Chapter One introduces the general argument developed in subsequent chapters. In Hmong American communities, political participation arises and deepens through inter-generational social mechanisms of voting. The process is aided by local institutions that educate newcomers in participatory skills and aid reconstruction of identity narratives. Present-day notions about citizenship rights and a desire for political inclusion are influenced by the Vietnam War experience of the Hmong Americans and their status as stateless refugees after the war. The relatively low levels of social-economic attainment of the Hmong Americans compared to other Asian Americans helps explain the motivation to participate in politics to press for public policy that would address poverty and educational reform
Chapter Two examines the cultural and political meaning of identity stories as articulated by Hmong Americans, including examples of how freedom and parity are expressed in these narratives. These stories have formed through an amalgam of lived experience and values. The process of construction and telling of the narratives is participatory. The engagement of ordinary people in conversations and creation of interpretive stories and performing art productions is what animates the identity narratives in civic and political life.
Chapter Three compares local contexts of political and civic participation in several cities – principally, Fresno, California; Saint Paul-Minneapolis, Minnesota; Eau Claire, Wisconsin; and Hickory, North Carolina. The analysis uses a conceptual framework delineating the nature of parity of participation in society, including the realm of economic distribution and cultural recognition, as articulated by Fraser. The analysis emphasizes the importance of public educational institutions and community based organizations in promoting citizen education. . Interviews of high school students illustrate the importance of cultural recognition in the process of citizen education.
Chapter Four uses interviews of Hmong American leaders and grassroots community members to examine views on a wide range of questions: the nature and extent of participants' political and civic engagement; sources of political information; attitudes about leadership; relationships to political parties; views about the main problems in the community; concepts of ethnic identity; and views of national policy issues.
Chapter Five presents a case study of the politics of recognition and dignity as expressed in the testimony of Hmong refugees about human rights violations in Thailand, where their relatives' graves were desecrated. A collaborative project led by human rights researchers at the University of Minnesota and Hmong American political leaders explored how the rights claims can be usefully framed in terms of indigenous religious rights. From the work of a newly emerging generation of college-educated Hmong Americans, parts of this story began to find moving expression in a nascent literary and performing arts.
Chapter Six concludes with a discussion of future prospects for wider and deeper political participation of the Hmong Americans. The desire to engage in elections is rooted in a belief in the role of government in assisting people poverty to become self-sufficient. Experiencing racial prejudice and economic disadvantage opens opportunities for education about commonality of interest with other racial-ethnic minorities and socially marginalized people. From this ground there is potential to better appreciate the power of collective action in politics and to gain the skills needed in a truly participatory citizenship which extends beyond voting alone. To realize this potential requires imagining collaborative and inter-generational projects of community-based political education.