Growing up, Nelsie Yang never envisioned herself running for office: “…when I turned on the TV, I didn’t see anyone who looked like me as an elected leader.”
Her first political experience was door knocking for a Saint Paul City Council candidate in 2015 — and she’s never looked back. Nelsie has worked on campaigns for local, state, and federal races, was the youngest Hmong-American delegate to the 2016 Democratic National Convention, and has organized for criminal justice reform and raising the minimum wage with TakeAction Minnesota. Today, she’s been on the campaign trail for more than 14 months as a candidate for Saint Paul City Council, Ward 6!
We spoke with Nelsie about what motivated her to run for office, the importance of civic engagement in 2019 and 2020, her vision for Saint Paul, and the role of pro-choice women’s leadership in making change.
Women Winning: You’ve been involved in your community as an organizer and an activist for years. What motivated you to put your name out there and run for office?
Nelsie Yang: As someone who grew up in a low-income family, the daughter of refugees, I never imagined myself running for office. Growing up, when I turned on the TV, I didn’t see anyone who looked like me as an elected leader, but I have always been determined to work for a world where everyone is able to live well. There are so many families struggling, even for the most basic things like paying rent or raising children. Those basics make for strong families and strong communities, and they are at stake. I’m running to work towards eliminating poverty, eliminating deep disparities, and building communities that do well.
WW: You launched your campaign in July of 2018, so you’ve been running for more than a year! What have you learned on the campaign trail? What has surprised you?
Nelsie Yang: At first, the thought of running for office — especially as a young, progressive woman of color — was scary. I had so many questions. But I’ve been inspired by organizations like Women Winning, Take Action, and OutFront that believe in a politics where we are unapologetically demanding the type of world we want. For us to realize that vision, we need leaders who are willing to model it and be champions for reproductive justice, collective bargaining, livable wages, affordable housing… When I made the decision to go all in and run for office, I knew we had to launch our campaign early to start building a base of support for the change we need to see.
I’ve spent so much time in our community and learned that safety is always on the minds of Ward 6 residents. I often encounter traditional mindsets around safety — the idea that we need more policing to feel safe. I believe we can change the narrative of what safety means. I want to talk about investing in programming, and in our parks, rec centers, and libraries. Investing in these things allows us to build toward a community that is proactive rather than reactive.
I’ve also learned is that there is so much untapped potential in our Ward 6 community. Residents see this election as an opportunity to talk about the issues that matter to them. That’s what has been the most inspiring and liberating about this campaign.
WW: Speaking of engagement, in 2016, you led a training for hundreds of people on how to caucus and participate in the political process. Why is it important for folks to be engaged in 2019 and 2020, what are some of the barriers that prevent people from participating? How can we break them down?
NY: It’s important to be engaged so that we can start to make change together. Change comes from people in the community raising their voices and taking action. Whether its hosting neighborhood gatherings, organizing rallies, or even showing up to City Council meetings, change comes from the people.
In Ward 6, historically, there has been a small, active group that ends up making decisions for the rest of the ward — that’s one of the biggest barriers. Ward 6 is also incredibly diverse, there are many different ethnic communities, and language can be a barrier. I organize so that more people get to be a part of the decision making. In today’s world, it often seems that change only comes from those in elected office, and that’s not true at all. When the people are involved, they can drive elected leaders to listen and to make decisions that benefit the community.
We are working continuously to break norms; our campaign has engaged new members of the community to open up our democracy and make sure people are included and heard.
WW: You’re running for a seat that the previous councilmember held for more than 20 years. What change are you going to bring when you’re elected?
NY: One of the biggest changes is that everybody — across race, class, gender — can start seeing themselves running for office. Running for office, running a strong campaign, having the endorsement of so many powerful grassroots organizations, has shown so many people that they can do this, too. And they deserve to.
I think of my campaign as a stepping stone for bigger fights we need to win — like the 2020 elections. It is so important for people in Ward 6, and across the city and the state, to vote and support leaders who will take bold stances and champion progressive policies. But we can’t get there if people don’t feel like they are heard or represented. If people know they are being listened to and there is someone fighting for them, they will be encouraged to continue to stay engaged. That’s what elections should be about — not about someone voting in just one election and that’s the end of it. Elections must be about sustained engagement and my campaign is working hard to promote that.
WW: Exactly. This work isn’t about one election, it is a sustained effort. Your leadership development included working as Communications Director for another Women Winning-endorsed candidate, Marny Xiong, who successfully ran for Saint Paul School Board in 2017. What did you learn working on that campaign?
Nelsie Yang: My experience working with Marny opened my eyes to why it’s so important to have pro-choice women in office. When pro-choice women lead, we start having conversations about how we can work collaboratively to make our vision a reality. For example, on Marny’s campaign, I never heard her say “our school system wouldn’t have the budget to do something like that.” Instead, she would talk about how we can work together to find solutions. That framing, of possibility and optimism, is something that we need in our politics and pro-choice women are leading the way. Marny exemplifies that and it’s something I carry with me every day on the campaign.
WW: The Saint Paul City Council is currently comprised of a majority pro-choice women, and the Council President and Vice President are both pro-choice women! From your perspective, how does having pro-choice women in these leadership roles change the conversation?
Nelsie Yang: It makes a huge difference. When I meet with male elected leaders and talk to them about reproductive justice, it’s difficult for them to come from a place of understanding. With a pro-choice women majority on the Council, we can work toward accessible abortion and reproductive autonomy. We can lead with intersectionality, making decisions based on our values rather than following the status quo. Whether it’s around policing, or schools, or healthcare — we will approach issues through the lens of how they impact women, families, and communities. We will bring our full identities into the conversations — things that should have always mattered, but have often been ignored.
That makes me hopeful because, even though it may feel like we are at a time in which identities are being erased, women have always been the ones bringing our identities back into conversations, and I’m excited and ready for us to keep doing that.
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