Civic engagement and public health have always been driving forces for Vayong Moua.
“My mom worked for 25 years at the Eau Claire public health department, and my dad worked at City Hall. I was forged out of civic engagement and public health,” he said.
Moua was born in Laos but his family fled to Eau Claire, Wisconsin, as refugees when he was an infant because people were facing genocide in their home country. They became one of the first Hmong families in Wisconsin.
Moua is now the director of racial and health equity advocacy at Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota, one of the few people of color in the advocacy department. The basis of his work is “changing the way policy is designed, the way they’re decided upon, to make sure that racial and health equity is built into how we even assess policies,” he said.
His work includes “leading campaigns and coalitions to advance racial and health equity and to change governance, not only issues,” he said.
His work also involves commercial tobacco control and food systems issues, increasing physical activity, racial equity, and establishing diversity in education and public places — approaches he “hopes will impact in a durable way.”
Moua said white supremacy is the biggest obstacle in his work.
“A lot of it is rooted in white fragility, this sense of if we acknowledge this, that then implicates us as a society,” he said.
But he doesn’t let that affect his game plan.
His team members remind each other of a saying: “If you’re not on the table, you’re going to be the menu.”
Together they have to tackle racial inequity, something Hennepin County declared a public health crisis last summer following the events of racial unrest.
Moua’s team remains on high alert for issues impacting communities of color.
“How things are fought for are shown in lots of things,” Moua said. And solutions start with getting the right people involved in the action.
“We advocate together,” Moua said. “So you’re seeing more people of color at the table and creating their own tables. We’re not trying to fill vacancies. We’re trying to redesign entire tables and say, ‘I don’t like your rules, and … I’m not here to fulfill something for you. We are here to decide upon things together.’”
Another term for this is cross-cultural power, which Moua describes as getting together with people of different backgrounds to take an action that will affect the community positively and equitably. In turn, it helps to prevent racism as a public health crisis.
Moua’s work involves diversity across the board.
For example, he works closely with underrepresented communities in Minnesota, including Karen refugees. According to the Karen Community of Minnesota, 2017 statistics show there were over 17,000 Karen in Minnesota, many living in St. Paul and Maplewood.
He works with decision-makers across Minnesota, such as Gov. Tim Walz’s office and far-reaching organizations, including the Centers for Disease Control and World Health Organization.
All are defining health disparities as differences in health that are preventable. What this means is the priority of racial and health equity is embedded in science, as well as social science. And Moua’s team adds the missing voices to the table.
Moua knows firsthand how different perspectives change the conversation. He witnessed his parents as “view-changers” in the Asian community as they too stood up against racism.
He’s proud of being Hmong and knows how impactful his work is in his community.
“There’s something that makes me feel accepted,” he said. And so, he continues to advocate for refugees and people of color like him.