Last month on Dec. 10, the Hmong American Friendship Association, along with The Hmong Consortium, sought to recognize the work, impact, and success of one woman in particular by awarding her “Woman of the Year,” and that woman was Madison’s own Maidoua Thao. Although Thao has only been in Madison for around a decade, the effect she has had in the Hmong community is palpable. This is no coincidence though, as it has been life experiences that have driven Thao’s passion to make a difference in her community.
Thao came with her parents to America at the age of six as refugees from Thailand. Seeing the struggle of immigration to America in terms of language barriers, access to institutions, as well as the effects of having to immigrate due to conflict, worked to shape the intentions that Thao approaches community work and engagement with today. After some involvement with the YMCA Sponsor-a-Scholar program in Milwaukee, Thao’s next step was back to the community.
“At the age of 18, I decided to join the Milwaukee pageant,” recalled Thao. “Milwaukee hosts the largest New Year and the largest pageant. At the time, it was called ‘Miss Hmong Milwaukee, Wisconsin.’ Right now, it’s called ‘Miss Hmong Wisconsin.’ I actually won, so that was my pathway and my statement to the community that ‘I’m here for you.’ Here is a stage where I can show my presence and validate that I am here to do community work because I know all the struggles that our parents have gone through.
“I started all my community work in Milwaukee, but because the title at the time really embodied everywhere in Wisconsin, I was traveling to Appleton and Madison for multiple events,” she continued. “I was getting to network and know people across Wisconsin. Then in 2012, I got married and I moved to Madison. Right away, I just knew I had to get connected with the community.”
Thao would soon invest time in helping Hmong youth navigate the educational institutions in Madison, assisting with planning and action for the Hmong New Year celebration, as well as volunteering to assist the Hmong 18 Council. As Thao became more of a recognizable name in Madison, it is no surprise that young women also started to seek her out for help in their own pageant participation. The opportunities to reach back to the community are something Thao has continuously been able to take advantage of, including through her work as engagement manager at Madison Gas and Electric.
“In the last three years, I started working for Madison Gas and Electric right before the pandemic,” Thao said. “I felt like that was a big boost in the different ways I can help my community other than just giving my time. Through Madison Gas and Electric, and the lens for equity and energy burden, I was able to really connect with my community to teach them about conservation and energy efficiency. Through my network, I was able to help those who needed help with bill literacy and energy conservation.”
Due to the conditions that many Hmong refugees came to this country under, as well as with any adjustment to new languages, cultures, and environments, it is important for Thao that her work helps address bringing equity and engagement with communities who may feel overwhelmed by it all. While the youth in the community play a crucial role in how they carry on their heritage, the heritage itself is not far away as many households are multigenerational. Outside of the household itself, elderly members of the community also play a significant role in passing down culture, traditions, and values to future generations.
“For the elders, their values are really family and keeping everyone together,” said Thao. “Because they may not know how to pass on that tradition, a lot of our young people are not able to learn that. Then the elders are also pushing for education, so when the youth push for that education movement too, not many of them return back to learn the traditions. That’s been frustrating for the elders in that they seem like they’re being forgotten. A lot of our tradition embodies honoring ancestors, and if they are being forgotten or no one’s learning this tradition, they will be forgotten. When I do my workshops, and when I engage with each particular group in the community, I am mindful of that.”
The fear of losing pieces of culture or ancestry is real, especially in areas such as language that need to be constantly reproduced to carry on. Although it is important to remember ancestry and tradition, it is also not unusual to see future generations adapt, shift, or reconfigure cultural ideas and practices to better fit their experiences and the present. This is something that Thao keeps in mind when working to bring the two pieces of the Hmong community together.
“I do the best I can to understand where the youth are moving towards, and be able to listen and advocate for that,” Thao assured. “Then to bring that back to the table to the elders, so that they understand that other people are feeling this way. That it’s okay for the youth to feel this way. Then to also listen to the elders, and bring their feedback to the youth and say, ‘This is what the elders would like, and this is what they’re missing.’
“How do we balance that? A lot of times, when you become that medium ground, you know that you can’t please everyone, but you try to do at least something for the elders and something for the youth,” Thao added. “I think we can come to that compromise. Little by little, we can grow together, and maybe one day the elders will be able to meet us in the middle, and maybe the youth one day will turn back and say, ‘Hey, we haven’t forgotten you.’”
One important event that serves as a medium to connect the generations and people of the Hmong community is the Hmong New Year. As someone who involved herself for so long in the Milwaukee Hmong New Year, it is fitting that Thao has also had a hand in Madison’s Hmong New Year for many years. This culminated in Thao’s role as the New Year Consultant for 2022’s Hmong New Year that took place last November, an event where she was awarded the “Community Transformational Award” for her dedication to excellence and innovation to help move the organization forward.
While these achievements have shown how much appreciation the community has for Thao, she is looking to achieve even more for the future.
“I want to continue working to bring equity to the Hmong community,” said Thao. “That’s one big thing that I enjoy working towards and a passion I have, so I want to make sure that’s felt through the community. With my role at Madison Gas and Electric, I feel that I can make more of an impact. I’m able to advocate for them, not just in the Hmong community, but in American society. For me, I’m looking to hopefully start sitting on boards of organizations that can make an impact in our community. I definitely want to take a look at what roles are open at the Wisconsin Hmong Association, and how I can take on some of those roles more formally so that I can advocate for the youth in the Hmong community.”
One theme present throughout all of Thao’s work is strengthening community. Part of that strength comes in providing opportunity and engagement for the youth who are looking to carry their culture into the next generation. Thao was especially mindful to recognize those young, Hmong people throughout Wisconsin who follow in similar footsteps to hers by reaching back to the community.
“Everything is a stepping stone,” Thao said. “Winning Miss Hmong Milwaukee, Wisconsin, was a stepping stone. Many years after that, coming back to win the Woman of the Year Award was another stepping stone for me to remind myself that I am making an impact in the community and they are watching…This award isn’t just for myself. It is for youth leaders who have given their time to the community and have not received any recognition. I am watching them, I am listening, and I know that they do exist. I love what they do for our community as young, emerging leaders. For me, it’s making sure I give them the credit, too, and let them know that I’m here to help them.”
Equity is a lasting message that Maidoua Thao leaves through her work and continues through her uplifting of others. While it takes everyone playing their part for the benefit and growth of the community, Thao is positive that the Hmong community is headed towards hope as she, with many others, gives their efforts to make it so.