There is no separating Pahoua Yang Hoffman’s personal history from her professional history. Her path, like many other nonprofit leaders, has not been a straight one, and the experiences that continue to guide her journey are ones Pahoua holds near and dear to her heart.
On a grey morning in December, a group of young nonprofit professionals braved the cold to hear Pahoua speak and left having gathered valuable insights from her journey.
The Citizens League was founded in 1952 by a group of business people who felt that Minnesota policy makers did not understand the impact of their decisions on members of the community. They began partnering with policy makers to conduct in-depth studies of important issues and delivering recommendations to lawmakers based on community input. The dual benefit is obvious—citizens have a larger voice in their government, and policymakers have policies in hand that they know reflect the perspectives of their constituents.
With Pahoua at the helm as executive director, the Citizens League has made an effort to be even more all-encompassing of community voices. Through interviews with hundreds of people, Pahoua forms diverse study committees around specific issues, bringing in real-time translators when necessary. Those committees then start from square one, defining terms and building knowledge around issues informed by the experiences of everyone in the room. This communal learning process helps everyone—even those without previous technical expertise around issues—have a voice in the policymaking process.
What Is My Role?
Pahoua’s family immigrated from Laos when she was a child, and she grew up in a household that, outside of a 13-inch black and white TV, didn’t have any English spoken in it. She is the oldest child in her family and the only one born overseas.
Even at a young age, Pahoua was often asked to make decisions for her family because she was able to communicate in English. This made her uncomfortable—her parents were often treated as “faceless people sitting next to her” even though to Pahoua, their role as parents demanded a certain level of respect. Pahoua always made an effort to explain and translate to her parents and allow them to make decisions instead of making decisions for them like many around her wished she would.
This experience early in her life has a massive impact on how Pahoua approaches her work today.
“This idea of, ‘What is my role?’” she said. “Is my role to be the voice of someone who’s not here? Or is my role to harvest information and give it to people who aren’t here so they can make up their own minds?”
The Generosity Of Others
Pahoua attended the University of Minnesota and studied East Asian History because she fell in love with a class she took and stuck with it. She wasn’t sure what she was going to do with a history degree, but eventually took a job with the American Refugee Committee after she learned that the NGO did work in the refugee camp where her family had spent a year upon coming to the United States.
After a few years in that role, realizing she wanted to go back to school but unsure of how to pay for it, Pahoua took a job at the University of St. Thomas as an Assistant Director of International Student Services. She took graduate classes there in the evenings, eventually earning her MBA. Next, she spent seven years at Twin Cities Public Television working in Government Affairs. There was a personal connection to that work as well—as a child Pahoua learned much of her English from PBS.
However, Pahoua always kept an eye to what was next, often leaning on those around her to help her figure out her path.
“I’ve loved every job I’ve had, but there’s always that question of, ‘is there something more?’” she said. “As much as I’ve loved everything I’ve ever done, I kept feeling like there’s something else, and I would avail myself to talk with others in fields that I was curious about.”
Eventually, a friend that Pahoua made as a Policy Fellow at the Humphrey School introduced her to the executive director of the Citizens League, and the rest was history. Pahoua took a job there as the Policy Director and eventually stepped into leadership of the organization.
She views her career journey as a testament to the importance of saying your thoughts out loud, of talking to others about where you are, and where you want to be.
“I’ve gotten everywhere I’ve been through the generosity of others,” she said. “People won’t know how to help you unless they know what your current thinking is.”