Young Women of Color Making History: Bao Chu Lee

By: Bao Chu Lee, Program Director at Minnesota Voice

How are you making history? 

I am a Hmong American woman born in a refugee camp in Thailand after my parents fled war-torn Laos during the U.S. occupation of Southeast Asian countries in the 1980s. Although I was raised in the United States with the promise of the American Dream, I am no stranger to the trauma and repercussions of war, systemic and institutionalized racism, and lack of social and economic resources. U.S. policies such as the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigration Responsibility Act in 1996 (IIRIRA) made it easier to target the immigrant community, and 24 years after we still face the repercussions of IIRIRA. This current administration has been anything but kind to the immigrant community and only wants to pass more policies like IIRIRA that will continue to target and harm our communities. 

In my current position with Minnesota Voice, I implement strategic, year-round coordinated voter-engagement programs to increase civic participation in historically underrepresented communities. Besides political work, I am passionate about gender equity and domestic violence issues. I sit on the board of Transforming Generations, an organization created to address gender inequality and violence against women in the Hmong community. 

In an old Hmong folklore, women had wings, but their wings were cut off and hidden so they couldn’t fly away from their husbands. Women were made to believe that there was nothing they can do to help themselves. But one day, one woman found her wings and flew off to a better life. Whether it’s domestic violence, lack of affordable housing, or inequitable education systems, people in marginalized communities, particularly women and children of color, have had our wings cut off and our voices silenced. We were made to believe that we don’t have a place in the decision-making process, and so policies are enforced on us that continue to harm our communities. But it’s time for us to find our wings or even grow new ones in order to live our best lives. That’s why it is my life’s mission to create community-centered solutions to uplift those who are most impacted by systemic and institutionalized barriers and to create long-term capacity and political power in communities of color. So, my daughter and those who come after me won’t have to grow up in a world without wings.

Who’s a woman of color who has inspired you and why? 

A woman of color who has inspired me is my mom. She is someone who others, especially people in the Hmong community, would not consider a leader, but instead just a silent caretaker who knows her role as a “good” Hmong woman. I watched my mom tend to household chores that were not considered a man’s job, but I also watched her do things that men are supposed to do as leaders of the family. When something in the house broke, she would take out her toolbox, get down on her hands and knees and fix it. When the gutter was flooded with dead leaves, my mom would climb to the roof and clean it herself. She worked multiple jobs, long hours, and for many years she was the only source of income for our household of 14. Whenever there was a situation, my mom— who can’t speak a word of English and has no formal education—rolled up her sleeves and somehow found a solution. Even though she is the pillar of our family, she never thinks of herself as a leader or inspirational because she’s only doing her role as a good Hmong woman and serving her family. But in her service, she has raised her daughters to be fierce leaders and has paved the way for me to be who I am today.

In October 2019, Bao Chu Lee served on a panel during a Capitol Hill briefing called Our Ground, Our Voices: Toward Economic Justice for Young Women of Color. Watch the full event and discussion here. What have you been up to since the Our Ground, Our Voices: briefing? What did participating in the panel mean to you?

Since the briefing, I have been managing five new programs at Minnesota Voice to strengthen our democracy and protect voting rights. We have a goal of registering 72,000 people of color in Minnesota to vote, so I have been building relationships and providing funds to organizations across the state to run effective issue-based voter engagement efforts focused on increasing voter turnout from communities of color. We launched our first two programs in January and will launch the others in April. 

Regarding Transforming Generations, we secured our first grant to do client supportive services and advocacy work with victims and survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault in the Hmong community. We will have a kickoff event on April 1st to launch our programs.

In my personal life, I’ve been more intentional about “self-care” by strengthening my relationships with my friends and family and attending the gym regularly.