Immigration, Identity, and the Arts

“I began to record our family history…thinking that if I bridged the gap between the past and the present, I could fill the void between my parents and me.”
— Thi Bui, The Best We Could Do
About the Series

Through art and dialogue, in connection with Thi Bui’s graphic memoir, The Best We Could Do, we will engage in the lived experiences of different immigrant populations in Minnesota and amplify their voices, stories, and music.

American Composers Forum believes that music is a medium that can help us connect as humans, tell stories, and share experiences. East Side Freedom Library has long hosted study groups, partnerships, and community events that lift up the stories of its neighborhood in the name of justice. Together, we will host several cultural events and conversations examining the theme of “Immigration, Identity, and the Arts,” to amplify the voices, stories, and music of immigrant artists and community members wrestling with this theme. Included in our events will be discussion of, and inspiration from, Thi Bui’s graphic memoir, The Best We Could Do. Supported by the NEA’s Big Read project, this book aligns greatly with our theme, and resonates with so many members of our community. We are planning parallel in-person and virtual options to accommodate health and accessibility considerations. All events are free and open to the public. This page will be updated as event hosts, guests, and locations are confirmed. Check back often!

About East Side Freedom Library

The East Side Freedom Library (ESFL) has its home in the former Arlington Hills library, one of St. Paul’s historic Carnegie library buildings at 1105 Greenbrier Street, located in the Payne-Phalen neighborhood.

The ESFL’s mission is to inspire solidarity, advocate for justice and work toward equity for all.  The library houses non-circulating research collections that appeal to interested general learners as well as scholars, with innovative databases and finding aids that make using the collections fun and vital.

Story is a major theme of the ESFL, and the telling and gathering of stories, through formal interviews, workshops, and small-scale public performances, will allow local residents and interested publics to learn more about the work and residential histories of the East Side.

About American Composers Forum

ACF supports and advocates for individuals and groups creating music today by demonstrating the vitality and relevance of their art. We connect artists with collaborators, organizations, audiences, and resources. Through storytelling, publications, recordings, hosted gatherings, and industry leadership, we activate equitable opportunities for artists. We provide direct funding and mentorship to a broad and diverse field of music creators, highlighting those who have been historically excluded from participation.

Founded in 1973 by composers Libby Larsen and Stephen Paulus as the Minnesota Composers Forum, the organization continues to invest in its Minnesota home while connecting artists and advocates across the United States, its territories, and beyond. ACF frames our work with a focus on racial equity and includes within that scope, but not limit it to, diverse gender identities, musical approaches and perspectives, religions, ages, (dis)abilities, cultures, backgrounds, sexual orientations, and broad definitions of being “American.”

About NEA Big Read

The National Endowment for the Arts Big Read is designed to broaden our understanding of our world, our communities, and ourselves through the joy of sharing a good book. American Composers Forum is one of 60+ nonprofit organizations to receive a grant to host an NEA Big Read project.

NEA Big Read launch event as part of ACF’s Artist Equity Summit

Walker|west Music Academy

760 Selby Ave, St Paul, MN 55104
9:00 am CT

Each year ACF hosts an Artist Equity Summit that centers music creators and examines themes related to equity that impact the field and beyond. Our theme in 2022 was “Lifting Up our Youth.”

This event was the culmination of artist PaviElle French’s residency with six St. Paul-based arts organizations working together as a group for the first time. Liberation! Lifting Up our Youth was PaviElle French’s vision, and came out of our collective need and responsibility to empower our young people and give them a platform. Performances by students from Purple Playground and TruArtSpeaks took place at the convening – all original works were created in workshops with PaviElle French and other collaborators.

Vanessa Rose, ACF Executive Director, Carolina Heredia, ACF Director of Artist Support, and Clarence White, Associate Director, East Side Freedom Library provided an overview of “Immigration, Identity, and the Arts” and launched our NEA Big Read partnership.

Big Read Study Group no. 1

East Side Freedom Library

1105 Greenbrier St, St Paul, MN 55106
1:00 pm CT

The Library’s Executive Director, Saengmany Ratsabout, hosted this discussion group on the oral tradition themes in Thi Bui’s book and the different forms of art seen as “oral” tradition and history-making. Joining him was ACF composer and Thai-American, Mary Prescott, as well as Hta Thi and members of the Karen Organization of Minnesota’s Karen Weaving Circle. This event was Co-hosted by the Urban Village Group.

Mary Prescott is a fiscal year 2022 recipient of a Creative Support for Individuals grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board. This activity is made possible by the voters of Minnesota through a grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board, thanks to a legislative appropriation from the arts and cultural heritage fund.


Big Read Study Group no. 2

THe Landmark Center

75 W 5th St, St Paul, MN 55102
1:00 pm CT

Presented by the Ramsey County Historical Society, Historic Saint Paul, and the Minnesota Opera, this event featured Minnesota author and Hmong-American Kao Kalia Yang discussing her book, The Song Poet, and her collaboration with Minnesota-based composer Jocelyn Hagen concerning the opera based on her book of the same name presented by Minnesota Opera in the Spring of 2023. Lee Bynum hosted this conversation.

About Participants


Lee Bynum

As Minnesota Opera’s former Vice President of Impact, Lee Bynum lead a ten-person team that listens and learns from the community to make meaningful, authentic, and mutually beneficial change.  He directed the Company’s community and civic engagement, educative, and inclusion, diversity, equity, and access initiatives.  He also consulted with Aspen Leadership Group and the Inclusion Firm on equity praxis.  Previously, Bynum served on the program staff at The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, where he supported performing arts initiatives at organizations that include Bryan Stevenson’s Legacy Museum, the National Museum of African American History and Culture, the Sphinx Organization, the New York Public Library, and across the HBCU, TCU, and HSI sectors.  Before joining the Foundation, Bynum served as the Assistant Director of the Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race at Columbia University, where he was responsible for the administration of the Latinx, Asian American, Native American, and comparative ethnic studies programs, and a visiting scholar at the Caritas Institute for Higher Education of St. Francis University in Hong Kong.  As a dramaturg, he has collaborated on the development of new works with American Opera Projects, the John Duffy Institute for New Opera, the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts, and Columbia University.  Bynum received his undergraduate and graduate degrees from Columbia University.


Kao Kalia Yang

Kao Kalia Yang is a Hmong American writer. She is the author of the memoirs The Latehomecomer: A Hmong Family Memoir, The Song Poet, and Somewhere in the Unknown World. Yang wrote the children’s books A Map Into the World, The Shared Room, The Most Beautiful Thing, Yang Warriors, and From the Tops of the Trees. She co-edited the ground-breaking collection What God is Honored Here?: Writings on Miscarriage and Infant Loss By and For Native Women and Women of Color. Yang’s work has been recognized by the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Chautauqua Prize, the PEN USA literary awards, the Dayton’s Literary Peace Prize, as Notable Books by the American Library Association, Kirkus Best Books of the Year, the Heartland Bookseller’s Award, Bank Street College of Education, the Midland Authors Award, and garnered four Minnesota Book Awards. Kao Kalia Yang is also a teacher and public speaker.


Jocelyn Hagen

Jocelyn Hagen composes music that has been described as “simply magical” (Fanfare Magazine) and “dramatic and deeply moving” (Star Tribune, Minneapolis/St. Paul). She is a pioneer in the field of composition, pushing the expectations of musicians and audiences with large-scale multimedia works, electro-acoustic music, dance, opera, and publishing. Her first forays into composition were via songwriting, still very evident in her work. The majority of her compositions are for the voice: solo, chamber and choral. Her melodic music is rhythmically driven and texturally complex, rich in color and deeply heartfelt. In 2019 and 2020, choirs and orchestras across the country are premiering her multimedia symphony The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci that includes video projections created by a team of visual artists, highlighting da Vinci’s spectacular drawings, inventions, and texts. Hagen describes her process of composing for choir, orchestra and film simultaneously in a Tedx Talk given at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, now available on YouTube. Hagen’s commissions include Conspirare, the Minnesota Opera, the Minnesota Orchestra, Voces8, the International Federation of Choral Music, the American Choral Directors Association of Minnesota, Georgia, Connecticut and Texas, the North Dakota Music Teachers Association, Cantus, the Boston Brass, the Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra and the St. Olaf Band, among many others. Her work is independently published through JH Music, as well as through Graphite Publishing, G. Schirmer, EC Schirmer, Fred Bock Music Publishing, Santa Barbara Music Publishing, and Boosey and Hawkes.

Big Read Study Group no. 3

East Side Freedom Library

1105 Greenbrier St, St Paul, MN 55106
12:00 pm CT

Hosted by ACF Director of Artist Support, Carolina Heredia, this event featured Latin American ACF composer awardees and McKnight Visiting Composers, J.E. Hernández and Victor Márquez-Barrios, in conversation about documenting the shift in experiences through generations.

About Participants


Carolina Heredia

Carolina Heredia is a composer of acoustic and electronic music, and an intermedia artist. She has a background in Argentinian folk and tango. As the ACF Director of Artist Support, Carolina is the liaison with the artists creating music today. In collaboration with other staff and Board, she helps to ensure that ACF is an inclusive space for diverse artists to feel welcome and connected to other artists and collaborators.

In her role as an arts administrator, Carolina served as the Associate Director of the Mizzou New Music Initiative overseeing music composition programs for composers of all ages and career stages. In this position, she contributed to the design of policies that ensure equitable practices in the selection processes, budget distribution, and the curation of concerts and annual guest artists, as well as to creating connections with the local community. She was a founding member and the Executive Director of the Khemia Ensemble, and is currently a founding member of ANTiCX, a collective of multimedia artists.

Carolina holds a Doctorate degree in Music Composition and was a Research Fellow for the Institute of Humanities at the University of Michigan. She was a Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Missouri and then was appointed as Assistant Professor in Music Composition. As a composer, she has received awards from the Fromm Music Foundation, the Barlow Endowment, the Missouri Music Teachers Association, and the Chamber Music OC International Prize, among others. Her works have been published by Hall Leonard and produced by Orchid Classics, Navona Records, and Alban Records.


J.E. Hernández

J.E. Hernández

Composer J.E. Hernández (b.1993) is a Mexican-born, Houston-based composer focusing on elevating personal and cultural narrative through his work. J.E.’s music has been featured by distinguished ensembles and organizations such as the Kennedy Center for the Arts, Houston Grand Opera, American Opera Project, Performing Arts Houston, Apollo Chamber Players, Foundation for Modern Music, Museum of Fine Arts Houston, Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, American Composers Forum, the Brazil National Orchestra, and in a wide variety of films, both in the United States and abroad. He holds a degree from the University of Houston. Past teachers include Marcus Maroney and Gregory Spears.

J.E.’s work focuses on both traditional and multi-disciplinary mediums, and he has collaborated with directors, choreographers, and playwrights. His process cultivates creativity through stewarding tangible life experiences through an intensive, multi-narrative process that is mathematical, philosophical, and historical; these include environmental displacement, anthropologic self-assessments, and non-artistic life narratives. His interest in incorporating his cultural heritage from both his native Tabasco, Mexico, and Houston, Texas led J.E. to create ConcertiaHTX (, a non-profit arts organization for social causes. Its mission statement reads: “To empower social causes through the prism of new music and multi-media art,” resonating with his goal as a composer to engage communities at large.


Victor Márquez-Barrios

Victor Márquez-Barrios began his musical studies under the guidance of Prof. Gerardo Soto (classical guitar) at the Jose Luis Paz Conservatory in Maracaibo, Venezuela. In 1998, he moved to Caracas to attend the University Institute of Musical Studies (IUDEM), where he worked under the wings of such masters as Prof. Luis Zea for classical guitar, Prof. Federico Ruiz for composition, and Prof. Gonzalo Micó for Jazz guitar, earning his Bachelor Degree in Music Composition in 2005. As a guitarist, Márquez-Barrios has been part of numerous festivals and seminars, as well as workshops, conferences, and master classes with well-known masters of international acclaim, such as: Alirio Diaz, Luis Zea, David Russell, Carlos Barbosa-Lima, and Leo Brouwer.

As a composer, Márquez-Barrios holds an extended catalog of works that includes compositions for a variety of solo instruments, numerous chamber ensembles, mixed choir, electronics, concert band, and symphony orchestra. His music has been performed, published, and recorded by important soloists and ensembles from Latin America, the U.S., and Europe. Works by Márquez-Barrios have been programmed at numerous international music festivals, such as the Latin American Music Festival (Caracas, Venezuela), XVII Festival of Contemporary Music of Havana (Cuba), 20eme Festival Internacional de la Clarinette (Martinique), Hollywood Fringe Festival (Los Angeles, USA), the World Saxophone Congress (2012 and 2015 editions), and Clarinetfest 2018 (Belgium), among others.

We are grateful for the support of Saint Paul’s STAR program for this event.

Big Read Study Group no. 4

East Side Freedom Library

1105 Greenbrier St, St Paul, MN 55106
12:00 pm CT

Together, ACF and ESFL hosted a thought-provoking conversation on the experiences of African immigrants in the U.S. through the lenses of music, literature, and Thi Bui’s NEA Big Read book, The Best We Could Do. Minnesota author and educator Shannon Gibney hosted a dialogue with Nigerian composer-performer Kashimana Ahua — an ACF awardee — and Somali author Abdullahi Janno. The event featured Janno’s children’s book When River Stopped Singing to Cloud, as well as music by Ahua.

About the Participants


Shannon Gibney

Shannon Gibney is a writer, educator, activist, and the author of See No Color (Carolrhoda Lab, 2015), and Dream Country (Dutton, 2018) young adult novels that won Minnesota Book Awards in 2016 and 2019. Gibney is faculty in English at Minneapolis College, where she teaches writing. A Bush Artist and McKnight Writing Fellow, her new novel, The Girl I Am, Was, and Never Will Be, explores themes of transracial adoption through speculative memoir (Dutton, 2023). Gibney’s other upcoming publications include the picture books Sam and the Incredible African and American Food Fight (University of Minnesota Press, 2023), and Where We Come From (Lerner, 2022; coauthored), and a YA anthology of stories by adoptees about adoptees, co-edited with Nicole Chung (HarperTeen, 2023).


Kashimana Ahua

Kashimana Ahua is a mother, musician, vocalist, composer, producer, and teaching artist. The name Kashimana means ‘that’s their heart’ and you can hear it beating in the compelling sound of their music, which is an immersive exploration of Soul, Acoustic R&B, Folk, Afro-funk, and more. Kashimana’s work authentically expresses a vulnerability full of joy and pain in their performances that seek to heal, soothe, ignite connected creativity and transmogrify each participant to a deeper level of life, love, understanding, and consciousness.

Kashimana is a 2021 Jerome Hill Artist Fellow, a Creative Support Grantee, Artists Respond Cohort, Creative Respond Fund grantee and Creative Support Grantee.


Abdullahi Janno

Abdullahi Janno is a storyteller and educator. He’s the author of When River Stopped Singing to Cloud and Dhakafaar, a collection of Somali short stories. His stories appeared both online and in print including the Water~Stone Review. Abdullahi has a BA in English Literature from U of M–Twin Cities and MA in TESOL from Hamline University. As a recipient of the 2022-2023 Loft Mirrors and Windows Fellowship, he believes in narrative power, and his writing gravitates toward social change and the immigrant experience. He lives with his wife and kids in Saint Paul.

We are grateful for the support of Saint Paul’s STAR program for this event.

Big Read Study Group no. 5

The Community Hall in the newly renovated Springboard for the Arts

262 University Ave West, Saint Paul, MN 55103
6:30 pm CT

You are invited to join American Composers Forum (ACF) and East Side Freedom Library (ESFL) on Thursday, June 1 at 6:30 pm CT for the culminating event of our “Immigration, Identity, and the Arts” series. Taking place at the Community Hall in the newly-renovated Springboard for the Arts complex in Saint Paul, the event is part of the NEA Big Read series focused on Thi Bui’s graphic memoir The Best We Could Do about her family’s journey as Vietnamese refugees later settling in the US.

Bui is also the illustrator of A Different Pond, a children’s book written by Bao Phi about growing up in Minnesota as a Vietnamese American refugee family. Bao Phi and Thi Bui will be our featured guests for this event (Bui participating virtually). They will be joined by Gao Hong — Chinese pipa player, composer, and ACF board member — and Kevin Phoojywg Xiong — Hmong composer and 2021 recipient of ACF’s Minnesota Music Creator Awards — who will share their own musical responses.

Both The Best We Could Do and A Different Pond will be available onsite. Please send advance requests to Xavier Muzik and

Please join us for this unique opportunity to engage in stories of immigration through music and conversation with your own Minnesota community.

Register here.

About the Participants


Thi Bui

Thi Bui is a Vietnamese American cartoonist and author of the critically acclaimed illustrated memoir, The Best We Could Do. Her work seeks to make sense of the stories that history leaves behind.

Thi’s debut graphic memoir, The Best We Could Do, is the story of her family in the years before, during, and after the Vietnam War. It was selected for an American Book Award, a Common Book for UCLA and other colleges and universities, a National Book Critics Circle finalist, and was an Eisner Award finalist. Her memoir was included in Bill Gates’ Top 5 Boks of 2017, and was called, “A book to break your heart and heal it,” by Pulitzer Prize-winner Viet Thanh Nguyen.

A veteran illustrator, Thi’s short comics can be found online at The Nib, PEN America, and BOOM California. She is a contributor to Refugees Anthology, published by Abrams Press, and illustrated A Different Pond, a 2018 Caldecott Honor Book, with writer Bao Phi. With her son, Hien, she co-illustrated the children’s book, Chicken of the Sea written by Viet Thanh Nguyen and his son, Ellison.

Thi is currently researching and drawing a work of graphic nonfiction about immigrant detention and deportation, to be published by One World, Random House.


Bao Phi

Bao Phi is a two-time Minnesota Grand Slam champion and a National Poetry Slam finalist. His poetry is included in The Best American Poetry 2006 anthology and published widely elsewhere, including in two collections from Coffee House Press and in Poetry magazine, Asian American Literary Review, and The Spoken Word Revolution. His fiction and essays have appeared in Octavia’s Brood: Stories from Social Justice Movements, and A Good Time for the Truth: Race in Minnesota. Bao is also known for his children’s books. His A Different Pond received six starred reviews and multiple awards, including the Caldecott Honor, an Ezra Jack Keats Honor, the Asian/Pacific American Librarians Association award for best picture book, the Minnesota Book Award for picture books, and other recognitions. His latest children’s book is You Are Life.


Gao Hong

World-renown Chinese Pipa artist/composer/educator/improviser Gao Honghas performed worldwide in solo concerts, with symphony orchestras, and with musicians from other cultures and musical genres. She graduated from Beijing’s Central Conservatory. Her awards include fellowships from the Bush and McKnight Foundations, a Sorel Medallion in Recording, a Sally Award, 7 gold medals from the Global Music Awards, grants from Mid Atlantic Arts and MSAB, and numerous commissions from orchestras (including the Minnesota Orchestra), chamber groups, dance troupes, etc. Gao wrote the first pipa method book in English that was published by Hal Leonard. To honor her 50-year celebration concert at the Ordway, Mayor Melvin Carter proclaimed April 3, 2022 to be Gao Hong Day in St. Paul. Gao teaches at Carleton College, is a voting member for the Recording Academy (Grammys) and Governor for their Chicago Chapter, and a board member for the American Composers Forum.


Kevin Phoojywg Xiong

Meet Kevin Phoojywg Xiong, a Hmong-American artist, content creator, and sound engineer based in St. Paul. He has a passion for music and has been writing songs and making music since 2013. Kevin also enjoys helping other artists with their music, teaching Hmong, Math, and Phonics at Prairie Seeds Academy, and creating videos for HAIB. As a mentor at Augsburg University and Patrick Henry High School, Kevin shares his knowledge and experience to help students create original Hmong youth-based music. With his dedication to music and education, Kevin is making a positive impact in his community and inspiring others to pursue their passions.

We are grateful for the support of Saint Paul’s STAR program for this event.