2018 Changemaker: Der Yang

For Der Yang, becoming a lawyer was a natural progression from what she’s done her entire life: helping people. Born in Laos, Yang spent her early years in a refugee camp. She moved with her parents and a sister — author Kao Kalia Yang — to St. Paul when she was eight. She didn’t speak English, but learned it quickly, and soon became not only a translator for her parents, but also an advocate. 

“I remember doing resumes for my parents,” she says. Yang would coach them before job interviews. She started doing her parents’ taxes at a young age. Because her parents didn’t have the language ability at that point, she was their conduit with teachers, doctors, utility companies, repairmen, and even their employers. “I helped negotiate our first car purchase when I was nine,” she recalls, adding with a laugh, “It went badly.” “I grew up really fast in that way,” Yang says. 

Soon, her uncles and her aunts came to her for help too. “I’m good at paperwork. I’m good at advocating for people. I went into law to continue what I’ve always done.” 

East St. Paul Roots 

Yang grew up in a 900-square-foot house her parents bought in east St. Paul. She is the oldest of five girls and two boys. She considers some of her younger siblings her “children,” because she cared for them while her parents were working. Now, her parents return the favor, helping out with Yang’s own three children. 

“I am very attached to this area,” she says of East Saint Paul, where she lives with her husband and kids. She goes to work at her office in St. Paul’s Hmong Village. “I’m the village lawyer with my door wide open,” she said. “People will come in and say, ‘Hey, I have a piece of paper. I don’t know what it is. Will you please look at it?’” 

Her practice is a mix of family law and criminal defense, as well as some small business litigation. She also volunteers for the Volunteer Lawyer’s Network, and is a member of several law associations, including the Hmong American Bar Association. 

With her work in family law, Yang looks out for the children. “We can fight about money, we can fight about the house, or the cars, but when it comes to the kids — you need to be looking out for them,” she says. 

She is also an activist. The issue of police violence against communities of color is especially important to her. Yang attended rallies and protests after the death of Philando Castile, who worked at her kids’ school before he was shot by a police officer during a traffic stop. “I think it’s a natural part of being a good citizen,” she says. 

Yang aspires, one day, to be in a position to make systemic change. “Right now I work with people who don’t have access to information, good legal representation, and a fair chance. In so many ways, I’m still doing the work that I did 30 years ago, still interpreting not just language, but rules, systems, and cultures. I only hope that after decades of this kind of work, my negotiating skills have improved some.” 

In the Words of a Younger Sister 

In the nomination process for Changemakers, this is how Der Yang was described by Shell Yang, one of her sisters: 

“As a young college graduate and aspiring attorney, I see so much of who I want to be in my older sister and her practice of the law. While I do not want to practice law the way she does: in a one-room office, in a one-woman firm, in the expanse of a Hmong shopping center, I see the heart and the head it takes for her to stay above the rising tide of people’s expectations. I would love for the world to see that one woman can effectively and systematically and sustainably change for the better the lives of other women in the true pursuit of her heart’s passion and her belief in justice. I’ve seen her in a court room, sitting beside a shaking elderly woman, facing a panel of no less than seven attorneys, all representing major banks, speaking to the reasons why an elderly woman should be able to keep her home. Der Yang carries far more on her shoulders than a practice of the law, she enables livelihoods to continue.” 

Act = Change

Der Yang says that thoughtful consciousness is about bringing 
change to individual lives. “It’s a concept of ‘Start. Stop. Continue.’ For me, a solid plan of action against systemic racism involves the following: 

  • Start teaching all young children about racial injustices 
    and engaging in honest, thoughtful conversation. 
  • Stop reading and believing in alt-right propaganda and messages intended to be divisive. 
  • Continue listening, engaging, and advocating for individuals who are working towards or representing the issues of our time.” 

She also recommends supporting legal networks: