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Ka Vang’s ideal day in Minneapolis starts with a hearty breakfast sandwich from Breaking Bread Cafe on the Northside, a stop with her kids at the Walker Art Center, and ends with a walk along Minnehaha Creek to reconnect with the city’s indigenous roots.
She’ll tap into her experiences as a Hmong immigrant and storyteller to showcase Minneapolis in her new role as the first-ever Vice President of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion at Meet Minneapolis. She’ll help the private association attract visitors, meetings, and events to the city while also highlighting its diverse communities.
“I am so excited about this job because I really understand the experiences of historically marginalized communities,” Vang said. “I want to work with the tools and resources that Meet Minneapolis has to uplift BIPOC [Black, Indigenous, People of Color] businesses and change the narrative of who Minneapolis is, who can come to Minneapolis, and the potential of what Minneapolis can be to Minnesota.”
Vang immigrated to the United States as a child and grew up in the Frogtown neighborhood of St. Paul. She now calls Prescott, Wis. home. She graduated with a bachelor’s degree in political science from University of Minnesota and earned a Master’s of Science in education from Minnesota State University in Mankato.
Vang served as director of community engagement and impact for Minnesota Public Radio and American Public Media for eight years before moving onto Meet Minneapolis, which announced her hiring Monday.
Vang, 47, has spent her lifetime tackling difficult topics, but she also knows how to rock out and nerd out. She’s a die-hard Star Trek fan who attends conventions and once belonged to a group called Nerds of Color.
“I take it really seriously and get dressed up, and get upset when things aren’t right in the canon,” she said. “I even have ‘Hamlet’ translated into Klingon. I love science fiction; it’s an allegory and shows the issues that we have today–but in the future.”
Shakespeare plays aside, she loves to head bang at Guns N’ Roses and Metallica concerts. It’s a reminder, she said, that we’re all complex, passionate people whose stories are worthy of being told.
“My kids were embarrassed when they found out I was a heavy metal fan, but in the greater community I hope it’s a lesson of not judging a book by its cover,” Vang said. “I just want to share my joy and passion with people, and isn’t that just all of us? There have been certain people in our culture that have been told their stories and lived experiences aren’t worth sharing, and we need to tell these stories, too.”
Sahan Journal recently spoke to Vang about her goals for Meet Minneapolis, the work that needs to happen to bring racial healing to the city, and her favorite Minneapolis destinations. Vang said the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police in 2020 prompted her recent career change.
“I want to be a part of the racial healing happening in Minneapolis and want new narratives to be told about the city,” she said. “I want people to love the city as much as I do. I grew up here and I’m invested in the potential that Minneapolis has to serve all people.”
The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Why were you interested in this job, and what do you hope to accomplish?
Just seeing George Floyd’s murder in great disbelief and sadness, and seeing the aftermath of the racial reckoning, social justice warriors, and protests. I was watching CNN and someone said, “No one is ever going to come to Minneapolis again.”
And I just thought to myself, “How can I get involved? How can I make a difference with my skill set and life experience?” And I didn’t want to sit out in Prescott when the most important thing that was happening in my lifetime was occurring 40 minutes away.
That’s why I applied for the job.
At Minnesota Public Radio, I’ve been really focused that past couple of years on changing problematic racial narratives in media. Looking at narratives that have been absent or not told correctly or completely. Sometimes it’s not the narrative is wrong outwardly, but the way that it portrayed isn’t as authentic as it could be and honor the lived experiences of the people.
What do you bring to your new role at Meet Minneapolis?
When this position opened, I had the skill set around changing racial narratives and being in relationships with BIPOC businesses along with my skill set around DEI [Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion]. I know of the various models of equity, and I can really apply them to a situation that I feel is critical right now that Minneapolis really needs.
Internally, Meet Minneapolis has diversity goals around hiring and cultural fluency of the staff. I’m in charge of that piece too. The leadership and staff are committed to work and have already started programming to increase their cultural fluency, including community conversations hosted by Sharon Sayles Belton that includes many community BIPOC leaders. DEI work internally can be difficult because you have to allow yourself to be uncomfortable to grow.
If Meet Minneapolis fulfills its mission, we’re going to have more tourists, visitors, and conventions and that will lift up the local economy. We’ve identified 7 cultural districts where we want to uplift businesses: 38th Street South, Cedar Avenue South, Central Avenue, East Lake Street, Franklin Avenue East, West Broadway and Lowry Avenue North. It’s not to take away from downtown, but to give people more options.
How has your childhood impacted you today?
I was born on a CIA military base–Long Cheng, Laos–at the end of the Vietnam War and lived for five years in a Thai refugee camp. I have tremendous respect for my parents and elders. I’m alive because of my parents. They took care of me and protected me in a dangerous environment–they were like shanty towns.
When I think about those moments, my parents had so much love for me and brought me here to the United States. If I survived a refugee camp, I can survive anything.
How does your background as a Hmong immigrant inform how you experience Minneapolis, and how you plan to highlight it?
I always felt growing up that I straddled two countries–Laos and the United States, Minnesota and the hills of Laos. My feet were always firmly planted in two places. I had two tongues, two languages.
When I was younger I felt that it was a deficit because I was still coming to terms with my identity. Now that I’m older, wiser and have kids of my own, now I just think of them as one. It’s not dual identities anymore. It’s just me. I feel so fortunate to be Hmong American, have my Asian background, and be a Minnesotan.
In this job, it’s going to be an asset. I feel really comfortable being in certain BIPOC communities. These are people that I grew up with in Frogtown, and I have a large network from my time at Minnesota Public Radio. I’m not afraid to go knock on doors of local businesses and talk about how we can highlight them to build mutually beneficial relationships.
What should locals and visitors know about Minneapolis’ communities of color and their contributions to our economy, culture, and arts?
They’ve contributed to everything. We need to rewrite history and we need to invite the people who know these stories from these communities to tell their own stories–to speak their truth.
Minneapolis was created on the efforts of indigenous communities. We’re on indigenous land and the Dakota people have lived here for thousands of years, and the Ojibwe people following the wild rice trail. I don’t know if people know and recognize these stories. We want to bring in the audiences to learn these stories.
How do you plan to present a positive picture of diversity in Minneapolis when the state of race in the city is complicated, difficult, and inequitable?
People may be hesitant to come to Minneapolis based on what they’ve seen on social media and the news. That’s real–George Floyd’s murder and Daunte Wright’s murder and everything else that has happened. I have a model that I use called truth and racial healing–you can’t create relationships if you’re not willing to face the truth.
Our city is fraught with racial tension and divide. There are disparities in our BIPOC communities. While this is true and we have a lot of work to do, it’s also a great city with beautiful lakes and restaurants, and a place for young children to play safely.
I want people to come to our city, and I want city residents to feel a sense of pride. There are still ways to love our city. We want to get people excited about coming back to Minneapolis and our cultural districts.
It’s our responsibility at Meet Minneapolis to give a platform to people who love Minneapolis and are making a difference: restaurant owners, Airbnb owners, those helping to keep the streets clean. People will respond to these people telling their story versus someone like me.
We’re also seeing more large companies pledge to help BIPOC businesses and invest in these communities, and I hope it’s a sustained effort.
How would you spend your ideal day in Minneapolis?
The hidden gems are the free things you can do in Minneapolis. One of them being walking the Minnehaha Creek. If you take the path, it takes you all the way to the Mississippi River and you kayak on the creek. No walk is the same, and I notice all the changes in the landscape and scenery.
You can be at any income level to enjoy Minneapolis, like the walks around the lakes and parks. Whether I’m walking by the river near Fort Snelling or Minnehaha Falls or any of the lakes, I feel such a connection to the land and the realization that there were people here before taking care of the land, and now it’s my responsibility to take care of it for future generations. I feel such a spiritual connection.
I like taking my kids to the family free day at museums like at the Walker or MIA [Minneapolis Institute of Art] because there’s usually an activity for them to do.
What’s the most underrated thing about Minneapolis?
I think locally we know about our dynamic ethnic food scene–we have Eat Street, Northeast, North Minneapolis on Broadway, and Lake Street. For people coming here, I would love to introduce them to the food scene and give them a tour.
What I love about our food scene is that you can go throughout Minneapolis and find different types of pho: Vietnamese pho, Hmong pho, Khmer pho, Laos pho. We’re not a monolith of people of color and indigenous people. There’s a variety of cultural, racial, and immigrant groups.
Some of my favorite places to go in North Minneapolis include Sammy’s Avenue Eatery; it’s local and Black owned. They’ve got the best sandwiches with a southern influence. At Breaking Bread Café, I really like their grits and shrimp entrée and breakfast sandwich.
What kinds of conferences, meetings, and events do you want to draw to Minneapolis?
I really want all of them. We’ve hosted large sporting events like the Super Bowl and most recently the NCAA’s Women’s Final Four. We have such a great lively and progressive music scene. I’d like to see a music conference and festival here.
More than anything, I want people to come to Minneapolis and feel like they belong–whether it’s for sports, agriculture, or education–that we’re inclusive and we can honor their heritage and their stories, because we already honor the people who are already here.