Preparing the Hmong and others for work
by Laura Salinger
At just 26 years old, Jerry Vang has already proven himself to be a civic-minded activist committed to
improving the lives of his fellow Hmong community members, youth of color, and the general population as a
whole. Professionally, he is a coordinator of the Employment and Training Association (ETA) at the Dane County
Job Center where he helps participants gain the skills and tools they need to find quality employment. Personally,
he is involved in a number of community organizations and initiatives targeting youth of color, the Hmong
community, and other groups in need.
Giving back to his community is a passion born from Vang’s own personal journey. The oldest son of a Hmong
refugee (his father) and Mien refugee (his mother), Vang was born in Iowa and moved with his family to California,
and finally, Wisconsin. His father, an orphan whose father died fighting in the Secret War, was just 16 years old
when he made a treacherous escape across the Mekong River into Thailand. He was among the first wave of
Hmong refugees to gain entrance into the United States. Vang’s mother was only 14-years-old when she made the
journey to the United States with her family. Like many new immigrants, they struggled with the all too familiar
obstacles of language, acculturation, and simple survival.
While Vang grew up learning the Hmong language and culture, it took him awhile to fully appreciate his
cultural background and the resilience of his people.
“There were times, growing up, that I was embarrassed to be Hmong,” Vang admitted. “I didn’t have a lot of
Hmong friends growing up and it was difficult.”
Like many Hmong Americans, Vang struggled with his identity. His school and outside environment were very
American. At home, he lived with very different traditions.
“Growing up in the United States, it was hard to balance my identities; being Hmong and being American.”
After high school, Vang enrolled at UW-Madison with an eye on the IT field. After some soul-searching, however,
he ended up pursuing a degree in social work. All the while, he was interacting with Hmong community members
and gaining self-awareness.
“I spoke to a lot of Hmong elders during college,” Vang said. “ I really tried to figure out who I was and what it
meant to be Hmong.”
After college, now armed with a degree in social work and social welfare, Vang set out to help the very
community he had reconnected with during his formative college years. He worked with the Hmong Educational
Advancement Association in Milwaukee as a summer counselor for several months, and was then hired by the
Dane County Job Center to work with the most recent wave of Hmong refugees. He worked with approximately 55
Hmong families in an effort to discover their “transferable skills” and find them gainful employment.
“The main focus is to get people the training, the experience, and the skills so they are job-ready,” Vang said.
“There were a lot of barriers for these Hmong refugees to find employment. I worked to help them discover their
skills, overcome barriers, and find work.”
In the process, Vang gained a new respect for the struggles his parents, and other Hmong elders, faced as new
“I saw firsthand the struggles that the Hmong population has had to go through,” Vang said. “Through my job, I
was able to learn more about my past.”
Now, Vang works with the general population at the ETA providing employability skills training and related
services. In today’s economy, this is no small feat.
“The competition, in terms of finding employment, is much higher,” Vang said. “People are still getting jobs, but
it is a much slower process.”
Outside of work, Vang is active in the community working on diversity initiatives and with youth of color. He is a
member of MATC’s Asian Community Council of Color where he volunteers with school and community leaders to
promote minority attendance and retention.
“We are trying to increase diversity, not just with the student population, but with faculty and staff, as well,” Vang
Vang also heads up Nemesis, a Southeast Asian flag football team that is part of Freedom, Inc. Vang is
currently looking to recruit more youth of color, in an effort to get kids off the streets and involved in something
“I have a lot of cousins and friends who have taken the wrong path in life,” Vang said. “We want our youth to be
able to make the right choices and do something healthy and positive.”
Vang also works with the Latino community, helping organize the Comite Festival Mexicano.
“This year, I am the volunteer coordinator whose responsibilities include recruiting volunteers to assist in the
annual Mexican festival and related activities,” Vang said.
As for his future, Vang has lofty goals. Gaining inspiration from his parents — both who adamantly stress the
importance of education and have obtained or are currently pursuing advanced degrees — Vang is hoping to one
day attend law school. He is currently taking night classes to prepare for the LSAT (Law School Admission Test)
and hopes to one day work in labor and employment law and/or immigration law. And, of course, he plans to
continue giving back to his community.
Community outreach is really important,” he said. “I am proud to be able to serve the Hmong and other
|Laura Salinger is a
freelance writer based in