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How many kinds of pho can you find in Minneapolis? Ask Ka Vang

21 May 2022

Ka Vang’s ideal day in Minneapolis starts with a hearty breakfast sandwich from Breaking Bread Cafe on the North Side and a stop with her kids at the Walker Art Center, and ends with a walk along Minnehaha Creek to reconnect with the city’s Indigenous roots.

She’ll tap into her experiences as a Hmong immigrant and storyteller to showcase Minneapolis in her new role as the first-ever vice president of equity, diversity and inclusion at Meet Minneapolis. She’ll help the private association attract visitors, meetings and events to the city while also highlighting its diverse communities.

“I am so excited about this job because I really understand the experiences of historically marginalized communities,” Vang said. “I want to work with the tools and resources that Meet Minneapolis has to uplift BIPOC [Black, Indigenous, People of Color] businesses and change the narrative of who Minneapolis is, who can come to Minneapolis, and the potential of what Minneapolis can be to Minnesota.”

Vang immigrated to the United States as a child and grew up in the Frogtown neighborhood of St. Paul. She now calls Prescott, Wis., home. She graduated with a bachelor’s degree in political science from University of Minnesota and earned a master’s in education from Minnesota State University, Mankato.

She served as director of community engagement and impact for Minnesota Public Radio and American Public Media for eight years before moving on to Meet Minneapolis, which recently announced her hiring.

Vang, 47, has spent her lifetime tackling difficult topics, but she also knows how to rock out and nerd out. She’s a die-hard “Star Trek” fan who attends conventions and once belonged to a group called Nerds of Color.

She also loves to head bang at Guns N’ Roses and Metallica concerts. It’s a reminder, she said, that we’re all complex, passionate people whose stories are worthy of being told.

“My kids were embarrassed when they found out I was a heavy metal fan, but in the greater community I hope it’s a lesson of not judging a book by its cover,” Vang said.

Sahan Journal recently spoke to Vang about her goals for Meet Minneapolis, the work that needs to happen to bring racial healing to the city, and her favorite Minneapolis destinations.

The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Why were you interested in this job, and what do you hope to accomplish?

Just seeing George Floyd’s murder in great disbelief and sadness, and seeing the aftermath of the racial reckoning, social justice warriors and protests. I was watching CNN and someone said, “No one is ever going to come to Minneapolis again.”

And I just thought to myself, “How can I get involved? How can I make a difference with my skill set and life experience?” And I didn’t want to sit out in Prescott when the most important thing that was happening in my lifetime was occurring 40 minutes away.

How has your childhood impacted you today?

I was born on a CIA military base — Long Cheng, Laos — at the end of the Vietnam War and lived for five years in a Thai refugee camp. I have tremendous respect for my parents and elders. I’m alive because of my parents.

When I think about those moments, my parents had so much love for me and brought me here to the United States. If I survived a refugee camp, I can survive anything.

How do you plan to present a positive picture of diversity in Minneapolis when the state of race in the city is complicated, difficult and inequitable?

Our city is fraught with racial tension and divide. There are disparities in our BIPOC communities. While this is true and we have a lot of work to do, it’s also a great city with beautiful lakes and restaurants, and a place for young children to play safely.

I want people to come to our city, and I want city residents to feel a sense of pride. There are still ways to love our city. We want to get people excited about coming back to Minneapolis and our cultural districts.

It’s our responsibility at Meet Minneapolis to give a platform to people who love Minneapolis and are making a difference: restaurant owners, Airbnb owners, those helping to keep the streets clean. People will respond to these people telling their story versus someone like me.

What’s the most underrated thing about Minneapolis?

I think locally we know about our dynamic ethnic food scene — we have Eat Street, northeast, north Minneapolis on Broadway, and Lake Street. For people coming here, I would love to introduce them to the food scene and give them a tour.

What I love about our food scene is that you can go throughout Minneapolis and find different types of pho: Vietnamese pho, Hmong pho, Khmer pho, Laos pho. We’re not a monolith of people of color and Indigenous people. There’s a variety of cultural, racial, and immigrant groups.

This story comes to you from Sahan Journal, a nonprofit newsroom dedicated to covering Minnesota’s immigrants and communities of color. Sign up for its free newsletter to receive stories in your inbox.

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