Born in a Ban Vinai refugee camp in Thailand and later resettling in the U.S., Dr. Kong Pheng Pha, assistant professor of critical Hmong studies and women’s, gender and sexuality studies at UW-Eau Claire, never envisioned he’d be working in higher education, let alone becoming a professor.
Engaging with and learning more about social justice during his undergraduate years fueled a personal passion to amplify the voices of Hmong people and contribute knowledge to the body of scholarship about race, class, gender and sexuality in Hmong communities.
“Growing up as a Hmong American, there wasn't any research done on our communities, especially from our perspectives," Pha said. "As a person who is very much invested in all kinds of intersectional social justice issues, especially racial and queer social justice issues, I never saw any positive or meaningful representations about Hmong communities. For me, it is about creating a dialogue within my own community, and helping my communities come to terms with and grasp how we are changing, and how dynamic we are and how diverse we are.”
A member of the UW-Eau Claire faculty since 2017, Pha continues to work with students as a scholar of feminist studies and critical ethnic studies, contributing scholarship to the field of critical Hmong studies. He also has worked to build a Critical Hmong Studies Program by establishing new courses blending the intersectionalities of race, class, gender and sexuality. In addition, Pha recently researched and wrote an article for the academic magazine Minnesota History, about the intersection of Hmong migration and queer political activist histories. He uses youth narratives to reveal how they’re creating new knowledge and concepts for others to think about, such as belonging, citizenship and social justice.
“Hmong communities are very diverse, heterogeneous groups," Pha said. "My research has allowed people to accept that our communities are changing — experiences for the younger generations are different from their parents’ and grandparents’ times, and the fact that elders are also acknowledging these changes. They can use these terms around diversity, around cultural transformation, to name the ways in which they’re experiencing the world differently. I’m hoping my research will give young Hmong Americans the language to name their experiences and say that their experiences around race, gender and sexuality are valid.”
As a Hmong American, Pha believes it’s important to have faculty and staff at a university that reflects its student populations. Sometimes students don’t see themselves in the textbooks or reflected in faculty who teach, he says, which can greatly impact a student’s sense of belonging at the university and in the community.
“Mentoring students of all backgrounds and needs is important to me," Pha said. "Specifically, for students from marginalized backgrounds and students of color, my current role allows me to help them learn how to navigate college and use their voice to question and have conversations with others about topics that might be difficult to talk about. I take that very seriously in seeking out those kinds of students and supporting them.
“Through my teaching, I really hope to help students learn that equity, diversity and inclusivity are central elements to all the work that we should be doing as students, scholars and people who value social justice in the world. For me, EDI has meant everything in my work. I hope that through my teaching, my students will take that seriously and bring it with them wherever they go, even after they learn about Hmong American communities.”
Pha also serves as chair of the Critical Hmong Studies Advisory Committee to implement new curriculum and academic programming. Since fall 2018, he has collaborated with the Office of Multicultural Affairs to revolutionize the Critical Hmong Studies Resource Center at UW-Eau Claire, which is a space for students in the Critical Hmong Studies Program to study, find academic resources, and host meetings and events on campus.