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Becky Z. Dernbach
It wasn’t until Nelsie Yang volunteered on Dai Thao’s 2015 St. Paul City Council reelection campaign that she realized people of color could be elected officials.
“I didn’t even know that somebody like me could do this work,” Yang said. “I remember saying to myself, ‘Wow, if Dai can do this, I can do it, too.’”
Yang, a 24-year-old community organizer, won her own St. Paul City Council election last week. In January, she and Thao will be sworn in as colleagues.
The faces of power at St. Paul City Hall have diversified quickly over the last two years. In 2017, Melvin Carter was elected the city’s first black mayor. Mitra Jalali Nelson, whose parents are immigrants from Iran and South Korea, won a City Council special election last year.
Last week, Yang became the first Hmong woman to be elected to the City Council. She will replace Kassim Busuri, the council’s first Somali member, who was appointed to the council earlier this year to fill a temporary vacancy.
When the new council is sworn in, three of its seven members will be from Asian immigrant families.
New members say it’s important St. Paul’s political leadership reflect the city’s racial and ethnic diversity. St. Paul is now a majority-minority city and has a younger population than the state average. Its residents are also more likely to be renters than to own their homes.
“I think it’s a long time in the making,” said Thao, who was reelected last week, of the council’s increasing diversity. “It didn’t just happen overnight. We put a lot of energy and investment into developing young leaders.”
Nelson, 33, was elected to her first full term last week. She said growing up hearing her parents’ immigrant and refugee stories instilled her with a “tremendous sense of responsibility.”
“The children of some of those refugees are running for office and building power for our values,” she said.
Yang is an organizer with TakeAction Minnesota, which endorsed her as well as Thao and Nelson. Kenza Hadj-Moussa, TakeAction’s communications director, said the organization has seen more women and people of color run for office since the 2016 election.
St. Paul’s ranked-choice voting system has also helped create more opportunities for candidates to run for office, she said.
The shift in political representation is part of “building a deep, reflective democracy that people can see themselves in,” Hadj-Moussa said.
There’s also been a shift in voter turnout. In Minnesota, Asian Americans have lower rates of voting than the state average, but the gap is narrowing.
Voter turnout among Minnesota’s Asian American and Pacific Islander population increased nearly 30 percentage points between 2014 and 2018, according to data from the Asian American Organizing Project.
Pashie Vang, an organizer with AAOP, which focuses on civic engagement with young Asian voters, said she’s noticed people are more excited to vote when they see a candidate who looks like them. “I think that having someone running who looks like you makes it more exciting and motivation to vote as well,” she said.
LyLy Vang-Yang, an organizer at TakeAction Minnesota, helped doorknock apartment buildings for Nelsie Yang. She said Yang’s election helps disrupt the narrative that Hmong women should not be political.
“As a young Hmong woman it is really important for me to see representation,” she said. “It allows for more fullness and complexity and texture to narrative.”
Nelsie Yang’s election is another political milestone for Hmong women in St. Paul. In 1991, Choua Lee’s election to the St. Paul school board made her the first Hmong person in the nation elected to public office. Mee Moua became the first Hmong state legislator in the country in 2002.
Vang-Yang said her generation was fortunate to have so many examples of Hmong political and civic leadership.
“Standing on the shoulders of these giants allows our work to be bigger and greater,” she said.
Thao, who was elected St. Paul’s first Hmong council member in 2013, made it a practice to sit down with all his campaign volunteers. He saw Yang’s leadership potential early on.
“She knew what leadership means,” Thao said. “You don’t wait for the problem to come to you. You see a problem in the community, you go out there, you organize and try to solve that problem with the community. I liked that. I think that’s the kind of proactive curiosity a leader needs to have.”
The change in representation is good for the city, said Jim Scheibel, a Hamline University professor and former St. Paul mayor.
“There’s a lot of different perspectives around the City Council table that were not there before,” Scheibel said. “If they reflect the population of the city, I think that’s really good for the city, that the city we’re building and creating is the city of the future.”
As a council member, Yang wants to boost community engagement in her east side ward. Whether it’s voting, emailing or organizing neighborhood meetings, she’d like to see every constituent get involved.
“If I could energize our east side residents to take action at least once, that’s one of the biggest wins to us to make sure that everyone has a seat at the table,” she said.
Nelson and Yang will be the council’s only two renters. Nelson said she’s excited to have Yang’s help to pass a set of tenant protections. She said the city needs leaders who can share power and break down barriers to participation.
“No matter how long you’ve lived in our community, you have a stake in our community and a say in the direction that we’re trying to take,” she said.
Yang said she drew hope and energy from Nelson’s “unapologetic” campaign running as a renter and a woman of color. Both of them put people in the center of their campaigns, she said.
“I feel like our win was possible because we made our campaigns about people,” Yang said. “People deserve to be at the center of decision-making at City Hall. That is the most powerful thing you could ever make your campaign about.”