Written by Katie Rosenberg
When Frederica Freyberg of Wisconsin Public Television’s Here and Now program wants an update on the Hmong refugees in Wausau, where does she turn for a local interview?
To County Board Supervisor Yee Leng Xiong.
Why Yee Leng?
Because at the ripe old age of 25, Yee Leng is one of the statewide recognized leaders of the Hmong community of Marathon County.
Frederica Freyberg knows it, and Governor Tony Evers knows it, too.
This leadership role is embraced by Yee Leng Xiong, but it isn’t easy. The Hmong community is like other communities — included are a range of perspectives, life experiences, and opinions. The emerging Hmong professionals, the Hmong clan leaders, and the Hmong veterans are united by their cultural heritage, but they often have very different political and social views.
No one can pretend to speak for all the Hmong people of Marathon County. Yee Leng knows that he has to be careful when people ask him for the “Hmong perspective” on an issue and speak in such a way that reflects a combination of his own experiences and views, as well as what he’s seen or heard from others about their own encounters and opinions.
Yee Leng is a young man who has dedicated himself to bringing Hmong voices to the table in local government in Marathon County not merely as token committee members, but as fully participating members of a policy board.
Residents of Hmong descent make up roughly 5% of Marathon County’s population. But up until recently, our elected bodies haven’t reflected that diversity. Yee Leng Xiong is working to change that.
Looking back on the nearly 4 years since he was elected to represent his Weston neighbors as the District 19 Marathon County Board Supervisor, he noted that not only are diversity, inclusion, and belonging part of policy initiatives, we’re hearing from more voices, too. He commented:
“I’m surprised at how fast a lot of things are moving. I’m surprised by how much the board has changed from when I first came onto the board and how diversified it is now. We have two Hmong individuals who are now on the board. We have more women on the board. I am just constantly impressed with this County Board.”
Yee Leng views his role as part advocate and part educator. He consistently invites colleagues and neighbors to Wausau Area Hmong New Year, Hmong Wausau Festival, and other community and cultural events. He also invites questions and conversations with those who might not know a lot about Hmong traditions and culture, sharing:
“There are individuals who are not racist, but they might be ignorant. They aren’t aware or educated about the social norms in the Hmong community, so they make assumptions. I spend time educating, and I always wanted them to feel comfortable asking me questions.”
Committee work is where the bulk of County Board business gets done. Yee Leng has thrown himself into his committees as a member of the Human Resources, Finance, and Property Committee; Social Services Board; MCDEVCO Board; and as chair of the Diversity Affairs Commission. To Yee Leng, recognizing the contributions of others is an important first step to creating a more welcoming community:
“Some of the County Board Supervisors don’t like symbolic resolutions that declare something or recognize somebody, but for me personally, I feel that these resolutions are important. It’s a statement from the County. For a lot of the other County Board Supervisors, it’s just another statement, just another resolution, but to individuals like Nao Shoua Xiong, who was a Hmong veteran, he really cares about these resolutions [like Hmong Veterans Day].”
“To these individuals, it means a lot to them. The Indigenous Peoples’ Day resolution, that means a lot to our Native American brothers and sisters. When you’re doing this, you are acknowledging and recognizing; you’re not just sweeping people to the side. And you’re showing them that they matter, that they are important to Marathon County. I often say, ‘Diversity is our strength, not our weakness.’”
While our community has worked through challenges when it comes to recognizing our own diversity, Yee Leng sees opportunity. He wants to see a more cooperative approach to inclusive policymaking.
Looking ahead to 2020 and beyond, Yee Leng recognizes there is a lot of work to be done. Much of that work and planning will have implications that last for decades, including hiring the next Marathon County Administrator. Yee Leng shared:
“I’m looking forward to hiring the next County Administrator. I know that the next administrator, if we hire the right one, he or she will have a huge impact on this community for the next 20-some years. I want to make sure that the next administrator will make sure diversity is one of his or her priorities — whether that’s attending events or being supportive of programs. Brad Karger set a very high bar. And Mort McBain before him set a high bar as well. I’ve gone to so many Hmong events where their local elected officials only show up for that political moment and they are gone. But then we have people like Brad and Mort, who are true friends of the Hmong community, who stay the whole time. They are always there to help you whenever you need them. That’s what I want to see.”
Yee Leng is also looking ahead to what’s next for the criminal justice system in Marathon County — including jail renovations, court staffing, and prevention programming:
“We spend a lot of money on jail, but if we’re able to come up with a process that focuses on prevention and trying to get people out of the cycle, that will reduce the money we have to invest in the jail. I think that’s a good thing. I talked with a lot of police officers and correctional officers and they said, ‘The day that they don’t need our jobs anymore is the day that there’s no crime!’ That’s success.”
Outside of his County Board work, Yee Leng works as the Executive Director of the Hmong American Center and is also elected to represent his neighbors on the D.C. Everest School Board and Village of Weston Board of Trustees.
He doesn’t have a lot of free time, and it’s something his elders have picked up on. At Hmong Wausau Festival this year, a few even announced to the crowd that he was single! Yee Leng confided:
Every single time I go to an event where there are Hmong elders, that’s the first question I get. I don’t know if that’s their icebreaker . . . but I always tell them that if I get a girlfriend, I’m not going to be as involved anymore. I want to be as involved as I can before then. They always laugh and say, ‘You’re right, you’re right.’ Right now, I’m more focused on dedicating myself to the community I love.
Marriage and children are important in Hmong culture, but Yee Leng is on a mission to participate in local governance and make sure that our local governments provide for the health, safety, and economic security of all residents — including Hmong people.
In our democracy, in order to have a seat at the governance table, you have to get elected. Thus, Yee Leng is readying himself for another election cycle. He’s seeking re-election to the Marathon County Board, the D.C. Everest School Board, and the Village of Weston Board of Trustees.
So for now, marriage and family will be on hold a bit yet while Yee Leng dedicates himself fully to his work in government.
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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All photos courtesy of Yee Leng Xiong.