St. Paul’s City Council Maverick

Nelsie Yang is a first in a couple of ways: She’s the St. Paul City Council’s first female Hmong member, and she is also its youngest.

Her election would surprise few who knew her as a student at Minnesota State Mankato. In her late teens and early 20s, the social work major mixed schooling with minority advocacy on campus and political activity off campus. On weekends in 2015, she helped a St. Paul candidate gain reelection, learning what she needed about campaigning and connections.

Nelsie Yang, the youngest member of the St. Paul City Council and its first Hmong woman member.

Two years out of school, in November 2019, Yang ran for city council in St. Paul’s District 6 and won handily, besting not only her opponent but the pushback from those who said she was too young.

“Ageism definitely showed up,” the 24-year-old said. “People saying that I don’t have the experience to be able to be a leader, to be a council member. And that I need to wait my turn because there are people running who have waited a long time for this moment and I needed to let them go first.

“But to me, I ran because I knew that leadership was never about waiting your turn, or waiting to have permission to do something. Leadership is actually about courage. We get things done when we have courage to take action and bring people along and helping make the change happen.”

That phrase of hers—“bring people along”—comes up a lot. You could say it’s a hallmark of her approach to the job, which formally began Jan. 7.

Yang attended Minnesota State Mankato following a year at a private school where it became clear tuition would be a problem. The University was more affordable—and offere a level of diversity that appealed to her.

“The reason why that’s important to me is, growing up as somebody who was low-income and the daughter of refugees and a woman, too, I feel there are so many moments in my life where I experienced being seen as a deficit in our society,” said Yang.

At the University, she said, she grouped with other Hmong students and communities of color and kept close ties with the Multicultural Center, which she said was a centerpoint to an inclusive college and city.

Politically active on and off campus, Yang served on the student senate, working full-time with the DFL and, while still enrolled, as a delegate to the 2016 Democratic National Convention. Most influential in her decision to eventually seek office, she said, was her work on weekends in 2015 for the reelection of St. Paul Councilman Dai Thao.

“That was where I learned a lot of campaigning skills and started to build stronger visions and values around what I wanted to be in my community, how I wanted it to transform and how I could actually make it happen. That was a really transformative year for me.”

When Yang was recruited to run the Mankato area’s DFL office, she met social work professor Nancy Fitzsimons, who grew up in the same working-class, ethnically mixed district in St. Paul’s upper east side that Yang now represents.

It didn’t take long after meeting Yang that Fitzsimons invited her to speak to an intro to social work class.

“I thought she’d be inspirational and aspirational,” Fitzsimons said. “I thought this would be great for students to see a peer talking so passionately about why she cares about what she cares about in terms of social justice, how she wants to help,” Fitzsimons said. “Some of that’s her Hmong community, but it’s larger than that. It’s people who are being left out of the economic American dream.

Fitzsimons said Yang’s talk was powerful and effective. Students saw first-hand and at their own age level the possibilities in social work. Yang has continued to speak to other classes Fitzsimons teaches.

“I have Nelsie come to remind them that sometimes you have to be fearless. Sometimes this might make you uncomfortable, but what do you care about? Nelsie puts herself out there.”

In announcing her own candidacy, Yang asserted herself as a progressive, grassroots type of candidate. She ran on a platform of bringing the needs of the working families back into focus versus big business.

“Working to make sure that we keep power in the hands of our working-class families, more than just letting wealthy corporations come into our city and benefit off of our families,” she said. “That’s something that’s really important to me.”

Fitzsimons says she senses that Yang is motivated largely by a responsibility to her family, who fled Laos and settled in St. Paul, where they raised five children.

“She’s the youngest,” Fitzsimons said, “and she really takes to heart that she has to do well for her parents, so that none of the struggles they faced were in vain.”