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‘Pioneers’ project to document stories of first Hmong immigrants in Minnesota

Noel Lee shoots for "Hmong Pioneers" project on University Avenue.
Courtesy of Saint Paul Neighborhood Network
Noel Lee shoots for “Hmong Pioneers” project on University Ave.

Saint Paul Neighborhood Network recently announced a new documentary project about the experiences of immigrant elders and leaders of the Hmong community in Minnesota. 

The hour-long documentary film, “Hmong Pioneers,” aims to foster understanding among communities and to archive the history of Hmong refugees in the state for future generations. The documentary is set to tell the stories of about 30 of the first-wave Hmong immigrants in Minnesota.  

“In terms of having health communities, we have to be able to connect with our neighbors and cultures and folks we may not necessarily know or understand,” said Saint Paul Neighborhood Network Executive Director Chad Johnson. “It’s good to know your neighbor and it’s good to know where they come from.” 

The flow of Hmong immigrants to Minnesota has contributed to the changing demographics of the Twin Cities. Through the “Hmong Pioneers” documentary, Johnson said he hopes the project will help facilitate conversations about what those changes have meant. 

Johnson said he wants the project “Not just capture those stories, but also create some community dialogue and some piece of history that … have a sense of how [Hmong immigrants] came and the evolution of the community.”  

The project, Johnson said, aims to also create a safe place for people to come together and share their stories. “[Participants are] using that as a platform to have a community conversation that will eventually be a documentary and some curriculum for schools.” 

Youth interns from the Hmong community are also part of the crew, helping in the documentary production, Johnson said. Not only are they getting the opportunity to learn about digital storytelling, they’re meeting with community elders and learning their roots and history. 

The final product might be unique to St. Paul communities, Johnson said, but communities around the country can also relate to the stories and experiences in the documentary.  

“There’s gotta be an interest in the story around the nation,” he said. “We hope to maybe drum up some attention outside of Minnesota to be able to tell this story.” 

The documentary will be available for public screening around the Twin Cities communities next year. 

The Saint Paul Foundation, the Voqal Fund and the F.R. Bigelow Foundation funded the “Hmong Pioneers” project.  

Ibrahim Hirsi can be reached at Follow him on Twitter at @IHirsi.

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