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“We continue to persist:” Celebrating, honoring Hmong Heritage Month
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EAU CLAIRE — Growing up, True Vue did not learn Hmong history in school, and she wondered why.

“Was our part in history not significant enough to be taught?” Vue wrote in an email. “Was our presence not appreciated because those who were not educated about us would tell us to go back to where we came from?”

Vue, lead organizer for the Black & Brown Womyn Power Coalition in Eau Claire, is one of many Hmong Americans in the Chippewa Valley who hope Hmong Heritage Month can contribute to overcoming that ignorance and serve as a starting point for ongoing education in the area.

In honor of April being Hmong Heritage Month, UW-Eau Claire hosted several events, and the Chippewa Valley Museum has an exhibit on Hmong people in Eau Claire. The exhibit notes that “about 4.5% of the global Hmong population lives in the United States, with just over 3,000 residing in the city of Eau Claire.”

Hmong Americans can trace their roots to several Asian countries, including China, Vietnam, Laos and Thailand. Hmong people started arriving in the United States in the 1970s as refugees after the Vietnam War, in which many Hmong people worked with and fought alongside U.S. soldiers.

“Hmong Heritage Month is a time to remember what the Hmong went through and why we are here today,” Vue wrote, also noting that it allows “us to openly have conversations with our family, friends and our community to remind each other of the retribution the Hmong went through for being an ally to the United States during the Vietnam War.”

Pa Thao, executive director of the Black & Brown Womyn Power Coalition in Eau Claire, said the month enables her to “recommit myself to friends, families and community.”

“Hmong Heritage Month is a time to remember and reflect on our past, embrace our present and dream our future,” Thao wrote in an email. “As we remember, celebrate and share our history, culture and heritage with friends and families, it is also a moment to reflect on our present and appreciate and honor the sacrifices of our ancestors.”

Mao Xiong, interim director of the Eau Claire Area Hmong Mutual Assistance Association, shared similar sentiments.

“It’s an opportunity to highlight all the great things Hmong folks do in our community and throughout the state and nation,” Xiong wrote in an email. “It is also a time for Hmong and others to appreciate and acknowledge the beautiful language, culture and traditions.”

Events help increase community awareness and support, but so do personal connections, Xiong noted.

“It is a time that encourages our Hmong youth to proudly share with their non-Hmong peers the different food we eat, the celebrations we have, the language we speak and much more,” Xiong wrote. “These are things that should be done every day, but to have a month designated to celebrate Hmong, it means that Hmong will not be forgotten.”

Kong Pheng Pha, UW-Eau Claire assistant professor of critical Hmong studies and women’s, gender and sexuality studies, hopes this month increases appreciation for the area’s largest minority group.

“Hmong Heritage Month serves as a way for all of us to see the beauty in Hmong people’s life stories and narratives, while also using those same stories and narratives for a larger good for all people in our community and nation,” Pha wrote in an email.

Locals also hope the month can raise awareness about the difficulties encountered by Hmong people and many other Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders during the COVID-19 pandemic.

From 2019 to 2020, anti-Asian hate crimes in 16 of America’s largest cities rose from 49 to 122 incidents, an increase of 149%, according to an analysis of official preliminary police data by the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino.

“This year, with so many hate crimes against Asians, and with Hmong being the biggest minority group in Eau Claire, I feel like it is a great reminder for the community to stand together to celebrate Asians,” Vue wrote.

An event earlier this month aimed for community solidarity. During a “Stop AAPI hate” rally and vigil on April 2, several local Asian Americans, including Pha and Thao, spoke about their experiences with racism and feeling like an outsider.

“Even during heightened anti-Asian hate sentiments and the COVID-19 pandemic, we continue to persist and strive to live out our authentic life in this community, which we call home,” Thao wrote.

Thao said the month also can prompt Hmong people to look ahead.

“Hmong Heritage Month is a moment to dream (about) our future, of what we want to accomplish in the coming years, and of our future history, culture and heritage,” Thao wrote. “What do we want future generations to remember and to honor?”

Vue believes the month can spotlight Hmong people and culture, something missing in her and many others’ education.

“It is a time to recognize the work that we have done, to be proud of and celebrate who we are, and to make sure that no one forgets,” Vue wrote.

Biden speech takeaways: Government is good, and so are jobs
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WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden used his first address before a joint session of Congress to make the case that his administration has made progress during the first 100 days he’s been in office, confronting the public health and economic maelstrom caused by coronavirus pandemic.

Biden also used Wednesday’s prime-time address to make his pitch directly to Americans for his expansive — and expensive — vision to rebuild the nation’s roads, bridges, water pipes and other infrastructure, bolster public education and extend other benefits for a wide swath of Americans.

Here are some key takeaways from the president’s address:

Jobs, jobs, jobs

Biden uttered the word “jobs” a whopping 43 times, according to his prepared text.

It’s perhaps no surprise for an administration that has made beating backing the pandemic and getting Americans back to work the central guideposts in the early going of the administration.

Biden noted that the economy has gained some 1.3 million new jobs in the first few months of his administration — more than any in the first 100 days of any presidency. But he quickly pivoted to the need to pass his American Jobs Plan if the country is going to sustain momentum and get back to the historic low levels of unemployment prior to the pandemic.

He also aimed to frame his push for the U.S. to meet its international obligations to slow the impact of climate change as, ultimately, a jobs plan.

“For too long, we have failed to use the most important word when it comes to meeting the climate crisis,” Biden said. “Jobs. Jobs. For me, when I think about climate change, I think jobs.”

Who turned the tide?

Biden said “America’s house was on fire” when he took office, citing the devastating COVID-19 pandemic, its damaging economic impacts and the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol.

“Now — after just 100 days — I can report to the nation: America is on the move again,” Biden said, adding the nation is now “turning peril into possibility. Crisis into opportunity. Setback into strength.”

It’s a tried and true strategy by the president to take credit for the more hopeful moment, as the coronavirus vaccines have provided a path out of the pandemic.

Republicans, meanwhile, made it clear they see things differently, with Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., implicitly crediting President Donald Trump for the Biden’s good fortune.

“This administration inherited a tide that had already turned,” he said in prepared remarks from the official GOP response to Biden’s address. “The coronavirus is on the run!”

From polling, it’s clear Biden’s view is winning the day — at least thus far — with more Americans approving of his job performance than ever did of Trump, with strong marks even from Republicans for handling the pandemic.

Big government case

Biden made the full-throated case for an American embrace of big government.

The president ticked off details of some of his plan for $1.8 trillion in spending to expand preschool, create a national family and medical leave program, distribute childcare subsidies and more.

The plan comes on top of his proposal for $2.3 trillion in spending to rebuild roads and bridges, expand broadband access and launch other infrastructure projects.

Republicans have shown little interest in Biden’s spending plan. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has argued that Biden’s plans are a “Trojan horse” that will lead to middle-class tax hikes.

But Biden and his aides say all of this new spending is wise investment in Americans — and doable in time of low interest rates. Much of it can be paid through raising taxes on the wealthy and would go a long way toward addressing the frailties of life for the middle class and working poor exposed by the pandemic, Biden argues.

“I’m not out to punish anyone,” Biden said. “But I will not add to the tax burden of the middle class of this country.”

While achieving bipartisan backing in Washington for the proposals is a longshot, Biden seems to betting he can win support across the electorate.

He even made a thinly-veiled bid to blue-collar and non-college-educated white men who voted for Trump in November, noting that 90% of the infrastructure jobs that will be created by his spending plans don’t require a college degree and 75% don’t require an associate’s degree.

“The Americans Jobs Plan is a blue-collar blueprint to build America,” Biden said. “And it recognizes something I’ve always said: Wall Street didn’t build this country. The middle class built this country. And unions built the middle class.”

‘Real’ racial justice

A week after former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin was convicted in the killing of George Floyd, and as the nation continues to grapple with deadly interactions between Black men and police, Biden called on Congress to meet the moment.

“We have all seen the knee of injustice on the neck of Black America,” Biden said, referencing Floyd’s death at Chauvin’s hand. “Now is our opportunity to make real progress.”

Biden called on Congress to send him a police reform bill named after Floyd by the one-year anniversary of his death, May 25. But he also went further, saying he aimed to root out systemic racism in housing, education and public health.

“We have a giant opportunity to bend the arc of the moral universe toward justice,” said Biden. “Real justice.”

Proving democracy still works

Biden said that while the nation’s democracy survived the deadly Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol meant to block the certification of his election, leaders in Washington must do more to boost the resilience of the nation’s system of government.

Biden said the nation’s adversaries “look at the images of the mob that assaulted this Capitol as proof that the sun is setting on American democracy.” He said they view the U.S. as too riven by hostility to effectively govern.

“We have to prove them wrong,” he said. “We have to prove democracy still works. That our government still works — and can deliver for the people.”

It was a familiar refrain for Biden, who has sounded alarm about the nation’s divisions for years, but the urgency spiked after Jan 6.

Still, the appeal for unity appeared unlikely to sway many minds in Congress. Republicans have already lined up in opposition to Biden’s agenda and the push for a bipartisan commission to probe the insurrection has struggled to gain support.

Trump who?

The president who campaigned on a promise to substantively and stylistically move the country past Trump made no direct mention of the 45th president.

Instead, he spoke only of the “last administration,” blaming Trump and his team for abandoning an effort made by his old boss — Barack Obama — to financially assist the Northern Triangle nations in central America. Migrants are now fleeing from those countries — El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras — and arriving at the U.S. border.

In some ways, the absence of talk about Trump, who still falsely claims the election was stolen from him, isn’t surprising. Biden grumbled at a CNN town hall in February that he’s “tired of talking about Trump” and he wants to make the next four years about the American people.

His omission made clear he’s determined to move on.

Eau Claire students press for more input on pandemic decisions
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EAU CLAIRE — Disappointed with the school district’s decision to increase face-to-face classes at the high schools for the last month of the semester, some Eau Claire high school students are lobbying for greater student input on pandemic-related class decisions.

Two of the biggest voices are the Eau Claire school board’s two student representatives, who say they — and the high school’s student bodies — want the board to talk to students about decisions that directly impact them.

Zoe Wolfe, North High School’s student representative, and Memorial High School student representative Emery Thul said at an April 19 school board meeting that they’re disappointed that the board and school administrators didn’t directly survey or address students before increasing in-person classes.

“I implore you all to reach out to students before making decisions that impact students and their families,” Wolfe told the board in April. “Students need to be involved in decisions that impact our lives, especially the student representatives that sit on the school board beside you.”

Previously learning via a blend of online and face-to-face classes, middle school students returned to four days a week of in-person classes this week and high schoolers will do the same on Monday. (The one weekday when schools are empty — Wednesdays — is when all students will still learn virtually while the buildings undergo thorough cleanings.)

School administrators say that they’re encouraging students who need accommodations for jobs, schedules and support to reach out to school staff.

Concerns over scheduling, distancing

Thul is attending high school virtually, part of Memorial’s fully virtual cohort of students. He said he’s concerned that shifting students to more in-person classes will make scheduling difficult during the final month of the semester.

“The decision to go back to four days a week does have ramifications in scheduling, at least at the high school level,” Thul said. “I have classes that overlap with each other and I have to skip class one day to go to a different class and swap them the next day. This decision has really made it worse.”

In early April, the school district announced that 6th through 12th grade students would return to classrooms for four days per week, instead of two. Class sizes will get bigger and the schools can’t guarantee three feet of physical distance between students, though the district is still requiring face masks and increased cleaning.

Unlike a February decision to increase face-to-face classes for younger grades, which the Eau Claire school board voted on, the decision to ramp up classes for older students was made by the administration.

It was an “operational administrative decision,” Mike Johnson, Eau Claire schools superintendent, said on Wednesday.

After the district announced its decision in early April, about 20 students reached out to Johnson with concerns, he said. Students with worries about social distancing, stress or family concerns can also reach out to administrators or high school counselors’ offices, he added.

Before making the decision, the district consulted new U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, the Eau Claire City-County Health Department and a February staff survey, where 86% of staffers said they believed in-person learning was more effective, Johnson said. School leaders also surveyed roughly 65 parents around spring break; over 90% said they had no concerns about their children returning to school, Johnson added.

“While the students weren’t surveyed for their opinions on returning, I gathered their concerns based on their direct contact with me and I was able to share that feedback with school administration and staff,” he said.

Memorial High School Principal Dave Oldenberg said the school is working to ensure students can keep working their part-time jobs, studying for AP exams and get emotional support.

“They’re getting the supports and enrichment they need, but also some elasticity if they have commitments away from the building,” Oldenburg said. “... This also gives the students, especially the underclassmen, an experience that looks more like what we’re going to move into in the fall. Our freshmen have never had a normal year at Memorial High School.”

Thul said he’s disappointed students weren’t given a chance to share their opinion.

“Not a single student was surveyed,” Thul said on April 19. “Parents are not the ones that have to return to non-socially distanced classrooms.”

The school board has two student representatives each year, one from Memorial and one from North. Traditionally, the representatives give a formal report every meeting about student activities. Representatives serve roughly yearlong terms and don’t have voting rights.

Thul said he hopes the school board will consult more with future representatives.

“Even if you don’t want to consult the wider student population, the board theoretically has student representatives for a reason,” he said. “... I’d rather they used me to serve my purpose. I’m appointed to the board in an official capacity to inform the board of student opinions on matters that affect them.”

Survey portrays stressed students

After the district announced it was ramping up face-to-face classes, a Memorial senior, 17-year-old Dalena Young, created an online survey asking students if they approved of the change.

The survey, reviewed by the Leader-Telegram, also queried students about their stress level and asked if the change would impact their jobs, among other topics.

Students were able to respond anonymously to the survey. It drew about 420 responses, or roughly 13% of the total of Memorial and North’s student bodies. Young, fellow students and even some teachers distributed links to the survey, though they didn’t reach every student at the two high schools.

According to the survey, 72% of students who responded said they didn’t support returning to school four days per week.

About 75% said the move would or already had increased their stress level, and 77% said they were working on their all-virtual days during the week.

In hundreds of written responses, students had mixed opinions.

Some said their stress levels were lower when they had more time in the classroom. Others said they worried about a lack of social distancing and not being able to work as many hours at their jobs.

Most responses portrayed exhausted teenagers who were universally worried about the future.

“I wasn’t surprised by it, but it was something that hit me hard,” Young said. “One student responded with, ‘I already work so many hours and I get up at 5:30 every morning when I don’t have school, and now I’m going to have to work nights and weekends.’

“There was also the other side. One student said, ‘I’m struggling so hard to get through this year, and online school just doesn’t work for me.’”