Pahoua Hoffman poses for a portrait with her mother, Chia, inside of her mothers shop, Sew Simple in Minneapolis on Jan. 13th, 2021. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

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Pahoua Yang Hoffman started getting phone calls from friends and colleagues after the Saint Paul & Minnesota Foundation posted a job listing for a leadership position–specifically, her position. They’d ask her, “Why are you leaving?” Hoffman said.

Hoffman left her familiar job managing grants in Saint Paul for a field she says she knows little about: health care. Even though she isn’t an expert, Hoffman said she aims to address challenging questions about accessibility and equity in health care. And, she wants to bring her community along.

“When I was thinking about this job I thought, I’m constantly at doctor’s appointments with my mom,” Hoffman said. She added that she translates medical terminology for her Hmong mother at appointments. “That’s where I come from with this job, and every other job I’ve had: If I can make this make sense to my mom, then I think I can communicate this clearly to everybody.”

Hoffman, 47, announced Wednesday she would be trading in her current role as senior vice president at the Saint Paul & Minnesota Foundation for another one, this time at HealthPartners, the Bloomington-based company that is one of the state’s largest nonprofit health care providers and insurance companies. As the new senior vice president of government and community relations, Hoffman will be responsible for partnering with government agencies and local, state, and national organizations to improve community health and access to care.

For example, HealthPartners has worked with faith and cultural institutions to distribute information about the COVID-19 vaccine by building trust in medical professionals. Hoffman said she hopes to expand these partnerships with organizations like the Hmong American Partnership, the Minnesota chapter for the Council on American Islamic Relations, and Latino Communities United in Service.

Similar to her previous role, Hoffman will lead community engagement initiatives for HealthPartners’ patients and members. She’s hoping to host engagement events and roundtable discussions to learn more about the health care needs of marginalized communities. Hoffman said she’s choosing to switch sectors because of an urgent need for representation in the health care industry. 

Hoffman said if a patient isn’t interacting with diverse employees at a clinic, then the staff has to work harder to achieve cultural competency. 

“But then how do you make it known that you have this competency?” Hoffman added. “It’s harder to do unless you have representation on the employee chart. That’s why so many of us with refugee backgrounds, who are immigrants, who are people of color, we say representation matters.”

The New England Journal of Medicine reported in June that white men hold disproportionate power in health care systems. They constitute more than half of senior leaders, but only a quarter of physicians. The physicians who compiled the report added that Asians are well represented among physicians and medical students, but are underrepresented in executive positions in hospitals, medical schools, and government agencies. 

White people overall make up 88 percent of hospital leadership; just 4 percent of hospital leaders are Black, 2 percent are Latino, and 6 percent are Asian. Additionally, just 35 percent of leadership positions have gone to women.

“The pandemic has highlighted the extreme disparities in our healthcare system,” said Dr. Eric Jolly, president and chief executive officer of the Saint Paul & Minnesota Foundation. (Disclosure: Sahan Journal receives funding from the Saint Paul & Minnesota Foundation.) “I am comforted to know that Pahoua will bring a community-informed lens and insights from so many of our nonprofit partners to an issue that directly correlates to all Minnesotans’ well-being.”

A Minnesotan since 1976

Hoffman and her parents came to Minnesota as refugees from Laos in 1976. She was two years old at the time. Growing up, Hoffman said she was constantly involved in supporting her family and extended family. Now, Hoffman said she feels a strong responsibility to financially support nieces and nephews going to college and cousins who have fallen on hard times.

“Some of the ways that I help my community do not show up in, like, a Hmong-led organization. Many of the things we do, we do quietly through supporting family members to make sure they succeed when we do,” Hoffman said. “It’s this clanship and familial relationship support that I’m most proud of.”

Hoffman went to college at the University of Minnesota, where she studied history. She received her MBA in management at University of St. Thomas. Hoffman also completed a nine-month policy fellowship with the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota.

Hoffman currently lives with her husband south of downtown Minneapolis. They’ve lived there for about 16 years, and Hoffman still visits some of the pho restaurants on Nicollet Avenue, like Pho 79 and Quang Restaurant, that she visited as a kid. Still, she’s maintained a strong presence in Saint Paul’s city affairs and looks forward to working out of HealthPartners’ headquarters in Bloomington.

Community engagement and policymaking have been a throughline in her career. With the Saint Paul & Minnesota Foundation, Hoffman managed the organization’s community grants and oversaw applications from community organizations. For example, the Saint Paul & Minnesota Foundation funded nonprofit radio stations like KMOJ so that it could cover the trial of Derek Chauvin in multiple languages. Hoffman said the initiative highlighted the importance of nonprofit media stations beyond Minnesota Public Radio. 

Nadege Souvenir, the senior vice president of operations and learning for the Saint Paul & Minnesota Foundation, co-hosts a podcast with Hoffman called I So Appreciate You! There, Souvenir and Hoffman discuss leadership and workplace issues as two women of color working in philanthropy.

“I am very excited for my friend that she is stepping into this leadership role,” Souvenir said. “We are certainly sad to see her go, but the executive team is as strong as it’s ever been. Just as we welcomed Pahoua 18 months ago, we really look forward to welcoming somebody new.”

Prior to working with the Saint Paul & Minnesota Foundation, Hoffman served as the executive director for the Citizen’s League, a nonprofit and nonpartisan policy-making organization. 

Angelica Klebsch, a senior advisor for the Minnesota Attorney General’s Office, first met Hoffman in 2018, when they worked together through the Citizens League on St. Paul’s minimum wage ordinance. The city passed a $15 minimum wage in November 2018

“I learned a lot from working with Pahoua,” Klebsch said. “She likes to say, ‘We don’t have to have the answers, but we can find the people who do.’ She’s humble in that sense.”

Making medical treatment feel more familiar

Hoffman hopes to address racial disparities in health care by building trust between patients and providers. For example, Hoffman said, some immigrant patients may ground their health care in homeopathy, herbal medicine, or other culturally familiar practices. They may feel reluctant to see a Western doctor in a clinic out of fear of encountering judgment or disapproval.

“It’s going to impact the way our patients show up at our clinics, and it’s going to impact the advice and treatment,” Hoffman said. “There have been great improvements in our health care system of being aware: What are those things that different cultures hold? What are their fears about health care?

Representation on staff is one way to help a person feel more comfortable accepting care, Hoffman said. HealthPartners as an institution also has a responsibility to go further when engaging the community, Hoffman added.

“We’re really flipping that model of larger institutions just translating data, when it’s more than that,” Hoffman said. “It’s getting the right elders at the table. It’s being aware of what a community needs.” 

For example, Hmong gatherings are very different from Latino gatherings, which are very different from our Somali gatherings, she added.

Hoffman said she’s not blind to the difficulties of reaching people who are disconnected from the health care system. She said the industry will have to prioritize the lived experiences of real people just as much as subject matter experts. 

“That’s how you change the system. They need to feel the difference. They need to walk in and go, ‘Wow, the room is set up differently, the staff is talking to me in a different way,’” she said. “People are not going to feel comfortable in a space—or want to come back—if they don’t feel a sense of belonging.”

Hibah Ansari is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.