForce, a local nonprofit dedicated to helping at-risk youth through creating art.

  • Growing up, her parents lived in a dichotomy between wanting to cling to what it means to be Hmong and wanting their children to be American, including giving Her a "white name," she said.

What she's doing: Through ArtForce Iowa, Her is helping Des Moines youth of color express themselves through art and creating an open space where they can explore their self-identity.

  • The AAPI youth she works with in Des Moines are "natural leaders" who are demanding social and racial equity, she said.
  • "These Gen Z-ers, they are different," Her said. "They're very clear about what it is that they want, and how they want to get there and if they don't know, they're not shy and asking for what that could look like."

A challenge she sees in 2022: The Asian American community is broad and can feel disjointed.

  • Her would like to see more collective leadership that can not only leverage AAPI voices, but those of other communities of color as well.

A decade ago, Song, who was living in California, decided to move to Des Moines to be closer with her mother, who resettled in Iowa as a refugee from the Secret War.

  • She said the first thing she missed was the prominent Hmong community back west.
  • There are around 500 Hmong families in Iowa, but most people are unaware of their plight from the Vietnam War, even though they came in the '70s, she said.

What she's doing: Over the last year, Song has taken on a leadership role with the Iowa Asian Alliance, meeting with Hmong families across the state to learn their unique barriers and needs.

A challenge she sees in 2022: Building visibility for the Hmong community and getting them unified, so they have greater power.

  • Without more visibility, it's harder to get resources from the state, like grant money. Hmong New Year is a commonly held event in other larger cities, but there hasn't been one in Iowa in five years.
  • "We have to talk and bring up those problems, bring up those challenges, because if you don't say anything about it, nothing may be done about it," Song said.

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