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RSDP Happenings - Spotlight: Sean Yang

February 2017

Sean Yang crouched in front of community garden with his son in front of him

Sean Yang on a family trip to the community garden.

By Elizabeth Braatz

Today, Sean Yang is a Board Director for the University of Minnesota Extension Southwest Regional Sustainable Development Partnership (RSDP), a council member for the City of Walnut Grove, an active volunteer with the Economic Development Administration, a volunteer for the elderly, and a loving husband and father. However, he didn’t start that way.

From Laos to America

It’s so easy to take many things for granted. It’s so easy to take for granted that we were born in a land where people can live peacefully, speak freely, and travel easily. It’s so easy to forget that fundamental rights are also incredible privileges. Today, Yang reminded me of these rights and privileges. This is his story.

To quote Yang,

I was born in Laos and brought to the States at a fairly young age. I remember the routes and traveling by nights to take refuge in Thailand. I also remember our group stranded and sitting duck at the Mekong River banks waiting for boats from Thailand to help us cross the river to safety. Hungry children, exhausted adults, and families with women telling their children not to make any noise traveled for nights and days. I remember seeing my father’s exhausted expression from carrying heavy loads of food, and my mother’s frail face from carrying my younger brother on her back and holding my hand. We crossed mountains to get to the banks of the river edge wearing only flip-flops. Worst was seeing everyone’s worried faces, waiting anxiously and desperately for the boat, wondering if it would come or not. My brother and I didn’t dare make any noise nor beg for food, even when we had been starving for days, because the last word Mom had said was, ‘Remember my child, do not make any noise or whine of anything, a single noise will seal your fate for the journey.’

Eventually, miraculously, the family made it to a refugee camp in Thailand. There they stayed a short time. Yang recalled, “I don’t remember much about Thailand nor my community. All I remember is attending refugee schools for small children and learning ABCs and 123s. I also remember taking Mom’s bottle of fish sauces to trade for a bowl of papaya salad at the Thai farmers market built inside the refugee town center. Although my journey from Laos to Thailand was short, the shadow of its memory will last a lifetime in my heart.”

In late 1989, the family was finally able to move to Merced, California. Although Yang experienced a cultural shock from all the different races, languages, people, and even fashions that filled California, he also thrived. He made friends, learned English, and was successful in school.

Sean Yang in group picture of people participating in a Hmong New Year celebration standing oustide on the grass

Sean Yang (third from left) participating in a Hmong New Year celebration in the cold of late October in Walnut Grove.

This transition is not always easy. As Yang explained, “The expectations and responsibility load for first-generation immigrants is incredibly high. Our community is behind the rest of the world by thousands of years. Getting things up to speed within a decade or two is and was the minimum requirement for almost every single family coming to this new world.”

The Yang family members moved to the Midwest to be closer to family and, despite the challenges, were soon able to participate in the Minneapolis community while also retaining some of their own family history. Yang explained, “My family’s background was a strong community-centric system.” Yang’s great-grandfather and grandfather were shamans, so they were always out and about healing people and helping solve inter-social issues. Yang’s own father was a schoolteacher, and he’d regularly teach on weekends and evenings. These role models helped Yang find his own balance after he grew up.

From urban to rural

Yang earned an Associate’s Degree in computer networks from Rasmussen College, married, and started a family. Right after school he was hired by the IT department at Schwan’s. There was only one catch: the job was located in rural Minnesota.

Yang had lived in an urban environment for a long time. In California, his “small town” consisted of about 50,000 people, and Minneapolis’ population of almost half a million always felt busy. Yang liked all the things to do, and he also liked how everything was within walking distance. However, Yang had a job offer and a lot of extended family in Southwest Minnesota, so he and his wife decided to make the move to Walnut Grove.

Twelve years later, Yang and his family are still living in rural Minnesota and loving it. Yang said, “I made a wise decision … to move from the urban area to [rural Minnesota]. Probably the biggest factor was that I want a good place to raise my family. ... I appreciate the quietness, and how communities find creative ways to keep everything going and vibrant. It’s not every day that we see Walnut Grove on the StarTribune’s Sunday edition, and that’s okay. We often forget to appreciate what rural communities have to offer: simplicity of life, sufficient time for kids to be kids, a bowl of cookies for new neighbors, kids playing [in] the streets with neighbors watching by, lawn mowers thundering all over town, drinking with local elected officials at the same pool table, and finding creative, ethical, and safe solutions to Mrs. Johnson’s rabbit problems in her garden. Call me naive and old fashioned, but I feel that ... we’ve regained a lot of values and visions that our great-grandparents had since we moved to a rural area.”

Sean Yang with two rows of legislative officials in a group photoSean Yang (far left) at a community event connecting with legislative officials.

Yang’s life in Walnut Grove centers on community involvement. As a City Councilperson, Yang helps take care of the community center, cemetery, and economic development projects. In addition to public service, Yang gives back to the community by volunteering. For instance, Yang volunteers with the Economic Development Administration to help revitalize vacant lots and help schools reuse some school grounds. Yang also promotes local foods. Healthy, sustainable, local foods are very important to Yang and his family, and Yang has found directly working with fellow citizens to promote farmers markets hugely satisfying. Similarly, Yang is helping a group of senior citizens acquire a patch of land so they can grow their own fresh produce in a community garden.

From Walnut Grove to the broader community

Besides his service in his hometown, Yang is active in the broader Southwest Minnesota region thanks to his work with RSDP. “RSDP has helped me connect with so many resources and people,” Yang said.

One of his favorite parts of working with RSDP is how it allows people to share ideas across towns so that those with similar projects can learn from each other. For instance, the Southwest RSDP has been supporting work on a local foods campaign in Willmar. Previously, the city had issues with getting fresh, local, healthy foods. Thanks to RSDP’s connections with other regional food hubs, some grant money help, and a huge number of partners offering advice and feedback, Willmar is establishing a food distribution hub including several new food and beverage businesses and a community commercial kitchen. “We connected the folks there [in Willmar] so they don’t have to reinvent the wheel,” explained Yang.

RSDP has also been great with helping Yang promote clean energy and economic development. He and his fellow Southwest RSDP board members are currently working with a project to apply art to the base of wind turbines. The goal is to raise awareness about wind as a local natural asset and the value of wind turbine contributions as a clean source of electricity.

group of people standing in the street looking at a building with scaffolding in front of wall with a mural being created.The Walnut Grove community engaged in a community-supported mural project with traditional pictures and customs contributed by the Hmong community. This picture from Yang was taken at the end of the first week of the mural in progress and depicts Laura Ingalls Wilder with a Hmong woman.

Finally, there is one RSDP-related project that is near and dear to Yang’s heart and cultural origins: he is currently working with youth groups in Walnut Grove to create a community hub. This multicultural center will be a way for both youth and other citizens to connect to their neighbors, learn about different cultures in Minnesota, and develop economically. “The center will be an incubator for [economics]—it will offer a more affordable way for entrepreneurs to get started,” Yang said.

David Fluegel, Southwest RSDP Executive Director, is working with Yang on this project. “It’s still in the discussion stage, but I am particularly excited about this opportunity,” Fluegel said.

Getting involved can be tough—Yang regularly faces challenges with reaching out to groups that haven’t heard about RSDP, bringing out new ideas, and negotiating budgets that work for everybody. However, even as he looks forward to challenges and opportunities for RSDP in the future, looking back Yang couldn’t be happier that he got involved. “I’m really glad I made the decision to be on the RSDP board. Connecting people to people is the most rewarding thing I could do.”

Hank Ludtke

Sean Yang participating in a New Year’s ceremony at Tracy High School in Tracy, Minnesota.

Home is where the heart is

Yang began his journey in Laos, became accustomed to the urban scene of Merced and Minneapolis, yet somehow ended up here, in the rural city of Walnut Grove, with a population of 870. And he couldn’t be happier. Yang thrives in the close-knit culture, with the variety of things to do, and of course with his wealth of family. Yang has five children, parents, siblings, and more all living in Southwest Minnesota, and getting to spend time with them has been a true blessing, he said.

Yang and his wife enjoy going on outings with their children. “Spending time with my kids is always fun. We go fishing and do a lot of touring—we try to visit rural Minnesota as much as we can,” he said. For instance, Yang and his wife recently took their kids to a wind farm. The whole family had a blast, and Yang’s daughters were amazed at the size of the turbines. “Minnesota is so big on green energy, especially in rural Minnesota. We’ve got farmers markets, we’ve got gardens, and we really enjoy that.” Besides going on outings with immediate family, the Yang household is regularly busy with friends and extended family, going to plenty of family gatherings, social outings, and picnics.

Sean Yang on a boat touring Voyageurs National Park near International Falls.

Southwest RSDP board member Sean Yang and Central RSDP board member and Extension Professor Diomy Zamora (left) take in the beauty of Voyageurs National Park while visiting International Falls for RSDP’s statewide meetings in July 2016.

The journey has been long—from Laos to America, urban to rural. However, looking at the dozens of ways Yang is giving back to his community and his family, we at RSDP feel truly blessed to have Yang here and on our team. As Fluegel reflected, “He’s an ideal board member and just an extraordinary person.”



Elizabeth Braatz is a student in the College of Food, Agricultural, and Natural Resources Sciences (CFANS) majoring in Environmental Sciences, Policy, and Management. She works with RSDP as a Student Writer/ Communications Assistant.
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