Following Up with Spring 2019 Microgrant Winner, Gaosong Heu
(Gaosong Heu taking notes during her layover in Portland, OR).
Gaosong Heu is a Hmong American performance artist, published writer, arts educator, arts administrator and scholar of Hmong performance practices. She is a second year Master’s student in the Arts Administration (ARAD) program at Teachers College (TC), Columbia University. Her current studies are primarily focused on diversity within leadership, programming and evaluation in arts organizations. Gaosong’s work and career aspirations are informed by her passion for the arts, equity, access and social justice. In the future, she hopes to go back to get her Ph.D in Anthropology, American Studies, Feminist Studies or Music Ethnography with a focus on Hmong-American performance practices.
Describe the opportunity you participated in and how it aligns with your career aspirations.
Last Spring, I had the honor of applying for a micro-grant to attend the Hmong National Development Conference through the ARAD program. I was ecstatic when I found out I actually received the grant! The micro-grant would cover the registration fees, lodging and airfare to the Hmong National Development Conference in San Jose, CA. I was fortunate enough to lead two workshops during my short weekend there. My first workshop was a presentation of a short documentary I starred in and co-directed with my fellow director, Kelly Huang, titled “Flourish: The Renaissance of Hmong Flower Singing”. This documentary tells the story, tradition and history of Hmong Flower Singing (a traditional form of Hmong folk singing) and my journey to learn this dying artform from my mother in the United States. This presentation would have been the second time I showed this documentary to an audience. I was excited to share my personal journey with this musical form with Hmong scholars from all parts of the world.
You can watch the promo video for “Flourish” here.
The second workshop I led was with my dear friend and colleague, Johnnie Yang. Johnnie Yang is a Hmong American scholar pursuing his MA in Education at TC! His research is focused on the phenomenon of diversity within higher education. We led a very practical and important workshop called “Demystifying the Grad School Application Process.” We shared our personal experiences and philosophies regarding higher education and how despite having very different journeys and motivations to attend grad school, we were both accepted into the same college at Columbia.
(Left: Gaosong Heu and Johnnie Yang taking a moment to breathe before the workshop begins)
- What were the most important takeaways from your experience?
Both workshops were well attended and well received by our audiences. The main takeaways from my first workshop were the following notions: (1) Hmong folk music does not need to be made more Western in order to be considered “legitimate” and or “art;” (2) If people do not begin to learn this art form, it will disappear within the next 20 years; (3) Anyone and everyone, regardless of skill, age, gender, race, culture, language, can perform this art form. I had planned to give some contextual information for my project, show the film, perform live and facilitate a Q&A. Everything almost went as planned, that is until I showed the film. I was crying by the end of the film. I always cry when I show that film. Possibly because it was such a great project I had taken on and I am still amazed I was able to create that film. Or maybe because it was such an important part of my own growth as a human being, professional and artist. Or maybe because it was an incredibly stressful experience and I am slightly still traumatized (so much could have gone wrong!). When I looked out into the room, I realized that most of the audience was crying with me. I wiped my tears, took a deep breath and started my live performance of Hmong flower singing. However, there was a young Hmong woman in the front row who was crying…and the more I sang the more she cried. But the more she cried, the more I wanted to cry! I messed up a lot. Stopped and started over; had terrible breath support and was everywhere with the pronunciation of my text. It was a raw, beautiful performance of connectivity, vulnerability and support. I wouldn’t have had it any other way.
(Right: Gaosong posing with her presentation before attendees arrived.)
The second workshop was very intimate and honest. After Johnnie and I presented, we and our ten attendees sat in a circle and told one another about our grad school dreams, career aspirations, hopes and fears. We all listened to one another with open hearts and provided each other with the space to be heard. My goal with this workshop was to provide them with the resources and strategies they need to be competitive applicants to any reputable graduate program in the world. More importantly though, I just wanted to show them, “I know your struggle as a first generation Hmong American and if I can do it… you can do it too!” I left the workshop feeling so proud of my fellow brothers and sisters, and the bright futures they each will continue having as they go forward.
How has the microgrant helped to enrich you professionally?
Oh, I had such a blast! I met so many people, saw old friends, learned so much about my community and about myself again. The most important thing for me in attending the conference was to reconnect with my intellectual and cultural community. I am proud to have shared all that I have learned since I last attended and facilitated a workshop for the Hmong National Development Conference in 2015! I gained so much more from that short weekend than I could have ever thought possible. All of the workshops I attended, people I met, the conversations I had…it all taught me the most valuable lesson: that there is no such thing as the “perfect” time, setting or situation to create access and equity. As I continue to grow as an arts administrator and artist in my own fields, I sometimes think that there will be a better time, in the future, when I am more “qualified” or “experienced”, to teach people about Hmong flower singing, or to create change within my community, but that perception is false. Change is nature, but to ignite change within oneself and one’s community is radical. Sometimes I feel like I need to give myself permission to exist as I am, unapologetically. But the truth is, sometimes I just need to do.
If I want people to learn Hmong Flower singing before it disappears completely, I have to just start teaching people now, anything and everything I know about this art form.
If I want people to have more access to the arts, I need to create those opportunities, in any capacity I can.
And if I want to empower others to see the value of their own voice, then I have to remember my own worth and make sure to never apologize for ASKING more questions, for more help, for more money, for more time or for more space when it comes to my own personal and professional development.
(Left: Gaosong with a group of wonderful Hmong scholars and professionals from CA, WI, MN and CO.)
Three days in California and I honestly felt my spirit was reinvigorated and renewed. Having the opportunity to teach, to be taught and to be inspired by other amazing Hmong scholars and students was incredible. Thank you ARAD Faculty and Administrators for even providing us students with this grant! This experience was and will continue to be a highlight of my experience in the ARAD program and will serve as a reminder of the ways in which people must continue to give back and contribute to their communities if they are to grow themselves.
Cheers and uas tsaug! (Oo-uh chow = thank you!)