Restoring Power Collectively to End Domestic and Sexual Violence: Interview with Kabzuag Vaj

Freedom Inc engages low-to-no income communities of color and works to end violence against women, gender non-conforming, and youth by promoting healthier living, especially in African American and Southeast Asian populations in Dane County.  The organization creates new definitions and solutions to empower community members as agents of change and inspires and restores power to those most affected by violence through leadership development and community organizing.

Cynthia Lin, Social Justice Educator at the MSC, sat down with Freedom Inc’s Founder and Co-Executive Director, Kabzuag Vaj, to talk about how the organization addresses root causes of violence and builds across communities of color towards collective liberation.

Cynthia: Tell us a little bit about your background and how it led you to start Freedom, Inc?

Kabzuag: Born at the end of the Secret War in Laos (Vietnam War) under circumstances of famine, death, and despair, I was never meant to survive. Because I was never meant to be here, I have been fighting to let people know I am here.

Growing up, I saw how women and girls were treated unfairly.  I saw how my mother and aunts would cook all day just to set their food on the table for my male family members to eat first, leaving the leftovers for the women and children.  As a baby girl, medicine was not given to me willingly.  As a teen, my brothers were allowed to control and discipline me.  As a young woman, I was controlled by my husband and my family.  From a young age, I vowed to create a new world—one in which I wanted to live in, one in which my sisters, mothers, and aunties wanted to live in.

Twelve years ago, when I was 24, I began noticing more and more younger girls dropping out of high school, hanging around in neighborhood parking lots, having trouble finding or keeping jobs.  I created informal safe spaces for youth to gather, talk about issues in their daily lives, and build opportunities for popular education. From there, I worked with other women my age to lead weekly community organizing training and skill-building workshops for 15- to 22-year-old Hmong and Southeast Asian youth, on topics of violence against women, racism/racial profiling, economic justice, and immigration and deportation. That’s where Asian Freedom Project began, and we sustained these programs over three years.

Through my involvement in domestic violence work, I was offered funding to start an anti-violence organization in Madison, and that is when the seed of Asian Freedom Project became Freedom Inc.

C: How does Freedom Inc. mobilize communities of color and low-income communities around social issues?

K: At Freedom Inc, we work to end violence against women, gender non-conforming folks, and young folks, to promote healthier living.  We organize around the root causes of violence, creating new definitions and solutions, and empowering all community members as agents of change. Our vision for ending violence is to inspire and restore power of those most affected through leadership development and community organizing, in ways that are language-, gender, generation-, and culture-specific to women, gender non-conforming, and youth, in African American and Southeast Asian families.  Restoring this power brings about deep social, political, cultural, and economic change. Through Freedom Inc, we have worked with hundreds of women and children as well as build a non-profit that has a collective model where people most affected share power and lead the vision of the organization.

C: How is Freedom, Inc structured, and why?

K: Instead of having a hierarchical organizational structure, we work as a collective and our organization chart is shaped like a flower.  I saw similar drawing from Sista II Sista [a young women’s collective] out in NY.  The reason this made sense for Freedom Inc is that I was always so uncomfortable with campaigns.  I remember growing up and seeing the end of W-2 [The Welfare-to-Work Program, a threat to life-saving social services] and rallying for that, immigration rights and rallying for that.  I thought to myself that we can’t work that way, there aren’t enough of us in the state to mobilize to do that, to organize only to see that policies don’t change [or change nominally], and we’re onto the next one.  What I’m interested in is seeing the changes in people.  In the first years, when I saw the changes in young people, I knew it couldn’t be just about the campaigns.

True, we created leadership by way of doing campaigns, but the real campaigns were the people.  It wasn’t until students kept asking me, ‘But what IS your campaign.’ I ended up saying, ‘We don’t have a campaign; our campaign is our community.’ We have a belief that, no matter what policies and issues people are fighting for, the ultimate campaign is changing people in their hearts and minds about equity and justice and fighting for themselves.  And at the end, it didn’t matter if we had won or lost, if someone’s life was improved through the process, that’s a win enough.

It’s not that the Midwest doesn’t have great leadership of people of color, but in the community I come from, you can’t build a campaign, because the capacity of the community isn’t there.  That may not mean anything to communities that have been in US for a long time, but for communities that are new to US, who came as refugees and without a lot of capacity, that’s difficult.  But yes, you do have to tie people as your campaign to actually being able to make changes to the structures that affect people’s lives.  If you’re dealing with refugees with limited resources and no history in this country, that capacity of building leadership in people has to be different.  Now that we’ve been here for 30 years, though, I can see it changing.

C: Right, now, Freedom Inc’s elders are working on a campaign to win rights to garden collectively in Madison’s Brittingham Park.  Can you tell us about where that project came from?

K: It’s about survival.  And now that we’re working also with Black and African American communities, the changes we’re fighting for is survival.  It’s about eating, staying out of the new slave industry—the prison system, it’s about those kinds of things that are so basic and about survival. White folks and wealthy folks don’t have to think about that kind of survival.  But poor folks do have to campaigns are so basic and about survival.  What makes it unbelievable is that people don’t believe that we’re Madison and still fighting for basic rights.  It’s hard for people against the garden [mostly homeowners with waterfront property] to fathom why people would want a garden in their beautiful open space next to the lake.  They say, ‘Why are you desecrating this, why are you taking away form our view?’  They don’t see gardening as a form of exercise. They can’t imagine that our elders would also want to be by the lake.  What they want and value are also what we do—fresh water, clean air, green spaces, trees to look at.  They have the luxury to pay for hundreds of dollars of food at grocery story, but never thought that their beans are more than our elders can afford, or that they don’t want the chemicals in the beans they can afford.  They can go to the store to pay for organic stuff, but they say, ‘How dare you plant organic food on our grass?’

C: What shifts do you think need to happen in the community at large to end domestic and sexual violence?  

K: I think people need to see the root causes and recognize that patriarchy is one contributing factor.  Until we recognize the root causes, we’ll only be putting band-aids on the issues.  Things will only be fixed from the place of understanding the root causes.  Those who benefit from privilege and power of patriarchy have to be willing to change.  And those of us, women and girls, in whatever capacity, and those others that don’t benefit from systems of oppression have to do whatever we can in whatever small ways we can.  It can be women who don’t have much voice in the household to say, ‘Today my son will do chores usually designated for women.’

These small changes cause a ripple effect, little by little…  But it cannot be separate acts; it’s not good enough for people to only do it as individuals, although that’s a good start.  It has to be mobilized and coordinated and visible. For it to be true change, it has to be an open conversation, a collective dialogue, and a shared analysis.

C: What the gardening campaign is about and why it’s important to FI?

K: The garden campaign is about the right to land, the right to grow our own food.  It’s about taking back what belongs to all of us, right? I think that for Southeast Asian population, it’s part of our culture and history.  Our elders don’t know how to be without the earth, because that’s all they can remember. It’s about teaching ‘cultural competency’ as people talk about all the time, how to work toward racial harmony. Black folks and Hmong folks are learning from each other, we’re teaching them about growing their own food, and they’re teaching us about exercising our voices, speaking up for what we want and what we believe, and not to be silent.  Two communities that weren’t supposed to be together, are.  Having a home is our right.  They have history here, and we’re learning form each other’s histories of struggle and triumph, and respecting them.  Npbody teaching that; the system just teaches us to hate each other, and fight for the little scraps that they give us.

C: How does FI understand the garden campaign as anti-violence work?

K: It goes back to why everything is connected to ending violence against women and girls.  It’s a complicated question, but it’s kind of like understanding the root causes, and if patriarchy is behind all of this, and things that stem from patriarchy continue to perpetuate that cycle.

Just to give you an example – all of those who want to garden are women, and elderly women.  Doing this improves their mental, physical health, and give them sanity back.  They get to garden in public in a safe space, there are people around and you’d think it’s safe.  That decreases isolation and increases their autonomy as individuals and as a group.  It supports our belief that to end violence, all your campaigns need to be based around improving the lives of women and girls, and if you do that the whole community is in a better place.  We believe that if you support FI—if you support women and girls—you need to create a healthier communities.  When women and girls benefit, the community benefits.  But in a patriarchal society, when men and boys benefit, women and girls don’t always.  If we look at root causes, it’s all about dismantling the patriarchal system that continues to perpetuate violence against women and girls.

Women and girls fall victim to institutions that are set up to manage our lives.  Most systems that shape their lives are not put in place by them, not created for them, don’t take their voices into consideration.  Thus they cannot be truly for them, and women cannot be safe in them.  Only we know what places are safe for us, but if we’re never at the table to create them and are forced to live in the spaces created for us, we cannot be safe.  One example that really influenced me early on was when I was studying abroad in Thailand. They said to the girls, ‘If it’s late and dark, you should be inside.’ If someone gets raped at nighttime, usually t hey were asked what were they doing out at that time.  If the majority of sexual crimes are happening against women by men, shouldn’t we be teaching the boys to come in, to take responsibility, because the majority of problems are caused by men?

C: Tell us about People Like US, FI’s LGBTQ youth of color program.

K: At Freedom Inc’s beginning, when most youth were coming from a very closed community [the Hmong community] where LGBTQ folks were not accepted, it was just a taboo and no one talked about it.  FI always strived to have open spaces and conversations about LGBTQ issues.  It wasn’t until one of our board members, Kristen Petroshius, made an effort to connect us to our current PLUS organizer, M Adams, that things changed for us.  What was instrumental was that we devoted resources and time; before it was just conversations.  We put resources and time into looking at LGBTQ justice; I mean M has basically taken this work on and devoted herself to making PLUS into a place none of us could have done, creating and believing and giving us analysis about gender identity and queer issues.  We didn’t have at the center of the organization the capacity to do this, and the amazing thing is that after the PLUS space opened up, the queer and gender non-conforming youth that have always been a part of Freedom Inc had the support deepen their leadership and bring it fully into the organization.

This is a piece advice to folks that want to do anti-oppression work in their organizations.  So often, we hear people say, “We’re trying to bring in [under-represented communities] but folks aren’t applying, we don’t have qualified folks, etc.” Maybe you don’t have the qualifications to attract those people.  It’s about flipping the script.  It’s not about folks not having the capacity, it’s that WE didn’t.  Social change cannot be created by those not impacted by the issues they want to work. To be intentional about social change, we had to set aside resources and investing in making that change happen.


Thank you again to Kabzuag and Cynthia for sharing their thoughts and their time. Support Freedom Inc’s programming  and contribute to their programs.


At UW-Madison, April marks the observance of Out & About MonthAsian American Awareness Week and Heritage Month, and Sexual Assault Awareness Month. As part of our vision to expand and support transformative experiences around identity and social justice through a multi-issue focus, we are dedicating the April issue of Tapestry to sharing stories of intersecting identities. 

Tonight, April 19, the Campus Women’s Center is hosting Take Back the Night in Library Mall, a rally to raise awareness about sexual assault/sexual violence and domestic violence.

  • 5:30pm: Clothesline Project Display, Make a Poster
  • 6:40-7:00: Rally 
  • 7:00-7:25: March to Capital
  •  7:25-7:40: Speak Out and Candlelight Vigil 
  • 7:45-8:10: March back to Library Mall 

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