Half Native, half Asian, all service to the people: A profile of Daniel Yang


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.

Uptake Editor’s note: This is the first in an UpTake series of profiles on community leaders. By “community leaders,” we mean men and women whose names may not be widely familiar but whose work makes our neighborhoods, our cities, our states more engaged, more connected and more just: Work that makes us aware of the power we have as citizens and as members of a community. Please write and let us know how we’re doing, and be sure to tell us of any community leaders you think we should profile next time. Thank you! — Nick Coleman, Executive Editor (nick.coleman@theuptake.org)

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 in 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.

“Dr. Cornel West tells us that in order to lead people, you must love people,” says Yang, who is 28. “In order to save people, you must serve the people. And when you get to that point, you have to ask yourself about the depth of your love and the quality of your service. And so for me, leadership is about building leaders in the sense of everyday people in the very best way.”

(Editor’s note: The actual quote attributed to Dr. West, a prominent African-American scholar and religion professor at Princeton, differs slightly: “You can’t lead the people if you don’t love the people. You can’t save the people if you don’t serve the people.”)

Yang remembers an elder approaching him with her grandson at a recent community gathering to tell him how much she appreciated seeing signs in her language — Ojibwe — displayed prominently on her street. Her young grandson was just learning to read. He asked her what the long Ojibwe words meant. That tender exchange between grandson and grandmother led to both of them attending Ojibwe language classes together. It’s those kind of interactions, says Yang — those small expressions of love — that make the world a better place.

“You Must Be William’s Son!”

Yang’s father William worked for the mayor’s office in St. Paul and headed a community organization. William wanted to give back to the community that had done so much for him. He also worked with the late Senator Paul Wellstone, who had a huge influence on the young Daniel. A well-known portrait of Wellstone and his wife, Sheila, is displayed prominently in Yang’s house. He remembers their first meeting at a training his father took him to. The late Senator made a bee-line for Yang. “You must be William’s son,” he shouted. “You are an amalgamation of what it means to be a Minnesotan.”

Another experience that moved Yang was a first grade visit to the Minnesota State Capitol. As he walked the Capitol halls gazing at the portraits of former governors and watching legislators conduct their business, he found his calling. On the school bus, after the visit, his teacher asked the students to tell the class what their favorite part of the day was. Yang raised his hand and said he knew what he wanted to do with his life — to help improve the lives of other people.

As a young boy, Yang was also keenly aware of the world around him and the injustices taking place not only in his community, but around the world. In 1994, he remembers watching television news reports of the genocide in Rwanda. Why aren’t people doing anything about this, he wondered. He asked his parents if the world’s inaction was because these were poor people of color living in a land where there was no abundant natural resources to dig up or extract. Their answer was yes.

Later, as a teenager, he saved up enough money to go to Sudan — another East African country ravaged by civil war and despair. Old enough now, Yang saved up money from odd jobs and birthday gifts to fly to a U. N. sponsored organization in Nairobi. After a tireless letter writing campaign, Yang made contact with humanitarian organizations working in the region. He did not however, tell them his age. When he showed up, they were shocked to discover that he was only 15. Despite this, they put him to work and he headed to refugee camps in southern Sudan. He quickly built trust with aid workers and the refugees themselves, something that his colleague and friend, Brother Ali, says is easy for Yang to do.

“Almost from birth, you know, he had it,” the hip hop artist and Occupy movement activist says of Yang. “This idea inside him that people are precious and should be protected. People have rights that need to be defended.”

Yang recalls sitting on the floor of mud huts with some of the lost boys of Sudan — those whose families had been killed, leaving these teenagers to fend for themselves. They talked about rap music, girls and other things teenagers muse about.

“I shouldn’t have felt comfortable in this situation, but I did,” recalls Yang. “Because of my background — coming from a refugee family, an indigenous family just like these people — that was my story,” said Yang

Yang had brought his camera on the trip, and he took haunting photos of children, tribal elders, teenage boys — all of whom were caught up in the conflict. A book was published with a forward by one of the world’s famous refugees, the Dalai Lama. Yang spoke around the world and helped bring attention to the plight of the people of Sudan.

“Although Daniel Cheng Yang is still very young, I am impressed by the maturity he has shown,” the Dalai Lama wrote of Yang. “Not only in recognizing people’s plight’s, but also in identifying a way he can help them by simply documenting their experience and publishing it in this book.”

Yang later traveled to Cuba, Venezuela, Bolivia, Mexico and Brazil to learn more about indigenous people’s movements and how they built their power and gained self-determination. These are the lessons and experiences he brings with him to NACDI.

Franklin Avenue: Idle No More

Many people living in South Minneapolis remember when Franklin Avenue was lined with bars and rampant alcohol abuse among Native people was epidemic. Since those days in the 1970’s, “The Av” (as in “avenue”), as many people refer to it, has been cleaned up. Much of the credit can go to the militant advocacy of the American Indian Movement, or AIM.

Yang worked for AIM as a young man out of college. And, while the neighborhood around Franklin Avenue still has problems, the revitalization is clear. Senior housing, Native-owned business and restaurants, an art gallery, murals and signs welcoming visitors in the language of Minnesota’s first people are all, at least in part, due to a community blue print designed by NACDI and implemented by Yang.

Justin Hueneman, the former CEO of NACDI, remembers Yang working tirelessly with community folks. He worked with the neighborhood association and the businesses — many of which were skeptical that even small things such as Ojibwe-language street banners could help make a difference.. But, in the end, he says, they recognized that a thriving Native American community and economy in the neighborhood would benefit all of them.

Yang says that before the creation and implementation of a community blue print, he and other folks at NACDI recognized that all this money was coming in just to maintain poverty. Instead, he thought, why not help people build their own power, to create their own destiny, so they can start a business, so they can lift themselves out of poverty. The goal, he says, is to support self-determination.

He says community organizing is not about the money. But money, he is quick to add, is not the same as success.

“You can maybe go work at a bank and have a nice car and have a nice home and that’s successful. But, for me, that’s not greatness. Greatness, to me, is knowing you’ve done something in your community to change the lives of everyday people.”

CORRECTION 2/22/2013: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Daniel spent his formative years on Red Lake Indian Reservation. Allison Herrera writes: “Daniel did not spend his formative years on the Red Lake Indian Reservation. In the video narration it says that he does and I have since been corrected by Daniel.”