Fifteen years ago, Freedom Inc. started in the parking lot of the Bayview Community complex off West Washington Ave.
Kabzuag Vaj, who grew up in that neighborhood, remembers as a child having a barren field between her and the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She knew the physical buildings and structures were near but her community was never made aware of the resources and opportunities available so close by.
Today, that organization that started out as an afterschool program for Southeast Asian students has become an internationally recognized nonprofit advocating for Black, Southeast Asian, Queer and fem folks, and celebrated its 15th anniversary in a celebration last month at Memorial Union. The two co-directors of Freedom Inc, Vaj and M Adams, and their team are known for guiding survivors of domestic violence and oppression to the front lines of activism.
Vaj said Freedom Inc. is unique because it brings the struggles of Southeast Asian and Black people together.
After leaving the complex, going to college and traveling abroad, Vaj’s perceptions shifted. She came home and wanted to invest in her community which had been overlooked for so long.
“Our world isn’t just confined to this housing complex. It is bigger than that,” Vaj remembers thinking. “We get to explore and learn.”
“I made a promise to myself that everything that I learned I would pass on to them,” Vaj said.
In 1999 at age 25, Vaj started a weekly after school program for youth called “Creating Change through Empowering Minds” which included workshops on oppression, poverty and liberation.
Ten of the students who participated in the program had dropped out of high school and after one year, Vaj said, every one of them had their GED.
The workshops and programs took students from a place of “I just want to get my driver’s license so I can get a job,” to youth who were active and engaged, Vaj said.
In 2003, Vaj started a nonprofit. She was 30 years old and the oldest of the group, by far.
“The first couple of years we struggled a lot,” she said. “Not only financially because we weren’t funded completely but the biggest struggle was getting the community to take us seriously. We were young and the groups were young. So people thought it was just another organization that was going to go away.”
In 2008 facets of the organization streamlined, giving Freedom Inc. momentum.
Vaj said the students she had worked with for nearly 10 years became politicized, active adults who were invested in addressing poverty, sexism, racism and how it impacts their community.
M Adams joined the organization, and today she is the community organizer and co-executive director of Freedom Inc.
Freedom Inc. broadened the scope to empower not only South East Asian people but Black and Queer folks as well. Vaj said this changed how Freedom Inc. was going to do its work in a positive and unique way.
“(This was) a huge milestone, Vaj said. “Black folks and southeast Asian folks have struggles that are similar. And our liberation is tied to each other,” Vaj said.
Vaj said the members of Freedom Inc. took classes on Southeast Asian refugee resettlement and how Black Americans contributed to the US.
The Southeast Asia members were able to use their voices in places where they knew Black voices would not be heard like school board meetings, she said.
Vaj said Freedom Inc. is known in Madison for their stance against police in schools and shutting down school board meetings in protest. However, Freedom Inc does so much more than that, Vaj said.
In addition to attending school board meetings, working one on one with survivors and mentoring youth, there are 12 active programs including reading clubs, healing circles and dance groups.
They have a Book and Breakfast club, where elementary-age Black, Khmer, and Hmong children meet on Saturday mornings to eat a hot breakfast and read books. Debra’s Love is a Black Domestic Violence program that focuses on Black seniors, women, and queer folks who are victims/survivors of gender-based violence.
There is a food pantry open every Friday that serves hundreds of people a week.
What really sets Freedom Inc. apart from other organizations, Vaj said, is that they bring the people who use their services into leadership roles.
“You come in as a domestic violence survivor or (person) needing housing. We engage you so 10 years later you are working for us and five months later you are an advocate talking to city council members about how the new jail is not helpful for you,” Vaj said.