By Ana Martinez-Ortiz
Jim Lee, 25, always knew he was going to be an entrepreneur. He had the knowledge and the connections he just needed an idea. Then one day, it hit him, and his first business venture began.
Lee had served as a board member for a nonprofit organization, which raised money for Hmong college students. When the organization died down, Lee saw the need to fill the vacancy. He reached out to former teammates and friends and in August 2019, the Our Scholarship team had formed.
Our Scholarship is a nonprofit organization. The team consists of 11 young professionals who all volunteer their time to help achieve the group’s mission: increase access to higher education for members of the Southeast Asian community through scholarship opportunities.
Lee explained that Southeast Asian Americans have some of the highest poverty rates in the country.
AAPI Data publishes demographic data and policy research on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, according to its website. The group reported that the poverty rate among Southeast Asian Americans is higher than the national average, which ranks at 11.3%. The Hmong poverty rate is 27.4%, the Cambodian rate is 18.2%, the Vietnamese rate is 13% and the Laotian rate is 12.2%.
It’s a narrative that may not be well known.
Chingcha Vang, an Our Scholarship board member and program manager for Leadership Education for Asian Pacifics, explained that the Asian American and Pacific Islander community is often viewed as the model minority.
This harmful myth began during the Civil Rights movement, he explained, as a way for white Americans to pit communities of color against each other. At the time, the perceived narrative was that the Asian American community consisted of smart, hardworking people who were successfully chasing the American dream.
Over the years, the AAPI community in America has diversified and so has its socio-economic status. As in all groups, some members of the population are well-off, but others are not. However, due to the model minority myth that all AAPI people are successful, those who are suffering are often overlooked when it comes to the distribution of resources, Vang said.
The distribution of resources isn’t equitable, Vang said, and it is one of the reasons Our Scholarship targets the Southeast Asian community. The Hmong community is the largest AAPI group in Wisconsin, he said. The state also has large Vietnamese, Laotian and Cambodian populations with a growing Burmese population.
So far, Our Scholarship has been a success. After delaying its in-person launch due to the coronavirus pandemic, the group decided to launch virtually on Facebook Live in October 2020.
With many people struggling financially, the group worried if the launch would gain traction. As it turns out, the team had nothing to worry about. The group raised $2,500 in its first year.
“It blew my mind cause it’s a pandemic and people are still giving,” Lee said.
Vang noted that the organization’s success was possible thanks to the parents, community members and allies who showed their support. He added that it is proof of the necessity of this group.
“It’s been really inspiring to be a part of this organization since its birth to now,” Vang said.
The group plans to announce the Our Scholarship winners in June. Following that, the team’s goal is to secure funding for its next round of scholarships. It currently offers scholarships in five categories including non-traditional students, first generation and low-income, COVID-19 relief and more.
Vang said the plan is to partner with organizations and businesses to create financial sustainability in order to maintain the number of scholarship and potentially increase the amount of money given away.
Vang, who formerly taught high school social studies at Hmong American Peace Academy, added that the group is considering additional ways it can impact and support students in the Southeast Asian American community such as mentorship opportunities and application workshops.
Lee said the group is changing the narrative of what it means to be a young leader.
“We can make change and inspire others too,” Lee said, adding that he hopes the group’s work encourages other to embrace their identity.