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Southwest Minnesota Hmong plan to put down roots in new community center

Group of adults standing around table providing input on community center needs.
Virajita Singh (left), Center for Sustainable Building Research, facilitates a community input session in Walnut Grove.

More than 40 years after the first Hmong arrived in Minnesota, the state boasts the nation’s second-largest Hmong population (Minnesota Historical Society). The Hmong community contributes importantly to the state’s economy, civic life and artistic diversity. From Wilder Foundation President MayKao Hang to Walnut Grove city council member Sean Yang to bestselling memoirist Kao Kalia Yang, Minnesota’s Hmong Americans are shaping the fabric of our society. Yet even decades after they arrived, many struggle to find places to call home.

“It’s been a long struggle with the community trying to find a place they could call home,” said Yang, who also serves as a board member for the University of Minnesota Extension Southwest Regional Sustainable Development Partnership (Southwest RSDP). “Right now a lot of young kids are losing the language and culture, and a lot of the older folks are wanting a place where they can exercise or socialize.”  

Design rendering Hmong Community Center of the entire site.
Design rendering of northwest view of Southwest Hmong Community Center by Xin Chang, Center for Sustainable Building Research.

Khou Lor of Project Uniting Southwest Hmong (PUSH) agrees. “We want to set down our roots,” she said. “We’ve always rented out the high schools in town to do our New Year’s [celebrations]. We love the support we get from the surrounding businesses and school system, but we’d love to be able to have our own home and our own infrastructure [where we can] highlight our beautiful culture and heritage.”

Lor, Yang and a diverse group of community partners are working to develop a new community center the Southwest Minnesota Hmong community can call home. The center would provide a gathering place as well as spaces for food growing, a farmer’s market, exercise, community education, daycare and coin laundry. Preserving Hmong culture is a primary focus, but the center is designed to serve the broader Tracy and Walnut Grove communities.

Community-University partnership

In fall 2017, PUSH worked with the Southwest Minnesota Housing Partnership and Southwest Initiative Foundation to develop a proposal to the Southwest RSDP. Partners needed connection to design expertise at the University.

Group of adults standing around table with renderings of potential community center designs.
Hmong Community Center design session in Walnut Grove.

“The Southwest board saw a huge opportunity in welcoming the Hmong community into the region in a really concrete way,” said Southwest RSDP Executive Director Anne Dybsetter. “The farm-to-table aspect of it was also a really nice match for our work.”

The Southwest RSDP supported the proposal, and the Southwest Hmong Community Center: Tsev Nqeeb on the Prairie is now in the planning stages. In spring 2018, residents of Walnut Grove and Tracy came together in a series of community input sessions facilitated by Virajita Singh, Senior Research Fellow with the University’s Center for Sustainable Building Research (CSBR), and graduate research assistant Xin Chang, who received support from RSDP’s Mary J. Page Community-University Partnerships Fund. Dybsetter and Yang have been closely involved.

Cross-cultural project design

Over the years, Singh has worked with multiple RSDP regions on a number of projects through CSBR’s Design for Community Resilience program. This process gathers broad stakeholder input to design buildings in a way that serves overall community needs. “We’ve done projects for majority community members, and each has been wonderful in building on principles of partnership and sustainable development,” Singh said, “but this one felt like now we’re addressing social and demographic and equity issues.” Singh also serves as Assistant Vice Provost for the University’s Office for Equity and Diversity.

Group of adults gathered around a table discussing and writing down ideas.
Southwest Hmong Community Center community input session.

Singh felt it was important that conversations happen in the language people are comfortable in. “For this project, every community presentation we made was done bilingually,” she said. Lor helped with translation to Hmong.

“Virajita and Xin did their homework, and they did a lot of research into the culture. It was a very shared experience to be working with Virajita and Xin from many different aspects,” Lor said. “We think they had an understanding being from different cultural groups, too.”

In fact, Singh recalled how, after a community input session in Walnut Grove, she, Lor and Chang enjoyed a conversation exploring their common Asian roots and cultures – Indian, Hmong and Chinese.

Vision

Participants envisioned a center that would preserve and share Hmong culture, and serve as a gathering space. Other needs identified included providing access to exercise equipment as well as classrooms for adult education and cultural education. Community members also hoped the center would support economic vitality by offering a business incubator and training for Hmong farmers.

Adults standing at table sharing ideas for community needs for community center.
Community members and project leaders discuss their vision for a Southwest Hmong Community Center at a community input meeting in Walnut Grove.

“In the Twin Cities, there are a lot of [Hmong] people who have made a mark and established themselves, and I think a big part of this project is to empower our [Southwestern Minnesota] Hmong community to take steps on things they want to do,” Lor said. “About 50 percent of the residents in Walnut Grove are Hmong.”

The center would also make it easier for other cultural groups to engage the Hmong community. “Since this project has been going, we’ve seen a lot more nonprofit organizations or public sectors who have reached out to us for educational classes or someone from [the Hmong] community to serve on [a] board,” Lor said. “[They haven’t had a way] to get to know or find a champion in the [Hmong] community.”

Serving the broader community

Lor wants Southwest Minnesota residents and organizations who are outside the Hmong community to know the center is for them, too. “The idea is a multi-functional center,” she said.

Design rendering Hmong Community Center of the inside gathering space.
Design rendering of community gathering space on ground floor of Southwest Hmong Community Center by Xin Chang, Center for Sustainable Building Research.

“They’re trying to find a place where they can bring everybody, not just the Hmong but overall the population in Southwest Minnesota, to come and share a center together,” Yang agreed.

Once Hmong residents had come together around their priorities, the project team invited local government officials from Tracy, city council members and other residents to join the conversation. “We really wanted to make sure that the Hmong community members had a sense of what they wanted and shared that with us,” Singh said. “That way we were able to center the design feedback from the Hmong community and make that the core of the process, but then the reality is this center will also be a bridge that connects to other community members.”

For example, the planned farmer’s market would serve the broad community, as would the potential daycare center and coin laundry. “There’s a lot there that’s not only about the Hmong community, but about the larger [area],” Singh said.

All together, the community input sessions attracted a diverse group of participants, including local government leaders and residents spanning a variety of ages and racial/ethnic backgrounds. Singh reflected on how after the final feedback session, a city council member from Tracy who is not from the Hmong community expressed that the plans “nailed it” in meeting the needs of the city of Tracy and surrounding region.

Rendering of front view of the proposed Hmong Community Center.
Design rendering of front view of Southwest Hmong Community Center with Hmong farmers’ market. Rendering by Xin Chang, Center for Sustainable Building Research.

Idea testing

RSDP staff often actively work on projects we support, and Dybsetter, Singh, Chang, Lor and Yang met weekly by phone through the life of the project. Other community members joined in on some of the weekly conversations. “It was really a clear demonstration of the design-thinking process,” Dybsetter said. “It was a neat process because it’s not linear.”

Community ideas were explored through these calls, incorporated into plans, tested and reworked. “We would incorporate an idea into the plan, play out a scenario, circle back, and see what works. That happens repeatedly until you get to a design that people can see would work,” Dybsetter said.

Singh and Chang used input from these community design meetings to develop a master plan for the project. The report addresses the center’s goals; community input; and recommendations for the center’s program offerings, architecture and landscape design.

The report also makes specific design recommendations for the primary site under consideration, located on Highway 14 in Tracy. The site was previously used for a small business selling plants and flowers, with a greenhouse toward the east and land for potential farming in the back. Funding and additional partnerships need to be secured before a final site decision can be made, however.

According to Yang, the Hmong subtitle chosen for the center holds significance: It’s a name that conjures home. The report by Singh and Chang explains, “Tsev Nqeeb translates as a traditional Hmong House or Hut. ‘Tsev’ translates to house and ‘Nqeeb’ refers to the grass materials used to roof a traditional Hmong house. ‘Tsev Nqeeb on the Prairie’ was selected to uniquely convey the essence of what it means to have a community center for the Hmong community and be in Southwest Minnesota.”

Moving forward

Khou Lor standing in from of a board with notes of ideas as she facilitates a community feedback session
A Project Uniting Southwest Hmong (PUSH) team facilitator presents community feedback during a meeting in Tracy.

Now that the report is in hand, community members can use it to seek support for siting and construction. “The report crystallizes the ideas and vision so the group can take it forward,” Singh said. In addition to RSDP and CSBR, project leaders have worked in partnership with the city of Tracy, Lyon County Economic Development Authority, Southwest Minnesota Housing Partnership and Southwest Initiative Foundation. Partners can use the report to explore funding sources.

“Typically when communities work with us they don’t necessarily have the funding for the implementation yet identified or in place, and so the report becomes a way for them to then apply for specific funding,” Singh said. “It provides a level of clarity that can help them identify who is potentially interested and share with [those] potential partners and funders.”

According to Yang, the vision is to make the center a reality by 2020. “I think it’s a dream come true for most of the elders and a lot of the community members because it’s been talked about for many, many years,” he said.

Those interested in supporting the effort, through partnership or funding, can contact Lor at lorkhou@hotmail.com.

Caryn Mohr and Alysse LaMond, September 2018

Caryn Mohr is the assistant statewide director of the University of Minnesota Extension Regional Sustainable Development Partnerships (RSDP). Alysse LaMond worked as a student writer for RSDP in spring-summer 2018. 

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