Hmong Innovating Politics shakes up Sacramento political establishment
HIP announced federal injunction filings against the Sacramento City Unified School District last week
Sipping ice coffees in the bohemian backyard patio of a south Sacramento cafe, the three friends looked like grad students catching up between cram sessions.
But since forming their surprisingly influential advocacy group last July, the truth is that Hmong Innovating Politics’ Seng Vang, Cha Vang and Jonathan Tran have time to do only one thing: shake up Sacramento’s political establishment.
Credited with helping Steve Ly become the first Laotian-born school-board member in Elk Grove—over an incumbent, no less—HIP last week announced federal court filings against the Sacramento City Unified School District to reverse the closure of seven schools in poorer, heavily ethnic neighborhoods. And on Wednesday, HIP members were scheduled to meet with a Twin Rivers Unified School District board president regarding worrisome layoff notices to several Hmong para-educators.
HIP representatives scored the private audience after attending their first Twin Rivers meeting earlier this month, illustrating just how quickly the group’s profile has risen since January, when members had to explain to quizzical SCUSD officials what HIP stood for.
Today, there’s little doubt.
“When you’re good at what you do, people take notice,” said Democratic Party of Sacramento County president Kerri Asbury, whose group named HIP “organization of the year” at its recent Tower Bridge Awards fundraiser. “They should write a book on how to organize a community.”
In a nonliteral way, they sort of are.
At 10 to 12 active members, the group is small, mobile and leaderless. There is no base of operations. And while traditional Hmong culture adheres to a patriarchal structure, Tran, who is of Chinese descent, said HIP flips gender roles on their head.
“Some of the most powerful members in our group are women,” he said, gesturing to founding members Seng Vang and Cha Vang (no relation), who dreamed up the idea while working together.
Despite its baby-faced membership and relative newness on the community-activism front, HIP is proving as innovative as advertised.
When it came time to consider legal action against the district, members researched both civil-rights law and environmental policy to determine which avenue was most appropriate. Civil rights won the day.
“We trust in each other,” Seng Vang told SN&R. “It’s a new way of thinking: This is how organizations should function.”
The unorthodox organizational structure has befuddled more traditional institutions.
HIP members say they reached out to SCUSD officials to hear out their positions but kept running into the same question.
“The district kept trying to identify leaders of the pack,” Tran chuckled.
When HIP members were granted a sit-down with district officials, Tran said they were treated like “just another rambunctious group of young people that will eventually fade away,” and warned not to burn bridges that could imperil individual members’ professional ambitions.
Instead, HIP pushed harder, organizing protests and releasing studies that showed just how impacted low-income ethnic communities would be by the closures, and how relatively unscathed affluent neighborhoods were ending up.
“We’re talking about equity here,” Seng Vang said. “We’re just trying to protect the most vulnerable in our community.”
HIP members learned just how many when they started setting meetings at imperiled schools, and saw black and Hispanic faces mixed in with the Hmong.
“That’s when we saw, ’Hey, it’s not just the Hmong community. Other minority groups are being affected,’” Seng Vang said. “That’s when we took it on as a community issue.”
Seconded Asbury: “Whether you agree with the closures or not, you can’t deny that they played a big role in educating the community.”
Which might be why things are moving so swiftly in Twin Rivers.
Board president Cortez Quinn said he learned of HIP while working at Assemblyman Roger Dickinson’s office months ago, but took special notice when the nascent organization raced to the front of the school-closures debate in his neighboring district.
“Now, they’re taking the show on the road and trying to do something in Twin Rivers, and we welcome that,” he told SN&R.
Quinn noted that 50 percent to 75 percent of layoff notices are typically rescinded after a state budget is passed.
In the meantime, HIP might finally hold that retreat it’s been putting off. Cha Vang said the group wants to become more proactive about seeking out issues, rather that waiting for controversies to find them.
HIP organizers also have a pact to drop everything if someone from the group decides to run for office.
“But we assure them that if they’re corrupt, we’ll come after you, too,” Seng Vang said with a smile.