When Marny Xiong saw an injustice, she was usually among the first to act.
When the multicultural center at the University of Minnesota-Duluth campus was vandalized in 2006, she organized black, Asian, Latino, and LGBTQ students to convince administrators to conduct one of its first campus climate surveys and start a black studies degree program. She later got a minor in black studies.
In 2008, when Minneapolis’ police department rewarded officer Jason Anderson the medal of valor after he shot 19-year-old Fong Lee three times in the back and then five times on the ground during a foot chase, Xiong helped stage a series of rallies until the department rescinded the award.
And last month, amid a spike in anti-Asian hate crimes after President Donald Trump dubbed the coronavirus the “Chinese virus,” Xiong, a Minneapolis school administrator and member of the St. Paul school board, gathered for the first time all of Minnesota’s Asian-American elected officials to author a letter denouncing racism.
“The forces of white supremacy will continue trying to scapegoat and divide us to distract from the massive gaps in social safety nets and worker protections, a broken healthcare system, longstanding structural racism and more,” read the widely distributed letter. “While they brew hate, we’re building a powerful movement for change.”
Xiong died from complications of the coronavirus June 7. She was 31 years old.
A ‘Beautiful Story of St. Paul’
Xiong held a deep, resonating sense of empathy, family and friends said, and an unusual ability to bridge divides between oppressed communities in the Twin Cities, the epicenter of today’s interracial Black Lives Matter movement against police violence.
In the final months of her life, as the chair of St. Paul’s school board, Xiong led the financially strapped district through a historical teacher’s strike over pay and classroom practices. Throughout the negotiations, administrators said, Xiong held true to her convictions that every child in St. Paul deserves access to a quality education.
“Marny is just a beautiful story of St. Paul,” said Joe Gothard, the superintendent of St. Paul’s school district. “She grew up as a child who didn’t have much, but she had such a love and determination for a quality education. Her legacy will be that all educators can see that same potential in every child in our school district.”
Xiong was the daughter of Zahoua and See Xiong, two Hmong refugees who, in a harrowing act, narrowly escaped the CIA’s secret war in Laos. Zahoua Xiong’s brother was shot and killed as the family fled to the United States.
The couple and their infant daughter Amee, Marny Xiong’s eldest sister, landed in St. Paul’s public housing units. Zahoua Xiong got a job as a dishwasher. After receiving a technical certification, he eventually began working at a manufacturing plant making hearing aids, and, in 2011, managed to buy a home for his family.
An Awakening of Identity
Growing up, Xiong and her clan of eight siblings often debated local, state, and national politics.
“Marny saw that the American dream can mean different things to different communities,” Amee Xiong said. “She saw that many of America’s policies weren’t created to support communities of color.”
When Xiong was 17, Amee Xiong scrounged up $450 to fly her sister to California to participate in a week-long program at the University of California, Berkeley for Southeast Asian-American high school students. It was there, Amee Xiong said, that her sister gained a sense of her identity as a Hmong, Asian, and American woman and decided to commit her life to activism, politics, and public education.
In the decade that followed that experience, Xiong led a series of efforts to tackle white supremacy, throwing herself in local races, showing up to city council meetings and organizing minority community members to vote. She quickly gained recognition as the outspoken Hmong woman who could explain to the general public how a wonky policy was harming minority communities and offer up solutions for local lawmakers.
During her day job as an operations manager at Hmong International Academy, a school in Minneapolis, she served as the “backbone” of the school, coordinating student transportation, organizing the school calendar, and scheduling staff meetings.
“She was so proud of her Hmong heritage and what it meant to be a Hmong woman and a Hmong leader,” Principal Jamil Payton said in a letter to his staff. “She felt it was important to share the Hmong language, culture, and heritage with our non-Hmong students.”
In 2017, Xiong successfully ran for St. Paul’s school board.
The Hmong community, elated to see one of their own in a position of power, held a traditional animism ceremony for her. In the middle of the ceremony, Xiong asked two other women to sit at the head of the table with her, a place usually reserved for men.
“Women would stand in line and not challenge cultural norms because the elders would get upset and say, ‘This is the way it’s always been,’” said Harding High School Principal Be Vang, one of the women picked to sit next to Xiong. “But Marny didn’t care. I had never seen that before. It was quite empowering.”
A Fighter for Black, Latino, and Asian Students
On the school board, Xiong worked to mend the often fraught relationship between the city’s black, Latino, and Asian communities and the district’s majority white teaching staff, administration, and school board.
One third of the district’s 37,000-students are English-language learners and community activists for years have accused the district of fostering a racist environment within schools. Students of color are suspended and expelled at disproportionate rates and score much lower than white students on standardized tests, one of the largest disparities in the nation, according to the district’s data.
In January, Xiong was elected to serve as chair of the board. Two months later, the St. Paul teacher’s union went on strike.
Throughout the negotiations, she held true to her convictions that students of color deserve access to a high quality, diverse teaching force, even after the union, who endorsed her campaign, turned against her.
“She refused to hide her values and compromise on what she believes is best for the community,” Gothard said.
In May, Xiong and her father were both diagnosed with the coronavirus.
Her bout was swift and unrelenting. Her family knew of no preexisting conditions.
One morning, while taking a shower, she ran out of breath and, in a panic, opened her window to get some fresh air. She called her sister, Amee.
“She said, ‘I’m really nervous for dad because I can see that he’s scared about going to the hospital. I want to encourage him by going to the hospital with him. We can both be admitted together,’” Amee Xiong said. “To me, now that I’m thinking back to that moment, she was sick herself, but she wasn’t thinking about herself. She was thinking about my dad. That’s just the type of person she is.”
Xiong died one month later.
Xiong is survived by her parents, Zahoua and See Xiong, and her siblings, Amee, Pao, Mary, Kong Pheng, Tom, John and Mong Zong Xiong.
Her family will hold services on June 26. The family has set up a Go Fund Me page for donations.
A version of this article appeared in the June 17, 2020 edition of Education Week as Marny Xiong, School Board Chair and Social Justice Champion, Dies at 31 of COVID-19