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Student to present documentary project at national Hmong conference

April 4, 2013
 VangMaiNeng

Mai Neng Vang also will present her documentary from 5-7 p.m. April 24 in Room 102 of Hibbard Humanities Hall at UW-Eau Claire. The presentation, part of Hmong Heritage Month activities on campus, is free and open to the public.

EAU CLAIRE — University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire student Mai Neng Vang has produced a documentary she will present at the Hmong National Development Conference to be held April 5-7 in Fresno, Calif.

Vang, a senior psychology major from Eau Claire, created the documentary, titled "Voices of the Silenced: A Counternarrative Dialogue," out of a desire to tell the history and experiences of Hmong Americans. She also plans to present a preview of the documentary at UW-Eau Claire's Celebration of Excellence in Research and Creative Activity in early May.

Vang has worked on the documentary project for the past year. Vang and her mentor on the project, Heather Harris, research coordinator for UW-Eau Claire's Blugold Beginnings program, consulted with UW-Eau Claire faculty members Dr. Christin DePouw, assistant professor of education studies, and Dr. Ari Anand, assistant professor of anthropology, to ensure its academic integrity.

Vang came up with the idea for the project as a college freshman.

"My grandfather (on my mom's side) was my motivation for this project," Vang said. "At the time he was very ill, and I wanted to be able to capture his life story on film so that even when he is no longer here, his story will live on."

The history of the Hmong people has not yet made its way into history textbooks but has been spread only through oral stories from one generation to the next, Vang said.

"I wanted to capture it so that the stories our elders have to tell can be heard years from now, so that these stories don't leave with the elders when they pass on."

Many non-Hmong individuals and researchers try to get the Hmong American story out, but not all of their works tell the story accurately, Vang said.

"I wanted to create a piece of work that will allow members of the Hmong American community to take control of what they want others to know about them," she said. "I wanted to create something that will help people understand that being Hmong isn't limited to certain characteristics — that being Hmong is diverse. I want people to understand that although Hmong Americans share a common ancestry and history, every Hmong American person has their own unique experiences in America and we can all still be Hmong and still be very different from one another."

Another goal of the documentary is to educate people about the challenges, both institutional and cultural, that Hmong Americans continue to face in the United States, Vang said.

"I want the documentary to open up discussions about how we can address these challenges," she said.

"The silenced" referred to in the title of the documentary are members of the Hmong American community, Vang said.

"When I first started the documentary, I felt that people like my parents and grandparents have felt as if they could not speak up against the injustices in this country because this country has given them refuge — that they should be grateful for what this country has given them," Vang said. "Also, many of these elders don't speak English, so it is very hard for them to share their stories and experiences — so in this sense they have been silenced from sharing their knowledge.

"There is also limited space in academia for these voices to be heard because of an emphasis on empirical evidence — so the knowledge of our elders and the lived experiences of members of the Hmong American community are shut out of education, silencing these voices."

So far Vang has interviewed six UW-Eau Claire students, two professors (DePouw and Anand) and two sets of parents from the Eau Claire area for the documentary project, which she noted is ongoing. Additional interviews are planned, so while a shorter version of the documentary will be presented at the Hmong National Development Conference, the final version will be approximately 90 minutes long. In its final form, the documentary will be titled "To Be Hmong in America: A Counternarrative Dialogue," Vang said. Her long-term goal is to create a series of documentaries, each focused on different themes of the Hmong American experience.

The documentary is not Vang's first project at UW-Eau Claire examining Hmong American culture. Previously she was part of a faculty/student research team with Dr. Ann Collier, a former UW-Eau Claire psychology faculty member, that explored the underlying cultural values in the Hmong American community that impact parenting beliefs and practices.

More recently, through her involvement with UW-Eau Claire's McNair Scholar program, Vang has collaborated with DePouw on a research project titled "Psychology and the Hmong community: A critical reflection of social science methodologies." The project applies critical race theory to analyze how current psychological research methodologies often interpret findings using deficit thinking when working with the Hmong American community which contributes to the institutional marginalization of Hmong Americans. The research also discusses the necessity of incorporating a critical race theory perspective and involving individuals from the community in the construction of study design. Changes in many scientific methodologies are necessary to incorporate all relevant information in order to account for the salient complexities within a community of color, Vang said. The project uses Vang's previous research of parenting styles within the Eau Claire Hmong community as a case study.

Vang's previous research experiences provided a strong background for the documentary project, Harris said.

"This documentary gave Mai Neng the opportunity to connect her previous research, academic experience and future ambitions into a project that clearly means a great deal to her," Harris said. "I have no doubt that this project is the first of many for Mai Neng, and I believe this was a great opportunity for her to truly dive into a project and make it her own."

Vang received funding and other support for the documentary project through UW-Eau Claire's Office of Research and Sponsored Programs and Dean of Students Office. Technical support was provided by Robert Mattison and Donald Schleicher in the university's Learning and Technology Services area, and from UW-Eau Claire computer science alumnus Casey Driscoll of Patched Up Creative.

Vang, who graduates in May, will pursue a master's degree in educational policy studies at UW-Madison beginning next fall. Her work on the documentary and other research projects as an undergraduate has been an important step toward her ultimate goal to work in a career that allows her to ensure the enforcement of equitable educational policies.

"This project has allowed me to listen to the challenges that many Hmong American students and parents have faced while living in this country," Vang said. "It has made me realize that in order to change policies, or the way things are in general, I need to have a clear understanding of what the community I am serving needs and why it is important to them."

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