ChangeMakers: Asian and Pacific Islander Minnesotans making history

Asian Pacific American Heritage Month celebrates and honors the culture and heritage of Asian American and Pacific Islanders through time.

This May and June, MPR News and Sahan Journal introduce you to Asian and Pacific Islander Minnesotans who are making history right now across the state. Each will discuss what being AAPI in Minnesota means to them, a bit about their background and their hopes for the future.

Anthea Yur, ‘raising the vibration’ of the Asian community

A man drapes a US flag around the neck of a woman.
Organizer and activist Anthea Yur (left) is draped in Michael Wilson's American flag as he honors her at a solidarity rally for the Black and Asian communities she organized at George Floyd Square in Minneapolis on April 18.
Evan Frost | MPR News file

Anthea Yur, 27, was a community activist for a few years before George Floyd was killed by Minneapolis police last May. But after Floyd’s murder she stepped up in a new way. “I just kind of devoted all my time to the community and something that I really believe in,” Yur said. 

A mechanical engineer by training, she’s since organized protests, rallies and community events in the Twin Cities calling for racial justice, solidarity, and drawing attention to violence against Asian-Americans. 

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“Something that I'm hoping to see with these communities is that we can start, again, raising our vibration, start validating our experiences, start letting people know that Asians are no longer going to be the underbelly of racism that's going to be overlooked. We are a part of this equation.”

Civil rights organizer Bo Thao-Urabe wants Minnesota to measure success differently

Bo Thao-Urabe
CAAL executive and network director Bo Thao-Urabe at her Eagan, Minn., home on April 30.
Ben Hovland | Sahan Journal

Bo Thao-Urabe, 51, has served as the executive and network director for the Coalition of Asian American Leaders (CAAL) since 2014. Thao-Urabe is Hmong, and her family originally moved to the United States in 1979 after fleeing Laos during the Vietnam War and spending three years in a refugee camp in Thailand. 

At CAAL, Thao-Urabe helps create space for Asian Minnesota leaders to do social justice organizing. Their work embraces a range of tactics, from work groups tackling economic and education policy at the state level to connecting informal mutual aid programs offering COVID-19 assistance. CAAL also seeks to empower young Asian leaders through trainings, networking opportunities and community leadership grants.

“My vision for the future of AAPIs in Minnesota is that we don’t live in fear of showing up — that we own our power and wield it to create a state that is more welcoming, that is more prosperous, that is more inclusive to everyone. …

“America is not somebody else; America is us.”

Chef Yia Vang on discovering his father’s heroism and what he tells the kids with ‘stinky’ lunches

A man poses for a photo.
Yia Vang inside what will soon be Vinai, his new restaurant venture opening this year in northeast Minneapolis.
Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

Yia Vang, 36, is the owner of Union Hmong Kitchen and Vinai, restaurants in the Twin Cities. As a chef, Yia says that he didn’t fall into cooking, but that cooking fell into him. That love affair deepened some nine years ago, he said. What changed for him was realizing that food isn’t just sustenance but a vehicle for storytelling. 

“Every dish is a narrative,” Vang said “If you follow that narrative long enough and close enough, you get to the people behind the food. And once you’re there, it’s actually not about food. It is about people and their food is a catalyst for cultivating great relationships.”

As as for the advice he gives to the all the kids who were teased for bringing “stinky” lunches?

“[O]ne day, the kids who make fun of us for bringing the stinky food, they’re going to be wanting to come and find that stinky food. Because for them, they’re going to be a few years behind or they’re going to want to be educated. In that moment, I would say to those kids, you have two choices. You either say, ‘Screw you, you used to make fun of me, I don’t care anymore.’ Or you be the better and the bigger person and say, ‘Hey, I understand, join us.’ ”

Theater Mu’s Lily Tung Crystal: The more people hear Asian Americans’ stories, the more they'll treat us as the Americans we are

A woman sits in front of a fireplace.
Lily Tung Crystal in her home in Minneapolis.
Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

“I feel like there is a contingent in American society that doesn’t see us as real people,” Lily Tung Crystal said. “And part of that is because our stories are not told widely in the media, in film, or on television.”

As Theater Mu’s artistic director, she’s working to change that.

She's also hopeful that the AAPI communities will have a bigger voice and more visibility in the Twin Cities. "The fact is that we all live here and that we all are Minnesotans — and that all our stories are told, and that our faces are seen in film and TV and on stage. That our stories and the stories of other BIPOC communities become the mainstream stories."