Marny Xiong, the 31-year-old board chair of the St. Paul Public Schools, died Sunday of coronavirus. Friends, family, and colleagues remembered her as a courageous leader and loving family member. Credit: Harry Vue Media

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Marny Xiong’s passion for making sure nothing would stand in the way of students’ access to an education developed at a young age.

One morning as she was getting off the bus to go to her St. Paul elementary school, a bully stood blocking the doorway, her older sister Amee recalled. Other kids stood around, not sure what to do. Marny just pushed the bully aside, telling him they needed to get through to go to class.

“Marny was always a leader,” Amee Xiong said. “As she became an adult, she stood up against those bullies.”

Marny Xiong, the board chair of the St. Paul Public Schools, died on Sunday after a month-long battle with the coronavirus. She was 31. 

Friends, family, and colleagues remember her as a courageous leader with a clear vision for racial and gender equity, as well as a loving family member with a joyful spirit, infectious smile, and sense of humor that put others at ease.

“She was dedicated to her learning community,” said Jamil Payton, the principal of Hmong International Academy, where Marny worked as a school administrative manager. “She was dedicated to education. She was dedicated to interrupting institutionalized and systemic racism that puts up barriers to students of color.”

“She wanted to make sure that everybody could not only participate, but that everybody felt valued,” said Joe Gothard, the superintendent of St. Paul Public Schools.

Marny grew up as the fourth of eight children of Zahoua Xiong and See Xiong. Her parents, a farmer and the daughter of a military leader, fled Laos to a refugee camp in Thailand and arrived in Minnesota as political refugees in 1986. She and her siblings grew up in public housing in St. Paul and attended public schools. Her father earned a high school diploma as an adult, which helped him land a stable job as a technician at a company that makes hearing aids, while her mom stayed home to raise the kids. From her parents, Marny learned about education, hard work, and her grandfather’s leadership in the military. 

“Our family taught us about giving back to the community and being a public servant,” Amee Xiong said. “So that’s why Marny went into activism and being a public servant and serving the community.”

In high school, Marny attended a weeklong program for Southeast Asian students at Stanford University. There she saw reenactments of what it was like to live through the Vietnam War and escape Laos by crossing the Mekong River, as her parents had. She realized she hadn’t learned Hmong history in school, Amee said, and wanted to make sure these missing narratives were taught in the classroom.

As a student at the University of Minnesota–Duluth, Marny became involved with the Black Students Association. One of the group’s goals was to push the administration for a minor in African and African-American studies. They were successful, and Marny, a political science major, became one of the first students to graduate with this minor.

At the University of Minnesota–Duluth, Marny joined the Black Students Association and successfully campaigned for an African and African-American studies minor. Photo courtesy Amee Xiong

After graduating, she worked as an organizer for TakeAction Minnesota and SEIU Healthcare. For the past four years, Marny worked at Hmong International Academy in north Minneapolis as a school administrative manager.

“Kids light up when they go into Marny’s office,” said Payton, the principal of HIA, still speaking of her in the present tense. She would frequently sit down with students who were having trouble at home or in the classroom, and leave staff meetings if a student asked for her. “She was always willing to make sure that families and our students were taken care of,” Payton said. “If a kid missed the bus, she’d be willing to take them home.”

Nelsie Yang, who is now a St. Paul City Council Member, got to know Marny during her school board campaign in 2017. She described Marny as a mentor who encouraged her to step out of the traditional submissive role of Hmong women.

“For me as a Hmong American woman, seeing how bold and outspoken Marny was really showed me that I could do that too,” Yang said. “Marny is somebody who really inspired me and moved me to show up courageously and be bold as well.”

Marny and a team of volunteers door-knocking for her school board campaign. Credit: Courtesy Amee Xiong

Be Vang, the principal of Harding Senior High School, recalled that after Marny was elected to the school board, her parents held a blessing ceremony for her. Traditionally in this ceremony, a table full of male elders would offer blessings. But Marny invited three women, including Vang, to join the table. Vang had never seen that before, and hasn’t seen it since.

“Here’s this young woman who is courageous enough to say to the traditions of the Hmong people, I’m going to step out of the status quo, I’m going to put three Hmong women at my table to bless me, even though culture says only men can sit at this table,” Vang said. 

Marny is inaugurated into the St. Paul School Board, accompanied by her parents. Credit: Harry Vue Media

Marny’s ability to bring new voices to the table and listen to the community was evident in how she spearheaded the board’s resolution recognizing Hmong American Day, Vang said. Marny called Vang and asked what her students thought about the idea. The students said they wanted to go talk to the school board about it. The resolution passed with student input.

“Marny has always been a stable, consistent, present leader,” said Gothard, the superintendent.

Marny became board chair of the St. Paul Public Schools in January. Shortly after she became chair, she took a lead role in contract negotiations with the teachers union, and worked closely with Gothard in negotiating an end to the strike. While he had initially doubted someone as young as Marny was ready to be board chair, she proved him wrong.

“During negotiations she showed such strength and courage and tenacity,” Gothard said.

Gothard said Marny challenged his assumptions and pushed him to grow into a better, more equity-minded leader. “She forced me to really think about my own values,” he said. “It wasn’t a boulder over my head, it was a critical friend way of doing it. Marny’s the type of person who would disagree and at the same time say, ‘I believe in you, Joe.’ ”

One of her last acts on the school board was to bring the board together to compose a statement condemning the heightened xenophobia around COVID-19. Under Marny’s leadership, all the board members contributed to the statement, and the board read the statement in chorus, Gothard said.

Marny played hard as well as worked hard, Yang said. She loved spending time with friends and family, and enjoyed bringing people together to play games. “She’s somebody who’s so great at making other people laugh,” Yang said. “She has a really contagious, joyful vibe.”

Amee, Marny, and their mother See celebrating the Hmong New Year. Credit: Courtesy Amee Xiong

The Xiong family is very close, Amee said, and siblings have a tradition of surprising each other with birthday cake. Marny was usually the one to pick up the cake. She provided the flowers and the decorations for several of her siblings’ weddings, and stayed up in the hospital with her sister when Amee’s young daughter needed a bone marrow transplant.

Marny and her father became ill with the coronavirus around the same time. Despite her own illness, her main concern was her father, who was afraid to go into the hospital. She wanted to go with him. Her father was released from the hospital on Memorial Day. But after a month in a different hospital, Marny died. 

Traditionally, funerals in the Hmong community last three days, and visitors from around the country would come to pay their respects to someone of Marny’s stature, Vang said. But those multi-day ceremonies can’t happen now due to the coronavirus pandemic.

A one-day cultural funeral will be held at the Legacy Chapel East on Friday, June 26 from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. at 255 Eaton Street in St. Paul, with a memorial program at 3 p.m. A burial service will be held on Saturday, June 27 at 10 a.m. in St. Paul’s Oakland Cemetery. Her family has set up a GoFundMe to help pay for medical and funeral expenses. 

“Her dream was to work really hard so she could buy a house for my parents, so they would live with her forever,” Amee said. “It’s so sad that that won’t happen.”

“I believe Marny was on her way to doing some pretty awesome things in terms of policies and government,” Payton said. “I think she could have been our first Hmong female governor.”

Nelsie Yang said she felt a deep sense of injustice at Marny’s death, because her death and all the others related to the coronavirus were preventable. It’s difficult to lose Marny, a leader who put people first, because the federal response to coronavirus prioritized protecting wealth instead of people, she said.

“I think that Marny would want people to know that her death was really unjust,” she said. “There is nothing in the world more precious and valuable than people, and our lives are not disposable and they shouldn’t be.”

Marny leaves a legacy as a role model for students, Gothard said. “Every student who comes through our system can look at her as a real example and real role model as someone who gives to the community, someone who was courageous to run for an elected office, and someone who just worked tirelessly to make sure this community could be represented at the highest level of its school district,” he said.

Be Vang said Marny will be remembered for her work in breaking barriers.

“Her legacy is showing up for the work and pulling people in, building bridges for multiple different communities,” Vang said. “And as a fellow educator, the legacy that means the most to me is elevating student voices.”

“I will always work hard to try to represent what Marny believed in,” Gothard said. “I feel it’s my duty to do that.”

Becky Z. Dernbach is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.

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Becky Z. Dernbach is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.