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Laura (Paj Zoo) Vu on Community Organizing, Mental Health & Energy Healing



Laura is a second-generation Hmong American raised by refugee parents who immigrated to the US after the Secret War in Laos. She was raised in Fresno, CA but is currently based in Sacramento, CA. She is the co-founder and Board Chair of Hmong Innovating Politics (HIP) and currently a Project Manager for the CHAN-BOF (California Hmong Advocates Network - Building Our Future) for Peace Collaborative. She is also a certified ThetaHealing practitioner.


Laura at North Laguna Creek Park in Sacramento, CA. (Photo by Faye Saechao)

Laura talks about her passion for social justice activism and community organizing and co-founding a non-profit. She also shares the expectations she faced from her culture being a Hmong woman, her struggles with mental health, and her spiritual healing journey through ThetaHealing. Read her full story below.

 

About a month after graduating with my Bachelor’s from the University of California, Davis in 2012, I was unemployed at the start of the economic recession recovery, and barely had any professional experience. If it weren’t for my older siblings who lived in Sacramento who were okay with supporting me for the time being while I was living with them, I would have had to return home to live with my parents back in Fresno. I started volunteering part-time at a nonprofit organization called Hmong Women’s Heritage Association. I wanted to expand my organizing skills and apply all the knowledge I gained from undergrad around social justice activism. I met with three other Hmong Women’s Heritage staff who introduced me to a few of their colleagues who were also Hmong professionals from other Southeast Asian-serving nonprofit organizations in Sacramento. We attended an upcoming meeting with Assemblymember Roger Dickinson’s staff who was meeting with Southeast Asian community members to share their communities’ issues, and express potential community solutions that he could help co-author a bill to push through the state legislature.


It was my first time physically attending a local representative’s office and it felt reassuring to go in with a group of young Hmong professionals in their 20s, sharing the belief that we had the voice and power to create change. During that meeting, the Chief of Staff shared that although Assemblymember Dickinson had Asian Americans friends and colleagues in the Capitol, he and his staff acknowledged that Southeast Asian American communities’ experiences and issues were often overshadowed by the Myth of the Model Minority.


This opportunity really inspired us, in which we realized we needed to be more organized and informed about our community, to continue meeting with Assemblymember Dickinson’s office for the months to come. After two more huddle meetings, we co-founded Hmong Innovating Politics (HIP) on July 13, 2012, in which I have been an organizer during its grassroots years, and became and currently the Board Chair as HIP transitioned into a nonprofit organization. HIP now has paid staff who are leading the work on the ground in both Sacramento and Fresno, and it is an honor to support young people who are moving the community and inspiring change.

"It is an honor to support young people who are moving the community and inspiring change. "

Today, in my full-time paid job, I work as a Project Manager for the CHAN-BOF (California Hmong Advocates Network - Building Our Future) for Peace Collaborative, which is a multi-county and community-driven collaborative consisting of Hmong survivors, advocates, organizers, professionals and community members, who are committed to end gender-based violence by engaging the Hmong community to shift cultural norms that are harmful to youth, LGBTQIA+, and women. I have also been an organizer in the California Chapter of Building Our Future (B.O.F.), an international community campaign launched in 2013. BOF California chapter partnered with California Hmong Advocates Network (CHAN) in late 2018 to pursue a grant opportunity to merge both networks to create CHAN-BOF for Peace Collaborative in the last two years. We successfully got regranted for two more years to continue our community engagement work, in which I took on the Project Manager role that began in April 2021. Lastly, I am also a certified ThetaHealing practitioner and am also certified to teach the ThetaHealing seminars: Basic DNA, Advance DNA, and Dig Deeper. I practice and use this energy-healing modality for maintaining my health, spiritual self-development, and to energetically heal my loved ones, ancestors, clients, environment, as well as to teach others who are also seeking to be healed, and their journey in healing others.

Laura with Faye, the co-founder of SEAT in Sacramento, CA. (Photo by Faye Saechao)

How do you identify yourself (ethnically or culturally)? And what intersections do you consider you have with your identity?


I ethnically identify as Hmong. The intersections of my identity are also being second-generation, unmarried, childless Hmong woman in her early 30s as well as a working professional living independently in another town outside of my parents home. This was all made possible because of the privileges I received to be allowed, encouraged and supported by my immediate and extended family to pursue higher education away from home, and continue building my career without having to marry. This was, and may still be, a cultural norm for Hmong parents to not allow their daughters to move out of the house, and especially not out of town, without being married to a Hmong man this long. And I still remember from my graduating high school class of 2008, my friends who were also Hmong daughters, shared with me that moving out of their parents’ house for college was not an option for them, especially without marriage.

"This was, and may still be, a cultural norm for Hmong parents to not allow their daughters to move out of the house, and especially not out of town, without being married to a Hmong man this long. "

I also consider my cisgender and heterosexual identities as an intersection of who I am, as a reminder of the privileges that I have to continuously disrupt and dismantle beliefs, practices, behaviors and attitudes that are harmful to our LGBTQIA+ siblings and friends. Being a temporarily abled-bodied person is an intersection of my identity as well, because it is a privilege to have an abled body. It is important for me to remember that it is only temporary, and to also remember that those who have a disability experience a lot more hardship and oppression due to the societal conditions that tend to only center access for able-bodied people.


What causes or issues in the US / world affecting the Southeast Asian community are you passionate about, would like to see change or more advocacy in?


I have been and still am, very passionate about causes that are intersectional, and rooted in social justice, equity, liberation and solidarity. This means that there can always be more resources and funding available and invested in advocacy, building power and movement, as well as collective healing around boldly pushing forth community-led strategies and solutions that aim to address the systematic oppression and violence rooted in white supremacy, U.S. capitalistic imperialism, and patriarchy. This would create changes to the oppressive social and economic barriers and conditions that continue to limit Southeast Asian communities in the U.S., as well as abroad. Many Southeast Asian American millennials like myself experience the intergenerational trauma we inherited from our grandparents and parents, after witnessing the recent withdrawal of U.S. troops in Afghanistan. The circulation of the photos on social media that mirrored Southeast Asian refugees gathered to get on the planes to flee after the fall of Saigon in 1975 that ended both the Vietnam War and Secret War in Laos, to the Afghan people desperately trying to board the planes to flee Kabul for their lives and safety in August 2021. Remembering and knowing how much our grandparents and parents sacrificed and suffered in silence from fighting a war waged by the U.S., then families being left to fend on their own to figure out how to safely flee just to then resettle in foreign countries and live through many decades in poverty and racism; it is an exhausting, saddening and soul-crushing repetition of history.

"Many Southeast Asian American millennials like myself experience the intergenerational trauma we inherited from our grandparents and parents, after witnessing the recent withdrawal of U.S. troops in Afghanistan. "

Not only is the general American public still very ignorant about the socio-political history of who, why and how Southeast Asian American communities came to the U.S. as refugees after 46 years ago, this also makes it very difficult for the general American public to understand how the rise of anti-Asian hate crimes from the pandemic, as well as the continuous state violence to deport formerly incarcerated Southeast Asian refugees who have already served time, are all interconnected to the same racist and xenophobic policies and systems that target, oppress and pit communities of color against each other. And it is oftentimes youth, women, LGBTQ folks from these communities that experience the most harm and with little to no visibility of their issues ever being acknowledged, nor addressed.


Currently, I am most passionate about collective healing, and transforming culture and community towards making lasting changes to outdated harmful systems, so that current and future generations can thrive with safety, optimal health and opportunities. After many years of social justice community organizing, I knew it was my calling to become an energy-healer and embed the modalities I’ve learned and practice into my job now, as well as the other community-related spaces I am a part of.

Laura in a Southeast Asian Liberation Sheroes t-shirt highlighting Hmong women by Freedom Inc.

What social, economic/financial or cultural barriers did you encounter? And how did you overcome them (if at all)?


A social barrier that I encountered growing up as a Southeast Asian American youth in Clovis, CA, was definitely racism. In high school, perhaps one of the most confusing and traumatizing systemic racism I experienced was believing that I was doing everything right, but instead, found myself being interrogated by the Vice Principal as though I had committed a crime. Under the guidance of two amazing Hmong women from the community who volunteered to mentor me and my high school Asian American peers, we organized a leadership retreat for the Asian club that was to be held on our high school campus. The Asian club advisor, who was African American and staffed as a campus monitor, shared with me all the proper protocols and paperwork to submit for reserving the cafeteria on a Saturday afternoon to host the Asian club leadership retreat, and he even signed his commitment to open the facilities and participate with us. A few days before the retreat happened, the Vice Principal called me into his office, and waiting with him was the club advisor, the club president, and the white woman counselor who was assigned to “support” Asian club. The Vice Principal questioned my lack of communication and transparency with the club president and the white woman counselor, whom both have told him they were unaware of the event happening that upcoming Saturday. He kept cutting me off every time I tried to explain myself. The club advisor would try to help explain as well, and with every attempt he made, he was completely ignored or talked over by the Vice Principal. It wasn’t until the white woman counselor then recommended to the Vice Principal that he should permit Asian club to still have the retreat even though she was not going to be there, because she trusted that the club advisor, as well as the Hmong women mentors who have committed to support, and the students had a lot of excitement to attend and participate. The Vice Principal then turned over to look at me, and said that the only reason why he was comfortable proceeding to approve the reservation for us so that we can have the leadership retreat in the cafeteria was due to the counselor’s recommendation. At that moment, my body shook uncontrollably and I broke into tears. I was overwhelmed with anger, sadness, fear, relief, stress, and I just couldn’t speak anymore. I stood up and tried to jet out of that room as fast as I could. The club advisor gave me a pat on my shoulder and reminded me that I was doing a good job while handing me tissues, and the club president gave me a hug before I stormed off to the bathroom.

"He then also revealed that he was hesitant in approving Asian club to have a leadership retreat, because he was concerned on how it would make white students feel, and then the school would be questioned why there isn’t a white club."

After processing with my mentor and considering her feedback to be more direct and honest in my writing, I wrote a letter to the Vice Principal. I wanted to let him know how his actions impacted me that day, as well as how important it was to have a leadership retreat for Asian club members, because we needed our own space to understand how we fit and belong on campus and strategize together how to continue engaging other Asian American students. He called me back into his office the next day to talk about it, and I was naive to go alone. With a much softer and more gentle tone, he thanked me for the letter, and explained himself by justifying that he was harsh to me because he thought we were plotting to take advantage of the school facilities to do whatever we want, and that his job is to maintain safety. He said that he would have declined the reservation request just like if the skateboarding club wanted to use campus facilities for skateboarding activities. I took that as him comparing our leadership activities as dangerous as students skateboarding on campus, because skateboarding anywhere near the premises was prohibited. He then also revealed that he was hesitant in approving Asian club to have a leadership retreat, because he was concerned on how it would make white students feel, and then the school would be questioned why there isn’t a white club, and if Asian club was permitted to have a leadership retreat, why couldn’t white students have one as well. I was even more shocked, and thus, remained speechless the whole time, because it was apparent that he did not read my letter to him, which pointed out that the school already offers a leadership class with mainly white students who had the connections to receive recommendations and approval to be able to enroll into the course. I left that meeting with a lot of confusion, but I had low expectations so I wasn’t disappointed. I was lucky that I had a lot of support going through that process as a young person, and even though everything worked out in the end, it helped me understand why there was and still so much work to undo racism in our American society.

The other social and cultural barrier I continue to experience myself or witness happen to other Hmong, Southeast Asian and Asian American women is gender-based violence and racial oppression. In March 2021, when the anti-Asian hate crime happened in Atlanta, Georgia, where a shooter killed 8 people, 6 of which were Asian American women, 3 Hmong women’s lives were also lost due to domestic violence homicide that following weekend: Bao Yang in Minnesota; Lilly Vang in Wisconsin, and True Vang in California. I had to really pause with each passing tragedy, to reflect about the message it was sending to other women. I recognized that it was really painful for myself and for others, to be reminded again of how devalued and disposable a woman’s life is, and particularly being Asian in this country in addition to also being a Hmong woman within the Hmong community. Though I also shared shock, re-traumatization and grief alongside the many Hmong women that I build community with, in three days I somehow still managed to find the willpower, strength and energy to collaborate in coordinating and co-hosting a virtual national healing event for over 100 Hmong women and LGBTQ folks who gathered to connect, support and hold space together in March 2021, right after all the tragic events.

Overcoming these barriers was always made possible because of the leadership, support, investment, mentorship, and relationships with the many Hmong women and Hmong Queer folks in my birth, soul and movement families throughout my life. My partner of over 16 years has played a crucial role in always reminding me of my self-worth, to prioritize myself and my dreams, and he has always supported all of my endeavors, life decisions, and even during the moments when I forgot or could not self-care, he took care of me.


Laura in her favorite meditative position.

What are your thoughts on mental health? How do you perform self-care? What has helped you?

When I look back, I have had several experiences and opportunities to really understand the importance of maintaining mental health.

In middle school, I enrolled into a Peer Counseling class. This class became very helpful to me in the 7th grade when I experienced a lot of bullying due to racism and sexism in those first 6 months. I believe this was probably due to the fact that I went to a predominantly white school and surrounded myself with mainly white friends who were unable to relate to my Hmong struggles and background. I remember coming home after school to cry in the shower for about a week, thinking about how I didn’t matter and the world would be okay without me. The only outlet I thought I had during that time in my life was being in the Peer Counseling class, in which I asked one of my white classmates if they would like to practice processing with me. I shared with her the thoughts I was having. Although I knew that she would have to report our conversation back to the teacher, I thought I kept it vague enough that what I shared wouldn’t be escalated to the school psychologist as suicide ideation. After that session, I felt better and decided to diversify friends, reconnect with my roots and make Hmong friends who also attended the same school. Though I moved on, made new friends, and finally felt a little safer going to school, the school psychologist was alerted about my conversation, because I was called in to talk to him about suicidal ideation. It was so uncomfortable that I didn’t say anything and just sat there listening to him. I don’t remember what he said to me, but something about managing stress better. My mother was also alerted and it wasn’t until sophomore year that she was able to bring up how worried she was and how she couldn’t understand why I would have those thoughts of taking my own life. I remember crying with her and assuring her that I would never have those thoughts again, but I did not have the courage nor the Hmong language capacity then to go into detail with her and really share with her what I went through at school.

The great part about coming out from that experience at 13 years old was that I had an outlet to process my thoughts and feelings through peer counseling. And when I made new friends who also shared my identity as a Hmong girl, I was able to utilize my privileges from peer counseling class, and rotate each week to pull one of my Hmong girl friends out of their class during that same period, to talk and hangout, as long as we remained on campus. I believe it really helped my friends as well as myself, and realize that it was a very rare opportunity for someone like me to provide that kind of mental health support for other Hmong girls attending a predominantly white middle school.

"To ground myself and cope through school with the random panic attacks, I decided to do what I loved most, which is community organizing."

My experiences with managing my mental health continued as I got older. During my second year of college, I had a mental breakdown. I went through a 5-day episode in which I never received a professional mental health diagnosis. Instead, the bloodwork at the time revealed that I had an overproduction of thyroid hormones (hyperthyroidism) which caused the insomnia that led to the bi-polar-like symptoms. And even after I came out of the episode, it was about a good year and a half until I felt like myself again. To ground myself and cope through school with the random panic attacks, I decided to do what I loved most, which is community organizing. I got involved in Hmong Student Union at UC Davis as a conference coordinator. My thyroid has been stabilized upon graduating college, and fortunately, I have not relapsed into another insomniac episode since then. This experience really taught me to prioritize maintaining my whole health (mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual), because if I didn’t, school, work or anyone is not going to prioritize it for me. I did not want to ever go through another mental breakdown episode again, where I cannot even take care of myself and be unable to do the things I love and want to do.

This mindset of prioritizing my health, as well as my passion of community organizing over the years, has led me to the path of an energy-healing practitioner, in which I use for my own self-care, develop my spiritual gifts and sharpen my intuitive abilities.

"Practicing ThetaHealing has really shown me that we are far more capable and powerful than we were taught to believe, and healing and making changes as an individual as well as a collective with a quickness is truly possible, in this time more than ever."

The ThetaHealing technique, founded by Vianna Stibal, has tremendously helped me energetically heal my limiting beliefs created from traumas in this lifetime, generational and historical traumas I inherited from my ancestors, past lives or the collective consciousness throughout time on Earth, as well as wounds I may have carried in my soul through the many and in-between incarnations. I had three years of practicing Thetahealing before the pandemic hit, in which I became really familiar at being able to discern the various types of energies (whether it was mine or not) and be able to shift, change or transform those energies with ThetaHealing.

The pandemic itself has been a prolonged year and a half of heightened anxiety, fear, anger, and uncertainty, in which there were many days that I was fine, due to working from home with a job wasn’t at all stressful before and even during the pandemic, yet I would have to energetically clear my body, space and home multiple times throughout the day, because of how much of those dense energies were being felt, shared or released in the area I lived in, the people I was connected to, or even picking it up from social media or the news. Practicing ThetaHealing has really shown me that we are far more capable and powerful than we were taught to believe, and healing and making changes as an individual as well as a collective with a quickness is truly possible, in this time more than ever.

6. What resources or role models/ representation did you wish you had growing up?


The representation I wished I had growing up was more of Southeast Asian women in the arts, sports, politics, education, health, law and in leadership positions in general. The truth is, I am super grateful and blessed to live during a time to witness, celebrate and draw inspiration from the many Hmong women who pioneered and became the first in their families as well as in their field; from having an older sister pursuing her academic career in theater arts, to having older girl cousins with one in each field (education, health, law, counseling naturopathy, massage therapy), as well as my aunts who are nurses during this time of the pandemic.

When I was a teenager, I am thankful that my grandma and mother insisted I tag along with them and my younger sisters to see former Minnesota Senator Mee Moua of Hmong descent, who spoke at a community event. I grew up to see that she later inspired and continues to support many current and upcoming Hmong leaders to run campaigns that either win political office or pass impactful policies.

"It was really amazing to feel the pride of witnessing the recent olympic gold medalist, Sunisa Lee, who really visiblized Southeast Asian Americans, and particularly Hmong people on the global stage."

In my 20s, I was so lucky to meet, learn from, and build community with the countless Hmong women throughout the US who became board members or executive directors of non-profit organizations they co-founded or lead programs that serve Southeast Asian and API communities; those who served in high leadership positions whether that is a political office, an API commission or advising role to President Obama or the governor’s office, as well as the very rare and few Hmong women in philanthropy that gift grants to impactful community work. If I did write it out, I would have a very long list of Hmong women who have been and are continuously moving mountains.

And of course, it was really amazing to feel the pride of witnessing the recent olympic gold medalist, Sunisa Lee, who really visiblized Southeast Asian Americans, and particularly Hmong people on the global stage. Her achievements meant a lot to Hmong girls and women around the world because it revealed how far our great grandmothers, grandmas, aunties, mothers and sisters could have gone to reach their dreams, had they also been supported and invested in to pursue fields that were historically and traditionally only allowed for sons and men.

What would you like to say to young SEAAs that you wish you heard growing up?

Do your best to keep on prioritizing yourself, all aspects of your health, well-being and healing, and never ever stop creating and manifesting your wildest dreams into this reality, so that you can also share your passions and joy with your loved ones and the world.



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