2016 Recipient: Dai Thao
“I learned at a young age that if your dignity has been stripped away, and you don’t have anything to live for - if you start fighting for others who are in your similar situation, you begin to heal little by little, and your dignity begins to emerge from hopelessness. I also learned to be courageous even when I felt alone in the work, and I learned to ask for help.”
— Dai Thao
In 1983, Dai Thao and his family came to Minnesota as political refugees. As a small boy who barely survived the exile from communist Laos to the barbed-wire, poverty stricken refugee camps in Thailand, he automatically assumed America was paradise. But when they arrived in Minnesota, they found a different story. Thao recalled classmates calling him “chink” and “gook,” spitting on him and telling him to go back to his country. “It was really confusing because I didn’t have a country to go to,” he recalled. “[But] I wasn’t alone, a lot of Hmong American kids experienced racism in school and in the community.”
By the time he was in fourth grade, Thao’s family had gotten public housing in North Minneapolis. There he spent lots of time exploring nearby railroad tracks. When he was given an assignment to write an essay during Black History Month, he decided to do a project on the Underground Railroad because he liked trains, and he assumed this subject would be about the longest train tunnel from South to North America.
His research didn’t uncover any information on trains, but it did introduce him to Harriet Tubman. “I became fascinated with her instantly because I could relate to her story. Her people and my people were uprooted, oppressed and discriminated against,” he related. Thao said after Black History Month was over, he kept on reading about such people as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Sojourner Truth and Booker T. Washington to gain a better understanding of the legacy of slavery and the continued oppression of African Americans.
Thao said he was motivated to become involved in anti-racism work in 1998, when a KQRS morning radio host ended an on-air segment by saying to Hmong Americans, "Assimilate or hit the goddamn road!" Community Action Against Racism organized a boycott campaign that forced the DJ to apologize on air among other demands. “At that time, I realized that the host had perpetuated negative stereotypes of Hmong Americans and I was upset about it,” Thao said. “I played a minor role going to the station to record a positive public message about Hmong Americans.”
He said after the KQRS protest, he felt the power of people coming together and forcing a media outlet to be accountable for its actions. “I was getting used to seeing Hmong people get pushed around at school and in the community,” Thao said. “This was different. It was empowering, it gave me dignity and taught me strategies. I’ve been organizing for racial equity ever since.”
Today Thao represents Ward 1 on the Saint Paul City Council. He has been working in community organizing and technology for more than 15 years. He currently serves as the Information Technology Manager for the Greater Minneapolis Crisis Nursery. He also serves on the Saint Paul Library Board, the Saint Paul Housing and Redevelopment Authority Board, Twin Cities Community Land Bank Board, the Family Housing Fund and the Saint Paul Port Authority. In 2015, he was named by the Minneapolis/St. Paul Business journal as a top “40 Under 40” honoree for his community leadership.
Thao said he believes the City of Saint Paul is taking steps in the right direction, but he admits pursuing a racial equity agenda has been challenging. “Racial equity can feel like oppression to people in power,” he observed. “How do you get people to trust that justice is good for all, and that the obtainment of happiness is the obtainment of justice? The second challenge is money and resources for the work of undoing structural racism and co-creating a new path.”
One of Thao’s favorite quotes is a passage of scripture from the Gospel of Matthew 25:40 which says: “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’” That sentiment fuels his hope for the future of Saint Paul.
Thao said his goal is to co-create an equitable city, a city for the people by the people, not just certain pockets of people. He envisions a city in which city departments are reflective of the people they serve; where city investments are distributed equitably across the city; where every budget and policy decision is analyzed against a set of measurable criteria and seeks to identify unintended consequences that may hurt people of color and low income whites.
“I think if we listen to each other more, we’ll begin to see that our struggle ... our pain is similar,” Thao concluded. “You and I may come from different histories and different races and ethnicities, but we all can work together for justice.”