Freedom Inc.'s Kabzuag Vaj Received a
White House Champions of Change
Walking a Thin Cultural Line
Freedom Inc. staffers Meng Vang (l-r), Kabzuag Vaj,
Pahua Vang, and True Thao
“I think what they honored was the fact that we were an anti-violence against women and children agency that looked at
oppression and contributing factors and root causes of violence against women, not just in domestic violence and sexual
assault cases, but looking at all of the oppression that we experience and tying it to how it contributes to violence against
women and children,” Vaj said. “So when people look at traditional shelters, they do very specific things. But with Freedom,
Inc. what we said was that we cannot end violence against women and children by just looking at interpersonal violence.
We have to look at system violence. We have to look at historical violence. We have to look at all of the isms that contribute
to that. That is why at Freedom, Inc. you have a multi-generational, multi-racial, multi-ethnic approach, an across-the-
lifespan approach to ending violence against women.”
While she hadn’t been very aware of the Champion of Change honor and had thought it wasn’t a big deal, it turned out to be
a pretty big thing. While she was getting the award from the White House, it was up to Vaj to get their and secure her own
accommodations. Luckily she had the support of Freedom Inc. and the Wisconsin Coalition Against Domestic Violence.
“There were some high ranking folks who showed up,” Vaj said. “I guess the beauty of that is 14 of us were invited. They
were amazing advocates, people who had survived unbelievable traumas due to domestic violence, some programs that
deal with Native folks, some programs that dealt with immigrants and teen survivors. So it was inspirational to see all of the
people who were getting the awards and their years of dedication and sometimes dedicating their lives to this work. I felt
very honored even though I wasn’t sure what the award was really about. But the impact in the community is huge because
all over Facebook people are making comments. I don’t know what it means to get an award like that. But when I came
back to Madison on October 20, it was all over my Facebook. People were tagging it.”
One of the projects that Freedom, Inc. has taken on is working with LGBTQ youth of color across racial lines.
“We have People Like Us, PLUS, which was created by Monica Adams,” Vaj said. “It’s a queer, youth of color group. We’re
getting funding through Liberty Hill Foundation. It’s a five-year initiative to increase the awareness and the acceptance within
our communities and build really strong queer youth leaders. At first in our Hmong group, we didn’t have anyone who would
come out. And now we have people who are out and the group is growing. They are really thinking about how to expand the
programs. And there are African American women and girl and teen and queer aspect to Freedom, Inc. It all began
organically. The programs just kind of evolved and happened, just like the petals.”
Things have changed during the intervening years for Vaj and Freedom, Inc. Vaj feels that they receive more respect in the
Hmong community and some who previously disdained them are now working with them.
While Freedom Inc.’s stature has risen within the community, it’s resources haven’t followed.
“We would like to get a home. If people would like to donate a home or office space or cars, we will take all of that. What we
prioritize is building leaders and making sure that our communities are getting services and advocacy that they need. And
so, the majority of our funding goes to providing programs, but we are struggling with space and transportation always
because the majority of the people whom we serve do not have access to transportation or they come from families who
are working poor families and so, do not have the capacity to send their kids back and forth. Sometimes our kids who join
our programs after school, we offer meals for them because sometimes it is the only meal that they might have that night.
So it is extremely important that people know about our programs. Queer youth of color have the highest homeless rate and
bullying rates of violence against them. With that program, it is just amazing that we are even able to have queer youth of
color who can come to a space that is safe for them. People can go onto our website at www.aboutfreedominc.com. There
is a donate button there. You can mail a check to Freedom, Inc., 601 Bayview, Madison, WI 53715.
The nature of the domestic violence in the Hmong community has also evolved from local cultural differences where some
Hmong marriage practices conflicted with U.S. laws to one that is more international in scope. Some Hmong men will travel
back to Laos and get married their while still being legally or traditionally married in the United States and have children. Vaj
is quick to point out that this phenomenon is just a unique variation of a patriarchic society where men have intimate
relations with more than one woman at a time, either as a lover or in a bigamist relationship. It isn’t unique to just Hmong
“We aren’t against all international marriages, just the abusive ones,” Vaj said. “If there is a large age gap, someone here
65 years old marrying someone who is 14-15 years old. It is abusive if you have family here and you are still married here
legally or traditionally. Legally means on paper. Traditionally means within the community. There is divorce within the
community. The younger generation often doesn’t use the traditional marriage and divorce. They do, but they don’t have to.
For many of them, once you are legally divorced, then you are divorced. But there is a process within the Hmong community
for traditional divorce. This is a phenomenon that has been happening and it is increasing and it is getting worse within the
Hmong community. Of course part of the controversy about me is that I do talk about things that people may not think sheds
positive light on our community. But it is an issue that needs to be discussed because in the end, it is really about the
children. And it is about creating multiple victims across international borders.”
Vaj herself will be returning to Laos for three months made possible through an Alston Bannerman Scholarship Fellowship
that she recently received.
“I will be going back to Laos for the first time since I was born there,” Vaj said. “I am going with my mom and my son. I will
be living there for a few months. I just think it is a beautiful opportunity. For Hmong women when they get married,
especially back in Laos, they live wherever husbands are living. So my mother was married during the wartime. After she
married my dad, she has never been back to the village she was living in. She has never lived with her brothers ever again
in that capacity. In giving her a journey back home and creating a new journey for my son and I, I wanted her to experience
what it meant to be a part of her family, not that my dad’s family wasn’t her family. I want her to experience something
different and what it means to be living close to her brothers and sisters in her
For Vaj, life has come full circle.
By Jonathan Gramling
Kabzuag Vaj is a pioneer of sorts. She came to the U.S.
from Laos via Thailand when she was six-years-old as a
refugee sponsored by a church as so many Hmong
were sponsored back in the 1970-1980s. The Hmong
community was a patriarchal society in which the elders
and men came first — much like the rest of American
society — and the women came later and last in almost
everything. Vaj, who was honored in October with a
Champion for Change recognition for her work in the
area of domestic violence by the White House, realized
early on that she didn’t fit into that patriarchal system as
a young lady living with her family in Bayview.
Vaj feels that she was honored with a Champion of
Change award because of the unique approach that
Freedom Inc. took to dealing with violence issues.