Young woman’s commitment to social justice stems from Asian American experience
‘I’m not just Hmong and I’m not just American, but I’m both’
While growing up, Tia Moua had a difficult time fully embracing her identities, often feeling as though she was living in two different worlds. But as she began to experience the world, she learned to celebrate herself and honor her heritage without feeling like she had to make a choice between the two.
Born and raised in Spokane, nineteen-year-old Tia says she felt like she sometimes had to hide her Asian identity at her predominantly white high school because diversity wasn’t something that was widely embraced.
“I definitely felt like I didn’t belong sometimes in school, just because I was usually one of the only Asians in my class, and that was pretty sad to me sometimes just because a lot of kids could be really mean with racist comments,” Tia says.
Now a Gonzaga sophomore, Tia says she feels like she can embrace both of her identities and has committed herself to learning about systems of oppression and anti-racism work and taken that approach in her work as an intern with the Asian Pacific Islander Coalition Spokane chapter to serve the needs of the Asian and Pacific Islander community.
“Learning about these systems sort of fuels me to be like, ‘Well, I was silent in my past’,” she says. “Now I just really want to do something about this, to help people know that it’s not okay to treat people like they’re less than you or it’s not okay to keep people oppressed or keep silencing them. Just like how I felt when I was a kid, I don’t want people to keep feeling that way.”
Tia’s passion for social justice is visible in much of what she does. She’s helped organize several events to foster civic engagement within the community and provide resources to amplify the voice of the Asian and Pacific Islanders in Spokane.
“I just really want to fight against racism, white supremacy, and just advocate for marginalized groups,” Tia says.
During the past months, Tia says she has learned from APIC leaders what it means to be a true advocate. Her intensity and commitment has pushed her to build relationships with people in the API community so that she can better serve their needs.
Tia says she has found it incredibly vital to hear directly from the API community what their needs are, so they can work to address them.
The pandemic has affected many communities heavily, especially minorities. Tia says the work APIC does is important in providing the APIC community with resources, especially now. Tia began her work with APIC in the summer and spearheaded a census outreach event with the aims of increasing civic engagement.
“A lot of people showed up,” Tia says, “I was just thankful to see so many people from our community come together.”
Tia really led the whole event, says Rowena Pineda, APIC co-chair. Tia was the one who found the space to hold the event, worked with Second Harvest to provide food, with Refugee Connections to get school supplies, and found volunteers to help at the event.
Pineda says organization leaders knew Tia would be the perfect intern for the organization because of her passion for social justice and her thoughtfulness in how she approaches every project.
Young people bring in a fresh perspective and a certain energy that helps move projects along, Pineda says.
The most recent project Tia helped with was centered around increasing the API community’s voter turnout for the 2020 presidential election, where much was at stake. In collaboration with the League of Women Voters, Tia created a series of four videos encouraging the community to vote and providing the necessary information for them to do so.
A big language barrier still exists within the API community, Tia says, which prevents many people from voting or voicing their needs.
“So that’s something that I hadn’t really considered before because I am a U.S. citizen and I’ve been born and raised here in Spokane,” Tia says.
APIC worked to translate voter materials into Hmong, Chinese, and other prominent languages within the API community. Through the organization, Tia also helped put on a voter registration event alongside the League of Women Voters.
“I’ve been sharing information like that on social media too, just for people who couldn’t attend the event, because I respect that some people didn’t come because of COVID,” Tia says.
Pineda says she values the passion that Tia brings to every project she is involved in.
“I also realize that she’s still relatively young, and I’m always impressed when young people have a good sense of self and confidence, especially around their work,” she says.
“It’s beautiful to see young people who are secure in their identity as Asian American and learn how to balance both worlds,” Pineda said.
“I’m in my 50s, and still there are times I remember when I’m apologizing,” she said. “I’m sure Tia would say she still has work to do, but the fact that she has a pretty good sense of herself is pretty impressive. She’s at that point where she’s like, ‘I’m not going to apologize for who I am.’”
But Tia’s confidence is something that bloomed over time as she learned to step into her own.
Tia had always been a shy child, says Mai Yang, Tia’s mother, who is a social worker with the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services. This worried her parents, who wanted to do everything in their power to see her and their other children succeed. One day, the family received a postcard in the mail from the National American Miss organization, and their motto of building confidence in young girls stood out to Mai.
So, Mai says she signed up six-year-old Tia for the confidence-building pageant in the hopes that it would help bring her out of her shell. Tia loved the experience, and she kept with it.
At thirteen years old she won her first pageant and was crowned Miss Spokane’s Outstanding Teen in 2015. She took a small break and the next year won again and went on to compete in the Miss Washington’s Outstanding Teen pageant.
At fifteen-years-old, Tia became the first Hmong young woman to be crowned Miss Washington’s Outstanding Teen.
“I didn’t fit the stereotype of what a pageant girl should look like,” she says. “It was super amazing to be able to break that norm and redefine what is deemed to be a leader and role model.”
Tia says she dreamed of being in that position as a younger girl and never imagined it would come true. But it did.
“That was the first time that I really saw myself as being able to be an agent of change and really embrace my identity,” she says.
Tia has always had a passion for advocacy that was born from the encouragement of her parents, who arrived to the U.S. in the 70s as refugees from Laos. Tia says her parents instilled in her the importance of advocating for those less fortunate than her, as well as the ability to understand what it means to struggle and at the same time be appreciative of life’s beauty.
“It’s their life story that really encourages me to give back to my community, which has given me so much, and to fight for immigrants and refugees and people of color,” Tia says. “Perhaps my activism and that fire in me to fight for marginalized people comes more from a place of disappointment and anger sometimes at how our system is continuing to work to oppress a lot of different people.”
Even after winning, Tia continued dancing and worked to maintain her 4.0 GPA. She says one of the most valuable things she learned during that time was feeling comfortable with saying no to prevent herself from being burnt out.
Mai says many people look at Tia and think that things come easily to her because it seems effortless.
“As her mother and going through all the struggles and failures with her, I’ve seen how hard she works, but people don’t see what I do,” Mai says. “She is not afraid to work hard to pursue her dreams.”
Even after she was crowned Miss Washington’s Outstanding Teen, Tia continued with her work cleaning the dance studio every other week in exchange for her family only having to pay half of the tuition because money was a bit tight at the time, Mai said.
“We were refugees. We had so little, and so we taught her to not take anything for granted, and I think that’s a lesson that she has definitely learned,” Mai says. “I’m just so proud of her. I almost can’t remember how shy she was before, because she’s so outgoing and intelligent and articulate.”
It has all been a learning experience, Tia says. As a child, she didn’t feel like she could speak out against the ignorant comments other kids made about her or the assumptions they made about her because of her culture.
“I sort of held all those emotions in, and then now as I’m older and learning more about these systems, and about anti-racism work, it fuels me to be like, ‘Well, I was silent in my past’,” she says. “Now I just really want to do something about this, to help people know that it’s not okay to treat people like they’re less than you or it’s not okay to keep people oppressed or keep silencing them. Just like how I felt when I was a kid, I don’t want people to keep feeling that way.”
Tia has made it her mission to break the norm and negative expectations of what an Asian-American should be, and she attributes a lot of that growth to her mother.
“I’m not just Hmong and I’m not just American; I’m both. And I think that when I was able to finally realize that, it helped me feel more empowered,” she says. “It just took me a lot of reflecting and a lot of years to realize, I am good enough as I am—as a young American and as an Asian American.”
Share this entry
Spokane Coeur d’Alene Living
157 S Howard | Suite 603
Spokane WA 99201
Catering and Management
The Hidden Ballroom
Loft at the Flour Mill
Hangar Event Center
180 S Howard
Spokane, WA 99201
The Hidden Ballroom
39 W Pacific | Spokane WA 99201
Loft at the Flour Mill
621 W Mallon, 7th Floor | Spokane WA 99201
Hangar Event Center
6905 E Rutter Ave | Spokane WA 99212