Hmong American Farmers Association
Pakou Hang has an infectious enthusiasm that engulfs you seconds after you meet her. The other day I met her for coffee and now I want to become a farmer! She took the opportunity of a Bush Fellowship to take the experience of Hmong farmers to a unique space in Minnesota. Building on a cultural affinity with farming among Hmong Americans, she co-founded the Hmong American Farmers Association (HAFA), located on a 155-acre farm in Dakota County. I am intrigued with the farm-to-fork, whole food model that HAFA is developing to help create efficiency, productivity and economic wealth. This includes entrepreneurial and agricultural training, production, marketing and distribution through community networks. HAFA has adapted the Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) model where a person can invest in a farm in return for an agreed-upon supply of vegetables. In many ways Pakou has a forward-looking vision, because as HAFA develops it model, the market for locally grown food is exploding. As Minnesota is becoming more diverse, its food supply is also becoming more diverse, with new vegetables common in Southeast Asia now reaching our dining table. The young girl who started life picking cucumbers for Gedney is now the visionary bringing customized fresh local produce into our homes.
I often stop by Samson Custom Upholstery in the Little Africa district in St. Paul to talk with Samson Zeleke about his ideas about growing his business, and while there I would see Tsegereda Cherinat working hard sewing various pieces for Samson’s business. One day I began to see a lot of very colorful Ethiopian clothes in the shop. I asked Tsegereda about the dresses, and she told me she had formally launched her own small business. Samson Upholstery in effect has become a mini business incubator. With a unique relationship with Samson, she stores her garments at his shop and when people want a traditional outfit for a cultural event she takes them to the basement of the shop where they can pick the best outfit. She imports these outfits from Ethiopia. She also combines the sales of these outfits with offering clothes alteration services. She named her business Mena Market after her daughter. Working two jobs and running a small business is both inspirational as well as entrepreneurial!
Lisa Tabor is one of Minnesota’s earliest pioneers in the concept of creative placemaking in minority communities. I was inspired by her concept of the African American Cultural Corridor. Before Minnesota developed the concept of a social benefit corporation, she was doing it with her business, Culture Brokers LLC and the Culture Brokers Foundation, a nonprofit attached to the business. Her business helps brings cultural intelligence and relationships to organizations. One thing that always stands out is the way she builds others up as she builds her own business, whether it is offering free service to a nonprofit or employing youth as paid interns. She is also working hard to create intercultural cities in Minnesota. In the European tradition, these are cities that operate at a high level of cultural intelligence and capacity.
Bruce Corrie, PhD, blogs at chai.news and is a professor of economics at Concordia University ‑ Saint Paul.