Candidate Questionnaire Response: Nelsie Yang, Ward 6

Nelsie Yang is running for City Council in Ward 6. Learn more about her at https://www.nelsieyang.com

What is your vision for safety and wellness rooted in St. Paul communities? As a city councilmember, what concrete steps would you take to support that vision? And who else would you work with to advance that vision?

As a daughter of political refugees who came to the US for a better life, my family was poor growing up. Due to my humble upbringing, I saw how wealth and resources are what determines a family’s trajectory and their quality of life. I saw how my parents worked hard day and night in hope to achieve the American dream, but our family remained poor. My parents were given “boots” to attempt the American dream, but the American Dream is only a myth that sets up families for failure. This is why as a community organizer, I work hard to tackle issues at the root cause and find systemic solutions through community. I believe that in order to improve people’s quality of life, whether that’s wellness, safety, prosperity, access, and opportunities, we must bring the community and stakeholders together to find community based solutions. We must prioritize and protect to strengthen all of our families in Saint Paul. This is a value and practice that I will bring to city hall. In order to have community based solutions, it must be a collaborative approach where all stakeholders and diverse communities must be at the decision making table to determine the collective solution. These individuals include, but are not limited to: community organizations, neighborhoods, experts, elders, cultural communities, elected officials, students, parents, unions, etc.

Through a community-based approach, we can come together to build and live in a city where families are thriving and resources are invested to strengthen families. I will bring together and meet with constituents, organizations, unions, and stakeholders from all neighborhoods in Ward 6 through community listening sessions that is grounded in popular education. I will champion ordinances and policies at city hall that is centered on strengthening the family and that puts them first. I will continuously engage Ward 6 through constant communication and community meetings. In all, my vision is to live and build a city where people have healthcare and have access to high quality healthcare providers; the neighborhood we live in does not determine the quality and cost of basic needs, and high quality basic services are local and in abundance; housing is affordable; individuals can open a business and thrive; neighborhoods are safe and secure; and transportation is accessible and affordable.

What alternatives to policing, arrest, criminal prosecution and incarceration would you work to support? How would you work to reduce the dramatic racial disparities and impacts of these systems?

It’s important to acknowledge the truth, which is that our criminal justice system was built to uphold white supremacy and marginalize people across race, class, and gender. It operates to keep our society homogeneous, even though we already know that diversity is what makes our community flourish. While dismantling the racism, sexism, and corporate greed that our criminal justice upholds, I also believe we need to dismantle and reform the criminal justice system by addressing it at the root cause. Too often we can trace root causes back to poverty. This is why I believe we must invest resources to prioritize and strengthen families. To do this, we need to ensure that people have access to good paying jobs where a parent could work one job to support the whole family, jobs that pays livable wages, housing is affordable, transportation is easy and accessible, resources are allocated equitably to support the neighborhoods with the highest needs, and youth are invested through recreational programs in their local neighborhood.

We need to break away from traditional practices of fines and imprisonment as the sole solution to safety. As a Criminal Justice Organizer at TakeAction Minnesota, I believe in restorative justice practices. I believe that there is expertise in the community, and through community initiatives, we can come together to restore and heal. This includes increased accessibility and funding of youth and adult diversion programs. We need to expand the police department’s mental health units by hiring mental health practitioners, social workers, and counselors who have the experience and cultural competencies to de-escalate a crisis using non-violent practices.

In 2017, I was a part of a coalition of community members who organized to ensure the Police Civilian Internal Affairs Review Commission (PCIARC), consists of only community members by removing police officers off the commission. Similarly to the PCIARC, I want to create a commission of community members from different parts of our city to assess our practice around public safety, and make recommendations to the City Council and the Mayor. This effort will be the proactive approach compared to the PCIARC, which is a reactive.

I will work to review current ordinances and, with the support of the community, revise ordinances that harms and further criminalize individuals. I am committed to working with the community to propose a better budget that supports the programs and initiatives that I discussed above and from the community.

Many people who are routinely impacted by policing come from our most impoverished and disenfranchised communities, and due to systemic inequities, they are comparatively disconnected from the levers of power. How would you work to elevate the experience and insight of directly impacted community members so they can have the same impact on shaping policy as well-funded advocacy organizations?

I believe my role as Council Member is to open doors for people so that changes that are needed in the community can happen. I will bring my passion and values as a grassroots organizer to shape my work so that we bring our most marginalized and impacted people to the table. I do this because my values are that 1) I serve the community, 2) I bring people along in my work, and 3) I reach out to communities who have been silenced from democracy to bring them to the table. I am from the Hmong community and understand the experience of invisibility because like many other communities, the Hmong people are highly concentrated in Saint Paul, but our voice is often silenced and invisible. I’ve worked across different races and ethnicity, gender, identities in my work as a community organizer and on my campaign to ensure everyone’s voices and lived experience is elevated, such as working alongside people with records at TakeAction Minnesota to reform the criminal justice system.

In partnership with the community-first safety initiative, and with leadership support from the city council, St. Paul residents have advanced the idea of a community cabinet on safety, wellness and justice. How would you support this cabinet to ensure it has lasting and meaningful input?

See my response in answer 2 about creating a commission of community members similarly to this idea. Similarly to other boards in the city, this board can make recommendations on budgets and projects. In addition, this board will grade and assess current practices and city ordinances. I am interested in hearing more about this initiative and what other ideas your organization has in mind.

What is your knowledge of or experience with restorative justice and restorative practices? How might St. Paul become a restorative city?

To become a restorative city, we need a new and different approach to how we conduct business. We need to acknowledge the historical hurt and trauma in the community, then we must bring the community together to restore our city. I am interested in partnering with your organization on planning how this will look like. As for my experience in restorative justice, please refer to my answer in question 2.

What specific steps would you take to build stability in areas hard-hit by poverty, unemployment, and housing insecurity?

The the poorest areas of our city, especially on the East Side tends to be deserts of all basic services:grocery store options, child care providers, high quality playground and parks, transitional housing, and much more. I will ensure that budget allocations prioritizes family first by, but not limited to:

  • investing in youth programs, rec centers, and parks;
  • holding landlords accountable to providing high quality rental properties;
  • Support and create initiatives to make housing affordable;
  • support and create initiatives to make transit more accessible;
  • passing progressive ordinances that brings businesses to the eastside, and ensures a majority of their workforce is from the community they are based in
  • create and share resources for small businesses, especially start-ups, to have access to city grants and receive equitable treatment from banks in loan processes

What do you know about the recently dissolved Joint Powers Agreement to share data to flag Ramsey County students as “at-risk”? What lessons do you think officials should take away from the political process that created the Joint Powers Agreement data-sharing plan?

I am familiar with the efforts of the JPA. Although I believe that there are good intentions to create a system to support our youths from all government entities who are vulnerable and at-risk, I believe the way it was conducted perpetuated our current broken system that families are still shackled in. We do need to address how to better support families and youths, especially those who are most at risk, but it need to involve a community-based approach that involves stakeholders, and community members/leaders. JPA reopened an unhealed wound of historical trauma in the indigenous community and many communities of color due to our current broken system that continues to divide families.

What specific steps will you take to end the school to prison pipeline of St. Paul youth? What can you do as a city councilmember to create more opportunities for youth to thrive?

I believe that we need a collaborative approach to addressing and disrupting the school to prison pipeline for all our youths. We need all entities of government to come together along with community members and our law enforcement entities. I am interested in creating a collaboration to bring all stakeholders to discuss how our work intersects to address and disrupt this systemic cycle that criminalizes our children, whether that’s in the schools or in the community.

As I mentioned in previous answers, I want to continue and expand youth programs, rec centers, and parks so that youth have a hub in their local neighborhood to access, seek for mentor-ship, mentor others, and participate in their neighborhood. I want our rec centers to hire high school students to work in rec centers and to run mentor-ship programs to lead and support young students. This opportunity will not only give them job experience, but build their sense of belonging and contentedness to their neighborhood and neighbors.

What is a person, place, book, experience, or film that has especially influenced your vision of community-first public safety and your dreams about what’s possible for community-first public safety in St. Paul?

My brother is the reason why I began organizing for community-first public safety and criminal justice reform. He is a year older than me, and I witnessed his entire upbringing. We lived in systemic poverty our entire lives, and I saw how poverty influenced him to find others ways and means to survive in society. He is a survivor of gun violence, trauma, and all the ways in which poverty, race, and gender are used to target him. Even though he was the one directly impacted by the criminal justice system, I saw how it became a rippling effect to myself and the people around me. We cannot be freed from the shackles of oppression until we are all freed. I will work hard every day to cogovern with people and organizations to ensure our city budget and community initiatives reflect what our most marginalized communities need most. That means living in a system built by us and for us across race, class, and gender. It’s time to reclaim what has been stripped from us for so long.

How should the city of St. Paul welcome and support people returning to neighborhoods from jail or prison, or living on probation? What steps would you take to make housing more accessible to people with criminal convictions?

I believe the city and county need to fully support people returning to communities with basic needs and services that does not isolate them from community. I will support initiatives to fully restore people returning to communities after incarceration or living on probation. This includes but are not limited to:

  • restoring their right to vote, regardless of their conviction
  • support entities and organizations to create and expand reentry & aftercare programs
  • mental health services
  • expansion and creation of sober housing
  • affordable housing
  • job training

What informs your decision-making process when it comes to community issues? Can you share a story about a specific time when you had to decide where you stood on a difficult community issue, or when you had to decide what kind of action you should take on an issue? How did you arrive at the decision you did?

In 2017, I was a part of a coalition of community members who organized to ensure that the Police Civilian Internal Affairs Review Commission (PCIARC), consists of only community members by removing police officers off the commission. We wouldn’t have arrived to this conclusion if it was not due to the grassroots organizing efforts. As a community organizer, I brought together and organized community meetings with different city council members to address this concern. What was challenging was that people were divided on this issue. As I organized and educated people on this issue, I became the face of this effort. I received calls and social media messages from people who opposed my point of view because this would send a message to allow people to continue to disrespect the police. I also received calls that supported the initiative from people who had interactions with the PCIARC and/or the police. Regardless of the complexity and hearing from people on both sides of the issue, I knew that removing the two police officers off the commission was the right thing to do. The real issue about this action was about restoring community trust. If the police exists as a basic need to serve the people, then why are they struggling for the power from the community that they need to protect.? Why couldn’t they trust in the integrity of the residents? What is there to hide? I proceeded in my value and decision on this issue. Other organizers and I met with people and turned them out to town hall meetings, they testified at the city council hearings, and made calls to their elected officials on this issue. . There were many deliberations of how to get to our collective outcomes, but as a coalition of people and organizations, we all were focused on the outcome that we wanted a community based commission and didn’t lose sight of it.

What does co-governance look like to you? How have you implemented that vision of co-governance in your own life and work? How would you work to scale up that vision in city government?

Co-governing means we listen to the people of our democracy. We hold each other accountable to making sure that all voices are considered before making a decision at the decision-making table. We don’t want to only hear directions from city hall to the people. We want to hear from the people to make an impact at city hall. I am currently a community organizer and I believe in power from the collective. I believe in the expertise in the community. These beliefs are current practices and realities that I live and conduct in my life. These are also values that I will bring to City hall. I am only in city hall to open doors for the community so that changes that are needed in the community can happen.