Growing up in one of the few Asian families in her Wisconsin neighborhood, ThaoMee Xiong saw how hard her immigrant parents worked; she felt the sting of prejudice and witnessed the impact of the legal system. It inspired her to pursue a career promoting racial justice, community building, and civic leadership.
Along the way, she has held leadership positions across the nation in politics, the nonprofit world, and in the law. Her next step will be charting a path as the new executive and network director at the rapidly growing Coalition of Asian American Leaders nonprofit based in St. Paul.
“I think my skill set of public policy expertise, legal training, and community organizing movement building will really add to shaping the future of CAAL,” Xiong said.
CAAL was started in 2013 by a group of Minnesota Asian American leaders as a network advancing equity through public policy, resource development and leadership programming.
Xiong grew up in Appleton, Wisconsin as the middle child with six sisters and two brothers. She remembers her parents both working full-time jobs to support the family. They were among the few Asian families in her neighborhood.
Her father was the janitor at the Catholic school she attended, and Xiong said she had immense pride that he worked there.
But there also was the taunting – “every racial slur possible, “ Xiong recalled. ” My dad would fight them away, and it makes me sad to even think about.”
Xiong’s mom worked in different factories, and Xiong says she was treated poorly at work, as well. In 1982, when Vincent Chin, a Chinese American was brutally murdered in Michigan, Xiong said one of her mom’s white co-workers threatened to kill her, as well.
The biggest turning point for Xiong was when one of her uncles, a Hmong leader in the community, was charged with child abuse. Her uncle was jailed and committed suicide there before pre-trial proceedings even began, she said.
“He killed himself because he was so ashamed of being embarrassed in the criminal justice system,” said Xiong. “Because the immediate reaction from law enforcement was to detain and arrest and incarcerate, and he was a strong Hmong leader in our community at that time.”
From that moment on, Xiong said she developed a deep dedication to understand government institutions to navigate and advocate for individuals without resources.
College and professional experience
Growing up, Xiong said her parents wanted her to go to college and become an independent, professional Hmong woman – something Xiong herself was keen to do. But they also wanted her to be an obedient Hmong wife who listened to her husband and in-law’s side of the family.
Despite the contradicting messages, Xiong said this was her parents’ way to prepare her for the challenges of work and family.
She attended Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts, designing a major in Community, Identity and Culture. After graduation in 1998, she went on to Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs and earned a master’s degree in Public Administration.
Following that, she earned a law degree at the University of Pennsylvania’s Carey Law School in 2005.
By the time she left law school, Xiong said she spent almost a decade on the East Coast, which significantly shaped the person she is today.
While at Mount Holyoke, one of her mentors, Beverly Daniel Tatum, was writing her award-winning book “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?: And Other Conversations About Race” Xiong said her name is included in the book and Tatum helped Xiong at the time when Asian American students in her college were pushing to demand for an Asian American Studies Department.
“The teachers that were helping us fight for Asian American Studies were actually African American teachers,” said Xiong.
In 2006, she moved to Minnesota, and when CAAL was started, she began volunteering for it, helping build its identity in policy-making, legislation and lobbying.
In 2017, Xiong led the legislative strategy at CAAL to pass the Nonprofit Infrastructure Grant Program with bipartisan support, which allocated around half a million dollars to cultural nonprofit organizations. Starting last year, the bill was changed to allocate one million to cultural nonprofit organizations for the next two years.
In a Feb. 9 statement, CAAL said Xiong was instrumental in getting the 2017 legislation passed, and that she has “has strategically led the team to develop policy and community building efforts that continue CAAL’s community-centered approach.”
Xiong also held positions in state and city government, as director of intergovernmental affairs for the city of St. Paul, and director of the Center for Health Equity at the Minnesota Department of Health. Those positions aligned with the goals of her volunteer work at CAAL, she said.
Last fall, CAAL announced Xiong would take on a new role as deputy director alongside the organization’s leader, Bo Thao-Urabe, whom she has known since they were growing up in Appleton. Last week, announced Xiong’s promotion to the top position. Thao-Urabe will transition to the role of senior adviser and help Xiong move into the leadership role.
“CAAL’s ready for its next chapter. Most changes happen every five to 10 years and we’re hitting almost the 10 year mark for CAAL, and I’m just really honored to be leading this team and to its next chapter,” Xiong said.
In the next couple of months, CAAL will go through an assessment stage to plan the future.
Xiong said she plans to “stay true to the roots of CAAL” by continuing to expand the organization, deepen relationships with leaders, as well as build on its current work in public policy.
Although Xiong is less than a week into the position, one of her major goals for CAAL is to focus on gathering and analyzing data specific to Asian communities.
“Bo has really positioned CAAL well to move into the next decade.” Xiong said. “So I’m really excited to carry on this legacy and work with the community to shape the status of Asian Minnesotans here.