Written by Katie Rosenberg
Marathon County Board Supervisor Ka Lo of District 5 isn’t known for mincing words. When I spoke to her a few weeks ago about her time on the Board, we talked about why she rankles some of her colleagues when she speaks:
“I don’t see progress fast enough. I want it now. Sometimes that comes through when I am speaking at a committee meeting or a County Board meeting. Sometimes that urgency comes through.”
Ka says that her passion comes from her deeply held values that government can be the arbiter of fairness and represent the needs of all citizens. She explained how she sees her role as a Supervisor:
“On the County Board, I just want to make things fair. I don’t want to give handouts, but if someone is really hurting, if something is going on, if it’s something they’ve worked hard for — I don’t want to make them jump through hoops. I know we can’t affect the bigger, federal picture, but even the decisions we make with North Central Health Care or the University [of Wisconsin Stevens Point at Wausau], we are at least hearing from people who need these services and we can be on their side. I can be a representative of the working people. Every policy we put forward, whether it’s something for the Sheriff’s Department or Human Resources, we can make things fair for everyone.”
Ka is the oldest of 6 children born to refugee parents who escaped war-torn Southeast Asia decades ago. Her parents don’t like to talk about their experiences, but Ka is a student of history and has pulled out what she could from them. Her dad lost his parents when he was very young during the Vietnam War. As a child, he was recruited to be an allied soldier and was stationed in General Vang Pao’s Long Tieng base.
Ka’s mom, meanwhile, escaped with most of her family over the border, crossing the Mekong River from Laos into Thailand, finding protection in a refugee camp. Ka’s grandfather was very ill at the time, but they thought he would recover once he reached Thailand. Sadly, Ka’s grandfather passed away shortly after he arrived. Ka softly shook her head and reflected:
“Can you imagine? Running all that way and finally getting to Thailand and dying? It’s horrible.”
Separately, Ka’s parents made their way from Thailand to Wausau, Wisconsin, where they met and eventually married. Ka says that her family is solidly working class and that she’s very proud of that:
“Growing up, my mom always instilled in us that you work hard and what you get, you earned. My parents didn’t get an education. My mom never went to school, and my dad only has an elementary education. When I was growing up, I took care of my brothers and sisters. I took my first job was when I was 12, working in ginseng fields. I worked next to my mom, my grandma, and my cousins — and it’s hard work.”
Ka serves on the County’s Extension, Education, and Economic Development Committee, where she is particularly passionate about the future of the University of Wisconsin–Stevens Point at Wausau campus:
“One of the things I am really worried about is the university. There is fear that it might not exist in a few years. It’s very real. We see the declining enrollment. What happens if it doesn’t exist anymore? It’s really important to me because when I was a senior in high school, I wasn’t even planning on going to college, but I was in the cafeteria at Wausau East [where] a recruiter had set up. He started talking to me and my friend about what we were going to do after we graduated. He talked to us about UWMC [University of Wisconsin–Marathon County]. Eventually my friend and I signed up. If I never went to UWMC, I would be a totally different person. That’s why it has a special place in my heart.”
After high school, Ka spent 2 years at UWMC (recently renamed University of Wisconsin–Stevens Point at Wausau) but felt restless. She decided to move to Milwaukee with her sister and a friend and attend the University of Wisconsin–Waukesha County campus. She credits those years in Milwaukee with opening her eyes to some of the stark realities of segregation and unfairness:
“We didn’t know Milwaukee at all. We lived on the north side for a year and half. The week we moved in, there was a murder a block down, a drug bust across the street, and a high-speed chase between the apartment buildings. It was eye-opening. For me, being so young and not knowing the social issues, it was a little confusing. I asked myself, ‘How come that other part of the city is so nice, and this part of the city is not.’ And when we were trying to move out of the area and we’d look at the prices for places to live in the other parts of the city, those differences were astronomical. You get that kind of gnawing feeling; it’s not fair.”
After a few years, Ka moved home to Wausau, where she started to get more interested in her family’s past and Hmong history. She enrolled in the University of Wisconsin–Stevens Point, where she earned her bachelor’s degree in history.
Ka shared this about her studies:
“I started doing a lot of research on the Vietnam war — and even before that. One thing that was interesting to me was that the Hmong were always allies of Western powers, even during World War II; they were allies with the French and fought against the Japanese. I read one story about a Hmong guerrilla unit that was stationed with the French and they didn’t know that the Japanese had surrendered. They were watching a Japanese encampment. One of the men telling the story said that they watched a Japanese soldier as he grabbed a grenade and kneeled, holding it to his body, and blew himself up. And, one after another other, Japanese soldiers killed themselves. It was only later that the unit discovered that Japan had surrendered but that specific encampment didn’t want to surrender. This was one of those moments where I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, can you imagine?’”
Ka says that it is important to understand history, as the storytelling that people take with them and especially as a science:
“History repeats itself. You study history, you see it happen. I’m not saying it happens in a linear fashion, but there are certain events that trigger other events. You see it in medieval history, you see it with the depression. You see the ups and downs of the economy and populations. The thing about history is that it’s a science. There are experiments, and repetition shows similar outcomes each time.”
She also says that her interest in history has helped her in her role as a County Board Supervisor:
“Things like going through the grueling process of writing a 25-page paper with citations and understanding how to use sources. In history, they teach you where to go to look for credible sources and how to support your arguments. Who do you go to? Where do you look? Who is trustworthy? It’s been invaluable.”
Moving forward, Ka hopes to continue her work with economic development, but she wants to focus it through the lens of people, calling it social development:
“We need to invest in our neighborhoods. I want to work on more people-focused policies. I want to think about being entrepreneurs in neighborhoods—people entrepreneurs. Investing in social capital brings everyone up.”
Ka Lo comes to the County Board as a young Hmong professional, new to local politics. She knows that she brings a unique perspective to the County Board. When you talk with her, she is all about action, fairness, and a passion for looking out for the interests of working-class people.
Ka is not on the County Board just to fill 1 of 38 seats; she has an agenda she calls “people-focused policies” that make life better for Marathon County residents.
Just in her first term in office, she has already had an impact, and I trust there is much more to come.
Stay tuned . . .
Marathon County Board Supervisor | District 1
Katie Rosenberg is a Marathon County Board Supervisor representing District 1. She is passionate about engaging the community and is active on social media and in organizing neighborhood constituent meetings with her Wausau City Council counterpart, Alderperson Pat Peckham. In her free time, you can find Katie enjoying the outdoors with her husband on bike, on roller skates, and in trail shoes. She also enjoys attending all manner of political events, traveling the world, and cooking up a mean vegetarian soup. Email Katie Rosenberg.
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