A Force for Good: Hmong American Partnership

Two women standing behind a table at a festival booth with several items on the table.

by Nicole Rothstein

May is Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month. In celebration, we are featuring Hmong American Partnership (HAP), a longtime partner in the Sunrise Banks mission to make a positive impact on our communities.

After the withdrawal of American troops from Southeast Asia following the Vietnam War in the 1970s, tens of thousands of Hmong people sought refuge in Minnesota – a historically popular destination for immigrants and refugees. When the United States passed the Refugee Act of 1980 Off Site Link, the state’s access to employment, public housing and welfare benefits improved. This progress – along with so many Hmong families seeking reunification at the time – led to another significant jump in Minnesota’s refugee population.

In 1990, a group of Hmong refugees founded and led the Hmong American Partnership Off Site Link (HAP) as a social service and community-based nonprofit serving Minnesota’s growing Hmong population.

A headshot of a smiling woman.

May yer Thao, HAP President and CEO (left), says the organization was established at a critical time as members of Minnesota’s Hmong population were phasing out of refugee status. She notes two looming problems at that time: high unemployment numbers and issues with Hmong youth, such as gang violence, youth truancy and runaway youth.

“HAP was founded on the premise that we were going to lift up our community and make sure that these challenges were ones that we could overcome,” she says.

Today, nearly 95,000 Hmong individuals live in Minnesota. With approximately 94% of the state’s Hmong population settling in Minneapolis-St. Paul, the Twin Cities is home to the largest concentration of Hmong people out of any area in the United States.

Overcoming Barriers with a Holistic Approach 

Recognized as being the largest Hmong-serving organization in the nation, HAP’s foundational programs focus on economic and workforce development, community empowerment and navigation services. The organization is also instrumental in supporting the community through its work to address the critical need for more accessible social services.

Thao emphasizes the importance for people to first have the resources required to meet their families’ basic needs in order to achieve long-term success with HAP’s program offerings.

“We could have the best workforce development courses, but if you don’t have a car or access to healthy food, and you barely make enough to buy food for your family, you won't be focused on what we are teaching,” she says. “Instead, you will be stressed about everything else back home.”

People gathering around a table at a festival booth.HAP’s holistic support includes services to assist people in navigating their own wellness and that of their family. The organization’s comprehensive programming focuses on a broad range of areas including chemical recovery support, domestic violence support and mental health services.

“We want to help people overcome those barriers so they can better focus on the other resources and tools we provide to keep moving their lives forward,” Thao says.

HAP currently serves over 25,000 people each year. It has also expanded its programs and services to meet the needs of other evolving immigrant and refugee communities in Minnesota.

“As we found that we were very successful within our own Hmong community, we realized we could extend our reach,” Thao explains. “It’s because of our shared experience that we can effectively serve other Southeast Asian immigrant and refugee communities, as well.”

Opening the Doors on a New Endeavor 

As part of our mission to be a force for good, Sunrise Banks fully supports HAP’s mission to uplift the diverse community.

Thanks in part to Sunrise Banks, HAP is in the final stages of preparing its new 30,000-square-foot building on Plato Boulevard in St. Paul for use as a workforce development training center, HAP Academy OIC. This effort has been in the works for over eight years. The center will provide critical job skills training programs in health care, information technology, manufacturing and transportation.

“HAP was working for several years to determine how to finance the building,” Thao says. “Crucial to our being able to finally move forward was Sunrise Banks saying they would be the first to invest. It’s because of that partnership that we were able to get others to invest.”

A group of people standing around a flatbed cart with boxes stacked on top of it.HAP’s workforce development programs can lead to livable-wage careers in high-demand industries and put families on the path toward financial independence. In addition to hands-on job skills training, clients can gain apprenticeship experience with local experts. They may also be eligible for job placement assistance, college credit and certification through HAP’s partnerships with local colleges.

HAP also hopes to use space in the new building to re-launch its bilingual Montessori pre-school. The program had to shut down during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“There’s so much potential for how we will be able to use this beautiful new space for workforce training and other programs. When all the pieces align, it will be a bustling building,” Thao says.

“If Sunrise [Banks] had not stepped up to be the source loan, we wouldn’t have been able to pull the rest of the financing together,” she continues. “By stating that they believe in our work, it allows other investors to feel comfortable supporting us as well.”

Thao also credits Sunrise Banks for remaining committed to the partnership far beyond a financial investment.

“The Sunrise [Banks] team is in constant communication with us, and we have great conversations back and forth,” she explains. “To have that kind of partnership is really significant for nonprofits who may not have that back-office capacity. They are more than an investor. They help keep us on track and they are our thought partner in this journey.”

Strategically Planning for a Deeper Impact

A group of women posing for a photo holding photo props.HAP recently launched a strategic planning process to assess the strength and effectiveness of its programs. These are the next steps the organization will take in its mission to elevate the community.

“It’s not just about addressing current needs; we have to get ahead of the game,” Thao explains. “We are figuring out what those needs will look like in the next three to five years and how we will be ready.”

For Thao, the ultimate objective is to see HAP have an even deeper impact on the community. This goal will be more attainable, she says, if they continue to strengthen and leverage their relationship with Sunrise Banks.

“Through our work in economic prosperity, financial inclusion, and financial literacy, we rely on our great partners like Sunrise Banks who are the experts in their areas and who have the resources, products and knowledge to share with our community,” she says. “They are key to helping us take our community from surviving to thriving.”

A woman smiling at the camera.Nicole Rothstein is a freelance writer based in Cleveland, Ohio.