MayKao Hang, President and CEO of the Amherst H. Wilder Foundation
By David Schimke
Amherst H. Wilder Foundation CEO and President MayKao Hang believes that when people work together, anything is possible.
Dr. MayKao Hang has a killer resume. A Hmong refugee and St. Paul resident, she was awarded a full scholarship to study psychology as an undergraduate at Brown University, went on to earn a master’s degree in social policy and distributive justice at the Hubert H. Humphrey School of Public Affairs, and finished a doctorate in public administration at Hamline University. She served as a division director at Ramsey County Human Services and as director of Resident Services for the Saint Paul Housing Agency. She is the first woman and the first person of color to head the organization in its 111-year history.
In person, Hang is no less exceptional. Holding court in her modest office at Wilder’s LEED certified headquarters on Lexington Parkway, the 44-year-old is every inch the leader, moving from task-to-task with expert efficiency and easy authority. She oversees a staff of over 400 and annual budget of some $50 million. In 2016, according to Wilder’s annual report, the organization served 7,000 individuals in need of housing, mental health care, early childhood education and aging support; the research division, celebrated for collaborating with hundreds of service providers to tackle vexing social issues, generated 339 reports; and more than 2,500 people participated in community initiatives and leadership programs.
Hang’s day-to-day commitment and approach to both her employees and people in need is also informed by a set of experiences unique to the typical CEO (or Ivy League grad), especially in Minnesota. Born in Laos, she still has early childhood memories of her family running from soldiers and hiding in a village populated by lepers. Her family immigrated to the United States when she was four years old and moved to St. Paul two years later, where she lived in public housing. Growing up, she told Minnesota Public Radio’s Laura Yuen in 2013, black and white kids beat her with sticks because they didn’t like their new Hmong neighbors. At the same time, she had to battle the patriarchal expectations of her own community, where women were discouraged from pursuing scholastic or professional advancement.
Because she’s a product of public education and public assistance, Hang knows how essential Wilder’s work is to people struggling for survival and yearning to succeed. Especially since the institutions she depended on as a young person are struggling with budget constraints and an increasingly complex set of social issues. She also believes that now, as much as ever, everyday citizens need to step up and help out. (In 2016, 1,442 volunteers donated 44,198 hours to Wilder, the equivalent of 21 fulltime positions.)
In early September, Hang sat down with the Interfaith Action to talk about her experiences, Wilder’s vision, and why programs like Opportunity St. Paul are essential to Minnesota’s future.
In a speech you gave recently you said that you thought economic mobility for families is harder now than it was when you were growing up. Can you say more about that?
When I was growing up there was more public investment in early intervention and prevention for kids and families. For example, I grew up on public assistance for a short period of years when my parents were learning English. They couldn’t make a living wage at that time, so until the time I was 14 we were on some form of public assistance. At the time, I benefitted from the Minnesota Family Investment Program (MFIP), which is a public cash assistance program for low-income families. The cash grant has not been increased since I was 14 years old. I’m 45.
So the public just simply doesn’t have a tolerance for supporting families. And when you’re not supporting young families, you’re having generational outcomes for both the parent and the child. Poverty is toxic. It’s not a mental state. It’s a condition.
In what other ways does this lack of investment manifest itself?
When I was growing up, there were bigger, smarter investments being made in higher education and in public schools. There’s been real erosion in education. And at the same time there’s been erosion in cash assistance and grants. That’s all harmed economic mobility over time.
The other factor that I think a lot about is that we have a really big population of people who are retiring out of the work force. At the same time we’re living longer. So a lot of our public resources have gone to chronic disease and healthcare, which is about 30 percent of our economy.
What I see from a structural perspective is less investment in prevention and early intervention and stabilizing families, and more investment in aging and long-term care conditions. So, if you think about children as our future, you can’t help but notice the little guys are getting slammed. And young families, composed of people who still have maybe 30 years of working left, aren’t getting the support they need. In the state of Minnesota, for example, apprenticeship and work training programs have really been eroded over time.
How does this new reality impact the educational experience?
The schools are the great levelers of society and, because of that, they also end up having to deal with the ills of society. Public schools in particular have to educate every child that comes to them. So when children, especially from young families, come through the door with so many needs because of poverty, it’s really a big challenge for teachers and administrators. We can’t expect them to be able to do it on their own. Mental health supports can and do help people move through some of those things, but more enduring solutions have to do with getting people connected to different opportunities that are going to make them permanently better off. So we need to design new ways to intervene systematically for more families.
What are some of the primary characteristics of poverty that make learning so difficult?
We know that for children to learn they need to feel socially and emotionally secure. When you don’t have a place to sleep, you’re tired and you can’t learn. When you’re eight or nine and you don’t know if you’re going to find mom or dad after school, that’s very anxiety producing. All these sorts of things impact how a young person retains information. It effects how much time they have to study. When you’re sharing housing, you might be doubled-up with someone who doesn’t want you there, so they might not treat you very well. That’s kind of what I experienced when I was a homeless kid. So you know you have to be there, but you also feel as though no one likes you. And then you’re worried and just feel insecure.
There’s a large share of kids from families that are working, but are homeless, and have serious transportation issues. We’ve had truancy issues with little kids because parents are too tired to get their 6-year-old onto the bus. They’re working a second- or third-shift and they just can’t get themselves going in the morning. And what 6-year-old can actually get [him or herself] on the bus?
And then there’s the lack of nutrition.
Yes. If you’re homeless then you’re hungry. I mean, sometimes you’re not getting enough food and nutrition because you’re saving every dollar for the things that really matter. I remember being traumatized as a kid because I could never get enough sugar— because sugar wasn’t seen as a basic need. My mom and dad never bought candy or anything because, you know what? If you have money and you need to eat, you’re not going to spend it on a Snickers bar.
I actually remember that I had too much pride to ask for anything and just the longing that you have for something as simple as, I don’t know, like a Jolly Rancher. That’s what our kids’ experience, just never really feeling like they quite fit with society. That doesn’t mean that there’s no joy or anything, you have that because you have certain qualities and you’re still living. It’s just hard.
When you talk about basic needs these days, you include social and emotional wellbeing. How does that definition play out at the Wilder Foundation?
All of our programs, especially if they’re serving people, have a social and emotional wellbeing component, which we see as a necessity for success at home, work and school.
We have trauma-informed work that we’re doing with teachers and administrators. We’re teaching them how to see beyond the child that’s sitting in the classroom, and to truly understand the challenges they’re facing. That helps when a kid doesn’t turn in their homework or they don’t look like they’re complying or they’re acting out in some way, because they might have slept on a floor somewhere the night before. That’s not something all of us are trained to think about.
Even the cultural competency work that we’re doing is about people being in touch with their heart, as well as their heads and hands, because the only way that we’re going to actually advance and improve the human condition is actually see people as real people.
What role do faith-based practices play in the work?
What we have supported over time, just from a practice standpoint, is that sense of belonging to something that’s greater than you. We know that deep, meaningful relationships are game changing not only for kids, but adults too. To have a connection either to another human being or to God is really impactful and can change a person’s life. Sometimes it’s as simple as having hope and knowing you have the opportunity to do better.
What would you say about the kind of volunteerism being encouraged by programs like Opportunity St. Paul?
Well, first of all, I wish everybody volunteered to do something! That’s because I think that volunteering gets you out of your comfort zone. It forges new relationships. It takes you—in a structured way—to new places and gives you the courage to try things you might not have tried otherwise. Opportunity Saint Paul will expose participants, some of them for the first time, to a reality that other people are experiencing every day, right down the street and around the corner. I also think it develops a spiritual connection to the human condition that you can’t necessarily read about.
And the giving back people will experience. Oh my goodness, lots of studies show that volunteering is a way to prolong your life. People who volunteer and give actually live longer. It improves joy and happiness and satisfaction.
And the kinds of organizations that Opportunity St. Paul is partnering volunteers with really do move the needle, don’t they?
Yes, I think organizations like ours, like Interfaith Action and Wilder are doing the work because we care and we can get it done. There are very few ulterior motives. The love and care that we have transcends how society sometimes tends to see people who live in poverty. It transcends systems and politics. We can step up in ways both small and large.
What sort of things should people bring to the act of volunteering, attitudinally and spiritually?
I guess the one thing I’ve learned over time is that the volunteer experience is never what you’re really expecting it to be, mainly because you’re out of your own depth and expertise area. So ask a lot of questions. Also, don’t expect people to understand necessarily who you really are, professionally or otherwise, until you spend some significant time with them. Maybe most importantly, just be patient with yourself. Don’t stress yourself out. Just trust that the things you will learn and the support you give will be transformative.
One or two ordinary people really can make a difference, can’t they?
Oh, yeah. The story I tell is that I almost didn’t apply to the school that I got into, Brown University, because my school counselor at the time prepared me for a disappointment and told me that a number of students better qualified than I had applied to that school and hadn’t gotten in. So I was deeply discouraged. And then I went to a math meet at Highland Park Senior High, and there happened to be a teacher there from another school that I’d seen at many meets. I somehow disclosed what my counselor had said and, as it turned, her son had gone to Brown University. She got this really mad look on her face and looked me in the eye and said, “You just ignore what that person said to you. It’s not her decision about whether or not you’re going to get into the school, and if you’ve already done the application, just go ahead and submit it.”
Go for it!
Yeah. I was really ready to throw the application in the trash because I was just so disheartened by that conversation. And, think about it, she was just a teacher who was volunteering at a math meet!
That’s the other thing that’s really cool about volunteering: People know you’re not getting paid to do it.
You’re there because you want to be.
Yes. And it turns out that that’s actually super meaningful. You’re there because you care. How often does that happen?
I’ve always volunteered because I get personal joy out of it. It’s just really gratifying to see where the people you engage with go. It doesn’t always turn out the way I want or think I want. But, hey, that one or two hours makes a huge difference. I really think that if we are together, we can do anything. That’s actually how everything around us has been created.
David Schimke is a Minneapolis-based writer, editor and media strategist.
To learn more about Opportunity Saint Paul, please contact: