Joua Yang is a motivational speaker, educator, and advocate whose passion for grassroots advocacy began 20 years ago when she started speaking up against the injustices experienced by Hmong women and girls. She believes liberation and healing sprouts from living authentically and loving intentionally through honoring our stories and embracing our identities.
Today her work continues to reflect her philosophy working nationally to address sexual assault and deepening the analysis around what sexual assault looks like in Hmong communities while strengthening a network of advocates, service providers, allies, and survivors. In addition, she is an Herbal Apprentice at The Body and Soul Healing Art’s Center and learning about traditional medicine from local Hmong elders’, in which she incorporates in her work.
Her past associations included being on the Board of Directors for the Hmong American Women’s Association in 2011 and in 2012 she worked as their Sexual Assault Advocacy Coordinator where she merged her love of Art and Advocacy. With the desire to amplify the narratives of Hmong Women and Children impacted by Sexual Violence, in 2014 she coordinated the first Hmong Women’s Art exhibit featuring art, stories of trauma and resilience followed by the first Hmong sexual assault focused event in 2015. She was formerly part of the Capacity Circle for The National Sisters of Color Ending Sexual Assault, City of Milwaukee Commission on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault, Sexual Assault Sub-Committee, and the Metro Milwaukee Rescue and Restore Human Trafficking Coalition to name a few.
Joua lives in Milwaukee, WI with her three children and Husky named Iris. In her down time, she enjoys gardening, making her own cleaning and beauty products, and being outdoors.
IN HER OWN WORDS
We asked our Sheroes some questions, here’s what Joua had to say:
“It is important to focus on women and girls of color because of a long history of exploitation, oppression, marginalization, and reported higher rates of sexual violence being experienced.”
How did you come to be doing sexual assault work?
As a little girl, I have experienced and witnessed the impact of sexual assault on individuals and families. Growing up in a highly patriarchal culture, I have seen women and girls I care for suffer in shame and forced into silence while perpetrators weren’t held accountable. This had a profound effect on me and I questioned everything there was about the rights to our bodies and our identities as Hmong women and girls, if we had any at all.
I knew something had to change and started being vocal about the misplaced blame on victims and survivors. Of course this was frowned upon by many in the community. I received a lot of back lash, but as time passed, Hmong girls slowly came forward about the abuse they’ve experienced. Having gone through the Hmong clan system and the American legal system, I knew how challenging it was to be in the middle with the two clashing cultures. Seeing the need, I started holding spaces for us and providing resources and connections where I could to help them make informed choices.
I was only a teen then and didn’t realize it at the time but that’s really when my work started and I haven’t stopped since.
Why do you think addressing sexual assault is important?
Rape culture is a problem and addressing sexual assault is important in dismantling these very attitudes and beliefs that are harmful. It informs us of the root causes, helps us with law reform, and creates opportunities to heal and break the cycle of abuse. All of this is vital if we are to end sexual violence in any form and build healthy families and communities.
What do you enjoy most about your work?
There’s so much I enjoy! Although it’s a long process, I’ve been encouraged and relieved by the slow shift in attitudes towards victims and survivors. There is still work to be done, but the climate here in Milwaukee is looking a little different than they did when I was a little girl. A little victory if you ask me which is always a joy.
I must say though, I what I enjoy most is making connections with others and witnessing the human spirit awakening to its potential. I have met incredible individuals through my work and their stories, their resilience, their passion, stays with me. It brings me hope and inspires me to continuously learn, reflect, and grow as a person.
Why is it important for Communities of Color to address sexual assault in their community?
There is no one size fits all approach that works for everyone. Not every community uses the legal system (or trusts it for that matter) as a mean for seeking “justice”. Their history, demographic, culture, religious beliefs, and contexts affect their communities’ response to or readiness to address sexual assault. Not everyone will understand this more than those who are from that community who live within it day in and day out. Just like survivors across communities may feel shame, the shame itself may have differing implications. Justice and healing may look different too so it’s important to have communities of color lead in addressing sexual assault in a way that is culturally appropriate to their community.
Acknowledging that sexual assault can happen to anyone why do you think that it’s important to focus on Women and Girls of color?
Yes, sexual assault can happen to anyone and my response is not meant to diminish or minimize anyone’s experiences.
With that said it is important to focus on women and girls of color because of a long history of exploitation, oppression, marginalization, and reported higher rates of sexual violence being experienced. Let’s also mention how rape has been used as a tool of war for centuries and still today. We are among the most vulnerable population. Our bodies are continuously being objectified in various spaces and media outlets. When you begin to add the intersections of race and sexism, there are many layers here and a lot of work that needs to be done within our communities and within the intuitions and systems that causes further harm.
How do you think your work impacts or makes a difference in ending sexual assault?
It’s hard to tell in the long run how my work impacted others or made a difference in ending sexual assault. I would like to think I was able to disrupt the culture of silence, elevate the voices of those most impacted, help bring awareness into action within my community, educated systems and institutions about being culturally sensitive so survivors who enter their spaces would not be further harmed. I hoped to have provided comfort for others who felt alone and misunderstood, and accountability when necessary.
What are some of the lessons you have learned about addressing sexual assault?
I have learned so much and continue to do so but I think these lessons were helpful in the work.
You cannot help everyone and that is ok.
Change is hard to come by, celebrate small victories!
You cannot do this work alone. Where there is no village, build one.
As a woman of color, my voice has been dismissed and I’ve been tokenized more times than I can count in predominately white mainstream spaces. I’ve learned not all spaces where the intention is to end sexual assault, are safe spaces to be in, especially as the only person of color in the room. Best advice I received was to bring another person of color with me (if possible) so I wouldn’t be alone. It’s amazing how an ally with you can really change the dynamic of a room.
Finally, not everyone you love will understand or support your work. People have walked out of my life and I’ve had to walk out of others so I could thrive and live the life I imagined for my children and I. Never give up on your passion or moral values because people are uncomfortable.
How do you take care of yourself doing this work?
The actual acts of care is ever evolving as a reflection of my life and let’s be honest, age! However, I found having self-compassion, being vulnerable, and being around loved ones seems to be the pillars of my care.
Examples would be acknowledging that in seeing others humanity, I see my own and in doing so, surrendering to my emotions. The work can be tough and it can be very emotional. For so long I didn’t have time to cry when I really needed to. Especially with three kids, sometimes I have to hold it all in because they need me, work needs me, and I forget I need me too. Taking a break when needed and establishing healthy boundaries has allowed me time to honor my feelings and nourish my body. Sometimes I sit in silence when there are no words, I write poetry, create art, pray, cook meals that provide healing and nutrition, soak in an herbal bath, and use aromatherapy to aid in meditation, among various traditional medicines and massages.
I enjoy alone time as it helps me to reflect and recharge, but being surrounded by loved ones is pretty amazing too. I can’t tell you how many times they have lifted my spirit and the time spent with them I am filled with gratitude. They encourage me; provide a shoulder to lean on, show me how to love and be loved, bring laughter when needed, and they keep me grounded. I don’t know where I’d be without my family and friends, near and far.
If you’re reading this, kuv hlub koj! (I love you!)