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Sheeso Moua has always been on the lookout for the next big thing. Over the years, the self-described serial entrepreneur learned foreign exchange trading, launched a Hmong men’s clothing brand, and ran a car repair shop for 15 years in Madison, Wisconsin.
But meeting Mai Thao in the Twin Cities shifted his focus from making a success of himself to making the Hmong community stronger and healthier. Thao challenged him to use his tech savvy to help her take on a culture of toxic masculinity that can lead to domestic abuse.
The result is the Hmong Men Talk Podcast, a show that invites Hmong men to do something they rarely do, open up about the mistakes they’ve made, and offers advice on how to avoid them in the future. Since launching more than a year ago, Moua and Thao have released more than 50 episodes of the hour-long program featuring Hmong men living across the United States.
The podcast, hosted in both English and Hmong, has covered topics including domestic violence, defining a healthy married life, challenging Hmong traditions, mental health, and how to break barriers in different industries. It doesn’t stop there. In the future, they dream about collecting stories in a book that would give young people some positive examples, while reaching Hmong communities outside the United States.
It’s not that Moua was unaware of the problem when he met Thao. But it’s a lot more than he bargained for when they first met.
“When I was networking and dating, I would meet Hmong women repeating things to me about Hmong men, their husbands or ex-partners, about domestic violence and other toxic stuff,” said Moua.
Thao was recently removed from what she said was an emotionally and physically abusive relationship when the two met in the Twin Cities for coffee. They started talking about their passions, Thao said. Due to her experience and stories she heard from other women, domestic violence was an important issue for her.
Her solution was creating a space where Hmong men could talk about how to improve their relationships with women and lead healthier lives.
“Sheeso is a very tech savvy guy and he was protective of his Hmong brothers,” she said. So she pushed him to step up.
“I have boys of my own, and I wanted them to see examples that Hmong men are successful,” she said.
But finding men willing to go on the show has been a constant struggle.
One approach they’ve tried is a table talk, a monthly themed conversation including multiple Hmong men.
“The problem with men is they don’t like talking about their feelings,” said Moua. “This goes for all cultures, but for Hmong men—the toxic masculinity, the domestic violence, and of course the cultural part of it too, the patriarchal aspect of it, some of it still carries into this generation.”
Finding men willing to discuss it was a big enough problem that Moua took a month-long break this past July. Meanwhile, Thao unleashed her inner detective, doing deep dives on Facebook and asking friends for recommendations.
When Thao finds a match, she sets up a pre-interview with the guest and Moua.
“We always have a first introduction meeting. I know when we come on they might change their mind, because their story is out there and open.” said Thao. “We also give the option for the guest to be anonymous, because it takes a lot for a man to say that they were beating on their girlfriend or whomever.”
A pervasive culture of male dominance
Pheng Thao, founder of Man Forward, a Minnesota-based organization working to end gender based violence by promoting equity and redefining masculinity, believes that it is important to understand the root causes of domestic violence in the Hmong community.
Hmong culture grants men privilege and power in the community and the household, he said. This male privilege makes it challenging for Hmong families to intervene when domestic violence commences.
“When domestic violence happens, the man’s family will first address the issue with the couple. If they can’t resolve it, then her family will talk to his family to resolve it,” said Pheng Thao. “Instead of resolving the issue, they look at what the woman did wrong. They will say she needs to do this, with the consequence being that he needs to stop hitting her.”
In Hmong culture, men are believed to be holders of rituals and spirituality, which elevates their status. In contrast, women often find themselves trapped in dangerous relationships.
Kab Zhua Vaj, the co-founder and co-executive director of Freedom Inc., also believes that domestic violence has its roots in Hmong tradition. Working as a domestic violence advocate for over a decade, Vaj believes that the patriarchal Hmong society needs to do a better job of supporting women.
Hmong women who suffer domestic violence or get divorced may have no place to go, she said. “They often suffer great mental health issues, because they have not had a source of support,” said Vaj. “As a Hmong woman, because you’re someone else’s family, we can no longer have communication with our birth family.”
Vaj thinks a podcast could be a great way to reach the Hmong community, but she also has some concerns.
“I think [podcasts] are reaching out to audiences [domestic violence activists] would never reach out to. Even my 76-year-old mom listens to podcasts and watches YouTube,” said Vaj. “Especially with communities like ours, where storytelling is so important, where reading and writing wasn’t essential till the 1950s, media is a great medium. Now, who is telling the story is really important.”
“I’m an organizer and I believe in moving communities and changing hearts and minds of people through connection, but I still believe in doing for people and making sure basic needs are met,” Vaj added. “I hope that we can adapt to the new ways, but that we don’t lose connection.”
Pheng Thao, one of the first guests of the podcast, also thinks storytelling can be a powerful tool. During his conversation with the show’s hosts, he urged them to create a platform that would go beyond sharing Hmong men stories.
“I hope the podcast will explore men’s vulnerabilities and how they navigate the rigidity of being men and not excusing their behavior,” Thao said. The demands of a patriarchal society can’t be used to justify abusive behavior.
“The way that we talk about Hmong men’s trauma, like the Vietnam war and Laos, their trauma doesn’t give them the excuse to beat everyone in the house, ” he said. Nor should it be an excuse to drink excessively, he added.
Despite challenges, optimism about podcast’s possibilities
Even though the podcast is all about Hmong men, Mai Thao wants to make sure that women’s stories are reflected, as well. “We are going to treat it properly,” she said “I want to make sure that these stories don’t overshadow the women’s stories at all. We need to make sure we are not putting blame on the women as well.”
As the podcast grows, Moua and Thao are thinking about how to provide additional services outside of the podcast to help Hmong men with their mental health and toxic masculinity.
“The ultimate goal is a Hmong men conference,” added Moua, “I would love to bring in Hmong specialists, panelists, folks with expertise, to come to the conference to talk about mental health and other important issues.”
“We believe that we are doing a great thing and service for our community,” said Thao. “I hope that in the future the stories will get out there more and maybe get printed in a book, so that our children can see what success looks like.”
Thao also dreams of growing their influence to Hmong communities around the globe.
“We hope that Hmong Men Talk could help with education and help teaching English in schools in Laos,” she said. “In Laos, men are still in power, and we hope we could bring these stories over there and highlight that men and women could work together side by side.”
To accomplish these lofty goals, both Moua and Thao recognize that they need to continue building their audience and telling stories with nuance and accountability.
“I’m not doing the podcast because of me,” said Thao. “It’s for our Hmong brothers and Hmong men. There is an area in our community where we can help Hmong men.”
Moua, who moved to Minnesota last spring, is committed to challenging Hmong men to have vulnerable conversations about masculinity, Hmong tradition, relationships and growth.
“I wanted to start something new here in Minnesota,” he said.
“I’m trying to build an ecosystem with the Hmong fashion and the Hmong Men Talk podcast that empowers, educates and shares the stories of our Hmong men, who are in need of help or in need of change to be the best versions of themselves.”