The Youth Leadership Initiative Empowered Me to Believe that My Voice Matters and I Can Make a Difference
Hello everyone, I am Theng Yeng Xiong, an alumna of the Amherst H. Wilder Foundation Youth Leadership initiative. The Youth Leadership Initiative is a multicultural leadership program that develops and equips young people to be leaders in the community. I joined Youth Leadership Initiative when I was 15 years old, about seven years ago. I call this place my second home because I was here about 3-4 days a week after school. This program is what made my high schools years most memorable.
I started this program as a quiet and shy girl and graduated being a person who asks many questions and is very expressive of my feelings. YLI has taught me to self-aware and understand who I am and my place in this world. It was the first time that I was culturally aware of who I was and how I was similar and different from others. It made me aware that I could make a difference in my own community. It activated me to be ambitious and to dream. I dreamed of being in this multicultural community that supports everybody to thrive in who they are and to be leaders of their community. YLI empowers youth to believe that their voices matter and can make a difference.
I learned in YLI that I could do something and make a difference, and it started with taking initiative. I developed a passion for creating the community I wanted. I began with my self-knowledge of my culture and history that I did not learn in school. I researched the secret war and the Hmong migration, and I did a post-secondary education opportunity at Concordia University so that I could talk to classes about Hmong culture and history. I knew that if I could learn and gain from what happened in the past, I could create a future for my community.
YLI helped develop understanding of culture
From all my research, I learned that many other Hmong youth question what it means to be Hmong. I was a part of starting the first Hmong Club at Central High School so that young people like myself could have a space to learn with each other and use the resources available to unpack what being Hmong meant. I grew very fast to have lots of pride in being Hmong, but I knew that there was much more for my Hmong community to do so that everyone else could be as prideful in being Hmong. That started with me developing relationships with other Hmong peers like myself. I learned very quickly what intersectionality is and how it impacts a person's cultural identity. I began to develop questions and always asked them of others. I developed a deep love for my community and dedicated to make a difference so that everyone can thrive.
YLI taught me to give selflessly. It could be with my time, energy, ideas or money because I knew that when I was giving I was making an impact on other and myself. Now, I was in high school and I didn’t work, so I knew that spending my time and energy doing programming with YLI was a way to give back. I believe that as young people we all look up to others to be our role models. YLI gifted me the most amazing role model in Nou Yang. I remember in my junior year of high school,YLI had a matching grant. I remember that Nou’s birthday was coming soon, and she chose to ask those in her life to donate to YLI instead of birthday gifts! As a young teenager, I was like WOW, who would not want birthday gifts but instead ask people donate to a program for youth. I knew how important YLI was to me and how important it was for me in my life. I saved $20, donated it to YLI and knew it was going to be matched for $40! That made me so proud because $20 was nothing compared to what YLI had given me.
YLI lessons influenced college experience
YLI made me be the person that I am today. I am passionate and dedicated to creating equity for underrepresented people and Hmong women because of YLI. During my time at the College of Saint Benedict, I made it my mission to support students in their identity and leadership development. My first year in college I was the only person of color on the Joint Club Board where we made decisions whether clubs could become registered as a club. Through my position, I could support and push for a new club that supported students of color and underrepresented students throughout their college experience. This meant they would get funding for programming.
I developed a sisterhood with the many incredible women at the college. As sisters, we would cry together about the struggles of being Hmong women, make food to meet each other’s cravings for Hmong food, and support each other's life goals and dreams. In college I was a board member of a Hmong club called Hmong Americans Involving Students. I made it a goal to have conversations with Hmong college students about gender inequities in our Hmong culture and community and invited Hnub Tshiab: Hmong Women Achieving Together to facilitate these conversations and help us envision what we could do to bring gender equity in our Hmong community.
YLI has also equipped me to support and lift more leaders in spaces I am a part of. As the president of Hmong Americans Involving Students at the College of Saint Benedict, my other board members describes me as “pushing people to think outside of the box,” “supporting people to understand and love their culture,“ “you stand alongside us and give us strength to figure out who we are and what we need,’and “always ready to give us resources.” Being a leader is not only about the things you do, but also those you can lift to do the work with you.
YLI was a transformational youth leadership experience
YLI has impacted my relationship with my parents especially my father. Many always say they are very close to their mothers, but for me my dad is the person that I can have conversations with. We would share our opinions with each other, listen to one another, support each other’s community work, and have the hard conversation about culture and gender. I know I would have not been able to do this if it wasn’t for the YLI inspiration dinner where I first expressed my feelings publicly to my father about how he inspires me.
Thank you for listening to my experience in YLI. This is not just my experience. Many other youth participants have had transformational experiences. I believe everyone should go through YLI because it sets you up for success in life and you build a life-long community of support. It has truly been a privilege to have been a YLI participant, youth leader and donor. I look forward to carrying on the lessons learned in YLI and continuing to apply it to my life and community work.
Theng Yeng Xiong is an alumna of the Youth Leadership Program, a community leadership program at Wilder. This story is based on a speech Theng Yeng addressed in 2018 to guests at an annual fundraising event for Wilder programs that serve Hmong youth and leaders.