My View

‘We Need to Make City Processes Easier’

The best way to revitalize depressed portions of Minneapolis is to encourage minorities and immigrants to start businesses, says the city’s first councilman of Hmong descent .

Says Blong Yang, born in a Thai refugee camp and now serving on the  Minneapolis city council: "In a sense I came in having this really optimistic view of democracy."
National Journal
Feb. 20, 2014, 11:55 p.m.

In Novem­ber, the 13-mem­ber Min­neapol­is City Coun­cil gained its first mem­bers of Hmong, Somali, and Mex­ic­an des­cent. Ac­cord­ing to the 2010 census, Min­neapol­is is 60 per­cent non-His­pan­ic white, 10 per­cent His­pan­ic, nearly 19 per­cent black, and 5.6 per­cent Asi­an.

Blong Yang, 37, claimed a seat in Ward 5 long held by Afric­an-Amer­ic­ans. The pre­vi­ous coun­cil­man who was Afric­an-Amer­ic­an va­cated the seat to run for may­or. Yang se­cured his seat with about 53 per­cent of the vote and star­ted his four-year term Jan. 6.

Born in a refugee camp in 1976, he came with his fam­ily to the U.S. when he was 3, set­tling first in Ok­lahoma then mov­ing to Merced, Cal­if. His first job after gradu­at­ing from the Uni­versity of Min­nesota’s law school was with the Leg­al Aid So­ci­ety of Min­neapol­is, and he chose to live nearby, in a North Min­neapol­is neigh­bor­hood he now rep­res­ents. He prac­ticed law out of his Jordan-area home for eight years, later be­com­ing an in­vest­ig­at­or for the Min­neapol­is De­part­ment of Civil Rights.

“We need an ad­voc­ate who will go to bat for us for everything that we need,” Yang says, in his stock­ing feet, in a cam­paign mes­sage from his home. “I would be able to rep­res­ent a lot of dif­fer­ent people be­cause I am from the mar­gins, ba­sic­ally.”

This in­ter­view, con­duc­ted by Jody Bran­non, has been ed­ited for length and clar­ity.

Where I live, it’s con­sidered the needi­est part of the city, or the ghetto, right? I lived there for over a dozen years, and there didn’t seem to be change on a con­sist­ent basis that was get­ting us to a bet­ter place. Min­neapol­is has struggled with that, with a lot of dis­par­it­ies — un­em­ploy­ment, achieve­ment gap, homeown­er­ship. It seemed like we keep fail­ing where oth­er parts of Min­neapol­is were gain­ing. I felt it was time for a new change and a new voice, so that’s why I de­cided to run for City Coun­cil.

The demo­graph­ics are a little above 50 per­cent in Afric­an-Amer­ic­ans, 30 per­cent in Caucasi­ans, and 12 to 15 per­cent in Hmong or South­east Asi­ans, and the rest is Latino, Somali, oth­er smal­ler eth­ni­cit­ies and ra­cial groups.

There was an Afric­an-Amer­ic­an from Ward 5 be­fore. In Ward 5, it’s a little bit weird be­cause the coun­cil mem­ber rep­res­en­ted the ward for six or sev­en years. Be­fore that, the line was re­drawn. So pred­at­ing the Afric­an-Amer­ic­an man, the seat was held by an Afric­an-Amer­ic­an wo­man, who had rep­res­en­ted it for four years. And be­fore those two Afric­an-Amer­ic­ans, there was a Caucasi­an wo­man for three terms. Pri­or to that Ward 5 had the first Afric­an-Amer­ic­an City Coun­cil mem­ber in the his­tory of Min­neapol­is. In some ways people think of Ward 5 as the Afric­an-Amer­ic­an seat.

People ask, “How in the heck did Blong win? How did a black can­did­ate not win?” We’re go­ing to be faced with those is­sues. It’s not go­ing to be black and white — it’s go­ing to be rain­bow now, and the folks in the rain­bow will be con­ten­tious, and there’ll be ten­sion among vari­ous groups be­cause most Amer­ic­ans are used to the black-white para­dox, which is a little bit scary.

I was the first per­son to run for of­fice in Min­neapol­is who is Hmong and that’s im­port­ant to un­der­stand­ing a com­munity’s polit­ic­al con­scious­ness. Some­times they don’t know how to ask in a way that’s mean­ing­ful to them.

In a sense I came in hav­ing this really op­tim­ist­ic view of demo­cracy, that demo­cracy means you’re open to the people liv­ing next to you , and people are en­gaged and want to be in part of the pro­cess. But usu­ally it’s the people who are paid — spe­cial in­terests who are more en­gaged, and you slowly fig­ure that out. Those are the folks who show up for the coun­cil meet­ing, com­mit­tee meet­ings be­cause they have a stake in the whole thing.

Our con­stitu­ents rarely call, re­l­at­ive to spe­cial in­terests, and that’s been amaz­ing. From the day of in­aug­ur­a­tion to today, we’ve not re­ceived a single Hmong phone call. Maybe they’re happy or maybe they’ve nev­er in­ter­ac­ted or it’s the de­mean­or of folks who don’t com­plain a lot. But my col­league (Abdi Warsame, the first Somali to hold a mu­ni­cip­al seat in Min­neapol­is) says he gets a good per­cent­age of his calls from Somalis.

On my agenda, the three main things are pub­lic safety, first; two is eco­nom­ic de­vel­op­ment or cre­at­ing jobs through small busi­ness; and three is af­ford­able hous­ing.

In work­ing with the De­part­ment of Com­munity Plan­ning and Eco­nom­ic De­vel­op­ment, I’m get­ting briefed on the is­sues there and what’s hap­pen­ing in the ward, what I can do and can’t do, and modi­fy­ing their vis­ion of Ward 5 and mak­ing it fit with my vis­ion.

For in­stance, Grow North is a pro­gram for busi­ness, where they’ll give $200,000 in for­giv­able loan for cre­at­ing 75 jobs. But that’s a really big num­ber for most small busi­nesses out there, and we’ve been push­ing them to pro-rate it to the area.

The part about af­ford­able hous­ing is com­plic­ated. Over 20 years ago there was a law­suit Holl­man vs. Cis­ner­os, and ba­sic­ally the the­ory was the hous­ing policy was dis­crim­in­at­ory be­cause of con­cen­trated poverty in one area. The res­ult was that so Min­neapol­is had to de­mol­ish its hous­ing pro­jects in Ward 5.

Now here in north Min­neapol­is, about two-thirds [of res­id­ents] in Ward 5 re­ceive county ser­vices. What that means is you can’t build any sort of hous­ing be­cause that would mean only poor people would live there. I knew about all of this to some ex­tent, but I’ve learned about the is­sue fur­ther, and I feel like that’s the up­stream I have to face. I’d ima­gine a lot of folks are big in­to us­ing that ar­gu­ment, to say, “Let’s not build af­ford­able hous­ing at all.”

For us, Min­neapol­is as a whole, we elec­ted a may­or who wanted to grow the city to 500,000 and we’re at 350 [thou­sand], and I want Ward 5 to be a part of the eco­nom­ic boom of con­struc­tion.

I think the mod­els we can fol­low in Min­neapol­is are the mod­els of minor­ity small busi­ness that have cre­ated a hub of op­por­tun­ity. We should look up to those as to how they’ve done it. A lot of [cur­rent Ward 5 busi­ness own­ers] didn’t re­ceive sub­sidies or county help. They did it on their own life sav­ings and a pray­er. Ima­gine if they were re­ceiv­ing gov­ern­ment help — ima­gine how ac­cel­er­ated prosper­ity would have come. We need to push hard for minor­ity small busi­nesses. They do the heavy up-lift­ing or lead­ing to re­vital­ize a place, but they’re usu­ally less likely to in­ter­act with the city. We need to make city pro­cesses easi­er and make the way we do busi­ness change so we can en­cour­age minor­ity or im­mig­rant small-busi­ness suc­cess to grow be­cause that may be the only way we get out of this.

With­in the con­text of chan­ging demo­graph­ics of Min­neapol­is or of the coun­try, I think folks really like the story of the first Hmong in of­fice and some­times people for­get the per­son­al stor­ies of these can­did­ates and how they re­late to the com­munity. If you talk to my col­league Abdi, he’s been in the states only sev­en years, grow­ing up and well-edu­cated in Lon­don and rep­res­ent­ing Ward 6, where 45 per­cent of the people are Somalis/East Afric­ans. Un­der­stand­ing the con­text and where they’ve come from is really im­port­ant.

For my­self Ward 5 where 15 per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion is Hmong, in some ways you have to un­der­stand the com­munity’s will. They wanted change so much more.

In terms of things that are achiev­able, it really takes a lot of hard work and polit­ic­al man­euv­er­ing on the oth­er end. It’s really im­port­ant to know what the dif­fer­ent de­part­ments in the city do. You have to learn those sorts of small things that make a dif­fer­ence.

For our City Coun­cil, Min­neapol­is had a shift in terms in people who were elec­ted. A ma­jor­ity of the coun­cil mem­bers are brand new, and are learn­ing not to step on mines. That comes first. Once you can fig­ure that out, it’s put­ting your head down and mak­ing it work for the people in the ward. That’s the part I’m look­ing for­ward to the most. I’m chair of the Pub­lic Safety, Civil Rights, and Emer­gency Man­age­ment com­mit­tee and I will have my hands full. But give me a year. I’ll get a chance to make Ward 5 a bet­ter place.


Jody Brannon contributed to this article.
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