S T O R Y B Y K A R I M U G O + A R T B Y J O Y E H
Bo is a changemaker, a community organizer, and an activist.
But before you get too comfortable in that word “leader,” know that Bo wants to challenge the hierarchies that have come to define and own it.
“There are so many well-intentioned people, but there’s a lot of disconnect between the people in power and the communities who are living those disparities everyday. That’s our challenge.”
o Thao-Urabe’s entry into the world was unremarkable, much like most of our entries. There was a great deal of crying on her end, met with the elated relief of a mother whose child had arrived healthy. But a set of circumstances beyond her and her family’s control would mark Bo’s birth and childhood as rather exceptional. Born in Laos in the early 1970s, Bo began life in a part of the world embroiled in a conflict that was not the country’s by choice. America’s war on Vietnam, now yawning into its second decade, had extended its reach into Laos, changing the trajectory of Bo’s life.
She doesn’t recall much of these early years, but Bo knows there was heavy military traffic in the region where her family lived. Many Hmong men, Bo’s ethnic group, were also being recruited by the U.S. Army to fight its secret war against the Viet Cong, including her father.
The end of the Vietnam War and the rise of communist leadership in Laos saw many ethnic Hmong on the wrong side of the ruling powers once peace began to return. Many Hmong, including Bo’s family, fled to Thailand. Bo would spend three years in a refugee camp in Thailand before her family was resettled. In December 1979, six-year-old Bo arrived in the U.S. The shock of this drastic move was exaggerated by the cold winter they were met with in Chicago.
o would go on to spend most of her childhood in Chicago, moving to Wisconsin, then to St. Paul when she was in 9th grade. Three and a half decades and a multitude of experiences later, Bo is a far cry from the six-year-old girl who arrived in Chicago. She learned English quickly that first year, serving as her parents’ interpreter for official and unofficial business.
“My mom got a job cleaning homes. On her first day of work, I went with her. She had no idea where she was going, but someone told her which bus to get on, so we just hopped on a bus. But we had no clue where to get off. So we just rode the bus and stopped at the end of the line. The bus driver pointed to her that we had to get off. Then, when she showed him the address, he got her on another bus. Now, what made her think that she could just get on the bus and find her work? She got an address, someone said, ‘take this bus,’ and you’re gonna get there. She did that for several years, and I would go with her. Eventually, she learned how to navigate the bus system, but I would still go with her.”
That spirit of resiliency has stayed with Bo. In school, she began to learn that there was something different about her, and something else different about the black kids around her in Chicago’s Cabrini-Green Homes (Cabrini being one of the city’s largest public housing programs). Bo began to question her family’s arrival in the U.S. and her parents’ history. When she moved to St. Paul, she found other Hmong kids and discovered that her experiences weren’t singular; they were part of something larger. But when she went looking for answers, she found that her input wasn’t always welcome or appreciated. So she rebelled.
“My way of rebelling was to talk about it even more. I found that when I talked about it, there were so many other kids who had the same experience.”
“Growing up, you just think about your own life story, and you don’t necessarily think about how the world is connected.”
he defining experience of Bo’s life—America’s involvement in Vietnam and, consequently, Laos—showed Bo how decisions made in one part of the world can have drastic effects in a whole other part. That our actions and the impact of our decisions are more intertwined than we think is something that Bo understands well. It drives her leadership and vision. Whether as consumers, travelers, policy makers, or activists, we have a shared responsibility to communities outside our chosen geographies.
“It’s only when I got older that I understood that we are connected in so many ways.”
Bo realized early on there was a disconnect between policy creation and implementation—that the people most affected by a problem often weren’t being involved in deciding how to fix it. Or even determining what the problem actually was. In her current role as network director for the Coalition of Asian American Leaders (CAAL), Bo has cultivated a space that welcomes every voice in defining Asian American experiences. CAAL is a multi-generational, multi-sector, and multi-ethnic network of Asian American leaders who problem solve and “dream about what Minnesota would look like if the community was thriving.” The network is about making people feel visible while ensuring that the community is engaged in determining its own future.
“It’s a contribution to the principles of democracy, which is really about people.”
Bo is an activist for gender equity. Her work on gender equity ties into her identity as a global citizen. She sees a connection in the empowerment of women globally and a personal responsibility to other Hmong women whose lives are closely intertwined with hers. Through Building Our Future: A Global Community Campaign, Bo organizes people and events for Hmong women from the world over to come together to gather and discuss issues unique to them. Now in it’s third year, Building Our Future has seen a global cohort of Hmong women meet twice in Thailand as they look for ways to support each other and other women.
“It’s really powerful to have a space to share and to really work with women who ultimately care about the same things I care about.”
From Building Our Future’s efforts, Bo co-founded RedGreen Rivers™, “a social enterprise that specifically works with women artisans from South East Asia to bring their products to the market.” By investing in women, RedGreen Rivers™ gives impoverished and marginalized women, the economic freedom to achieve for themselves and their communities.
“In the U.S. and in other parts of the world, it’s just true; if you invest in women, women are going to invest in the community. We use that as a guiding principle.”
Bo’s long list of accomplishments are admirable.
“When people talk to me they’re like, ‘It’s amazing that you’ve done all these things.’ But for Bo, it isn’t enough to be one of only a handful of leaders who the community can point to as examples of success.
“I say to them, ‘Yeah, you know the problem is, I’m still the exception, not the rule.’”
Progress is when you and people who look like you aren’t the exception anymore. Beyond Bo’s resume, it is her multi-pronged efforts to better the communities she belongs to through democratic problem-solving that is most impressive. In each of her efforts, Bo is a leader not because she takes the helm, but because she seeks other people to help her find the answers. This is true horizontal leadership. She does not speak to speak; she speaks to make a statement—otherwise she listens. Bo understands innately that each of us has the power to do something. And she treats our experience, ideas, and dreams with a deep reverence. This is what earns her respect and gets her results as a leader.
“Leadership is just a decision about what I’m going to do with what I know, what I think I am able to contribute to—both to the process and to the work of moving things forward.”
What did Bo’s path to leadership look like?
Are there lessons for each of us in it? Yes.
BO ASKED A LOT OF QUESTIONS
“I was always curious, I always had questions.”
From her early years in Chicago, Bo had many questions. Perhaps too many for a young girl in a deeply patriarchal culture that didn’t encourage them to ask questions. She wanted to know about her parents’ past, who had decided that her family “should be plopped here in Chicago,” or why there were a lot of black people in her neighborhood. As she grew older, her questions grew more refined. Bo began to question why she was treated differently, eventually investigating systems of racism, oppression, and gender inequity. How to solve these issues has been the driving force in her professional career, allowing her to become a leader many times over.
BO DIDN’T LET OTHERS RUIN HER VISION
“Growing up, people always asked, ‘what do you want to be?’ I said, really, I just want to have the freedom to make my own decisions, because everywhere I went, I was constantly told, ‘You can’t do that…’ or ‘Girls can’t decide that…’ or ‘I’ve never seen a Hmong person go do that, so I wouldn’t try that.’ It was constantly about limitations.”
Bo believes we should all have the agency to make decisions for ourselves. She extends this vision into her definition of leadership. For Bo, leadership isn’t about specific people with certain traits, “it’s just about how we exercise the things that are gifts, talents, and resources”—being “a part of doing something, whether it’s for you or the community.”
BO ASSUMED RESPONSIBILITY FOR HER COMMUNITY
“It’s important to elevate the voice of people who are most impacted to be able to develop solutions.”
When Bo’s family moved to the U.S., she assumed new responsibilities for her family: ensuring her little sister, then in kindergarten, knew what to do in school, or serving as an interpreter for her parents. The system meant to resettle refugees had provided a new home and services to assist with the relocation, but it had failed to take into account potential language barriers or even overlooked the hurdle of learning a new transit system. The policies, though intended well, hadn’t included the voices of the people who would benefit the most from them. For Bo, leadership is about a responsibility, first and foremost, to the communities we are serving.
BO DISCOVERED THE POWER OF HER VOICE
“What I’ve learned from my twenty plus years of working in community is that when your community doesn’t always have political power, or social capital, or financial capital, all you have is your truth and your voice.”
At a young age, Bo discovered the one thing that equalized everyone: voice, and by extension, the stories that could be told about our experiences. As Bo struggled with racism in school, she used her voice to talk about her experiences. This encouraged other Asian American students at her high school to use their voices also, eventually allowing them to form a support group at school where they could share their experiences and find solutions. To this day, Bo still wants to create spaces where everyone’s voices can be heard, and where we can listen to and support each other.
In 2009, President Obama settled into office, riding on a populist wave that demanded new voices in the highest halls of American power. Bo would find herself amongst those new voices when the president signed an executive order establishing a President’s Advisory Commission on Asian American and Pacific Islanders. From a national pool of business and community leaders, Bo was chosen to sit on this commision, where she still serves. Bo, who in her earliest years had little agency over her own circumstances, let alone the actions of the U.S. government, now serves “as the eyes and ears of the Administration” on the unique needs of her community. Perhaps there’s something to be said about that stubborn refusal to be quiet in the face of adversity.
“Each of us has the ability to say, ‘we can do something,’ and it doesn’t require us having more than what we have.”
Join us on Thursday, April 7, at the Neighborhood House in St. Paul for Pollen’s upcoming event, Unraveled Network: Get Organized, where we will gather in conversation to learn from Bo Thao-Urabe and Justin Terrell about authentically building networks.