The UpTake Leadership Profile: DANIEL YANG

UpTake Leadership Profile by Allison Herrera

Daniel Yang is part of a new cohort of young leaders in the Native American community in South Minneapolis, a half-Native, half-Asian grassroots activist with a passion for public service and a special compassion for refugees. The experience of being lost, exiled and afraid is one his family knows well: Yang's father was a Hmong refugee who, along with his Ojibwe mother, instilled a commitment to social justice and community service in his son.

Yang's unusual journey to community leadership in Minnesota began in the jungles of Laos.

His background — a Hmong father who escaped Laos for the freedom of America, and a mother who is part of a long line of Ojibwe people from Red Lake, Minnesota — gives Yang a unique lens on life. Hearing the stories his father told as they made their way to visit a refugee camp in Thailand informed Yang's sense of justice, compassion and a deep desire to make things right.

He remembers this heartbreaking story of struggle and helplessness that his father told him:

During the Vietnam war, when Yang's father was a young boy, his father and family were forced to dodge bullets and bombs as they fled their village in the mountains of Laos, seeking safety in Thailand. They had reached the final stage of their journey, trekking through dense jungle, when they heard a noise coming from the bushes. Expecting to be ambushed by soldiers, they sat quietly. Instead of soldiers, out came a young girl, the same age as Yang's father. She, too had fled with a group of refugees days earlier, but her mother had fallen ill and could not keep up. Fearing that the girl's mother would put the group in jeopardy if they waited while she recovered, they decided to move on. Only the girl had been brave enough to stay with her mother, despite the pleas of the group to abandon her. The girl stayed by her mother's side, until the mother she died. When Yang's father and his group came across this lost young girl, they already were carrying all they could. Every adult was carrying a child. They weren't able to take the orphaned girl with them.They gave her the food they could spare, and went on.

Yang's father told him how distraught he was seeing another young person suffer and how his grandfather and their village already had struggled so much for survival. They carried on. Some of them did not make it, but Yang's father managed to survive. He came to Minnesota, on a mission to serve people. The same mission his son has taken upon himself.

The Phillips Neighborhood in Minneapolis has one of the largest concentrations of Native Americans in the country. Many still face an uphill struggle due to high rates of poverty, lack of access to housing and adequate health care and some substance abuse, including alcohol. But things are getting better and that is in part due to the work of Yang and others who head up the Native American Community Development Institute, or NACDI.

NACDI has played an integral role in revitalizing Franklin Avenue and re-branding it as the American Indian Cultural Corridor — a showcase of self-determination, Native pride and a vision for the future in which one of the most disadvantaged parts of the city becomes an example of self-sustaining success. The effort has visibly changed the community by displaying the art, culture and heritage of Minnesota's first peoples, and Yang's efforts and community leadership have spearheaded some of the most visible projects. Such as colorful street banners that welcome people in the Dakota and Ojibwe languages. Yang says that this re-branding of the avenue makes an important declaration of community and space for Native people living there.

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