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Center for Hmong Arts and Talent (CHAT)

CHAT's Trajectory: Growing Deep, Not Wide

The Center for Hmong Arts and Talent (CHAT) strives to become more impact-driven by harnessing the arts as a source for individual empowerment and as a means for social change.

Center for Hmong Arts and Talent (CHAT)The Center for Hmong Arts and Talent (CHAT) has grown widely, expanding from primarily theater performances to five additional artistic disciplines: visual arts, literary arts, music, traditional Hmong arts and multi-media arts-making. Now, ten years after its initial period of successful expansion, CHAT is beginning to go deep rather than wide. They are striving to become more impact-driven by harnessing the arts as a source for individual empowerment and as a means for social change.

CHAT grew out of Pom Siab Hmoob Theatre, the first Hmong theater company in the world, founded in 1990. In 1998, theater organizers expanded their focus beyond theater arts to serve more artists in the Hmong community. CHAT’s current mission is to nurture and develop Hmong artists to enhance the community. The organization offers open mic nights, after-school art classes, and other educational endeavors geared towards at-risk Hmong children and teens. In addition, CHAT hosts a weekly Hmong radio show, annual arts festival, and fashion show. With this diverse set of programs, CHAT advances its vision to support a network of professional artists and involved audiences.

After significant staff and board turnover in recent years, the time was ripe for CHAT to begin its community engagement process in order to re-engage within the organization and externally with the community. The organization engaged with artists, potential organizational partners, and youth in its six-month process. Conversations centered on the changing needs of Hmong artists, the need for accurate and compelling messaging, and how the organization can make deep impacts for positive change in their community.

"Ever since CHAT, I notice things more. Before, I just wanted to be popular and I would just do things and hang around with people without even thinking about it. Now, I feel like there are more important things to think about. I am more aware of things and I think before I make decisions." —Youth participant in the "Art Saves Us" program

In regards to the first learning, CHAT talked with artists to determine how to better support their changing needs. Staff learned that a more holistic approach is necessary. For instance, organizational leaders heard that successfully supporting theater work is about much more than the actors. CHAT now explores how to nurture new playwrights, directors, creative teams, and so on. Similarly, their work with fashion designers encompasses not only ongoing the encouragement of artistic innovation, but also technical assistance for fashion career paths and business plans. Since many young Hmong artists do not have the support of their families, CHAT can play a crucial role in this area. Ultimately, CHAT believes that this more comprehensive approach on nurturance and professional development will better advance both emerging and experienced Hmong artists. As Executive Director Kathy Mouacheupao explains, "We are exploring and interpreting the notion of ‘expansion’ in a different way."

Secondly, nearly all participants in CHAT’s CE dialogues voiced the issue of effective messaging. For example, although CHAT serves a collective of artists in both traditional and contemporary art forms, many community partners see CHAT as targeting solely the youth population in hip hop, break dancing, and other "urban" art forms. Thus, in its staff visioning retreat, the organization addressed the perceived disconnect between its mission and image. CHAT is better crafting and tailoring key messages for different audiences, including tangible stories of its impact. In their strategic planning, board and staff discussed how to align the organization’s role, vision, and values and communicate this vision in compelling and cohesive ways. For the first time, the organization is also developing detailed work plans for all staff that considers how to maintain this alignment.

Finally, the increased clarity about both CHAT’s unique niche with artists and about its vision have led to more intentionality about how the organization can maximize impact. One persuasive example is Art Saves Us, a program that offers free art classes and technical skills to youth. Though it is designed to encourage artistic development, youth participants also report learning important life skills, such as self-confidence and consciousness of social issues. Another powerful example is the evolution of CHAT’s annual arts festival, which has gradually grown into a focus on social change. Early festivals raised awareness about the Hmong genocide and other human rights issues. Now, stories are shifting to the successes of the Hmong people as well. Organizers think intentionally about how to touch a broader audience in order to enhance cross-cultural understanding between Hmong and non-Hmong people. Both the Arts Saves Us program and the annual arts festival demonstrate CHAT’s progression to deepening its impact by harnessing the arts as a means for social change.

"For us, the data validated who we are in the Hmong community and the need for us in the arts community. We recognized the unique position we have in nurturing arts and artists." —Kathy Mouacheupao, Executive Director

In conclusion, CHAT’s key learnings from community engagement have set out a blue print for its future success. CHAT recognizes the need to adapt organizational structures and practices to meet the growing and diverse needs of Hmong artists in a holistic, comprehensive way. The deliberate space and time helped stakeholders more clearly assess and plan the organizations’ programs, vision, messages and impact. In the coming years, organizational leaders are searching for capacity building tools and resources to allow CHAT to continue its journey of going deeper, not wider.