Kha Yang is no stranger to obstacles. When she’s 20 miles into a painful, energy-demanding marathon, she knows she must break through mental and physical walls.
As an advocate for diversity, equity and inclusion, Yang faces similar barriers. The race for social justice is even more challenging, with no defined finish line.
Over the course of her 20-year career, Yang has worked as a community organizer in the Twin Cities and as inclusion programs and workforce reporting manager at the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis.
Now, as the associate vice president of inclusive excellence at the University of St. Thomas, Yang is fighting for equity on campus. But despite being the very first person to hold this position, she does not consider herself to be a trailblazer.
“People have said that, ‘You’re a great leader. You’re a trailblazer.’ But for me, I just do the work that needed to be done to get to where we are,” Yang said.
Since joining the St. Thomas community in July 2019, Yang has been working to cultivate an environment that fosters diversity, equity and inclusion. This goes beyond race and includes individuals with disabilities, of various sexual identities and from various backgrounds, according to Yang.
Currently, her focus has been on hearing student experiences and understanding the climate on campus. Incorporating the St. Thomas Action Plan to Combat Racism, Yang wants to encourage more campus-wide discussions on prevalent issues and provide diversity training for students and staff.
The ideas Yang hopes to implement are also in accordance with the university’s Commitment to Diversity, which states that each student at St. Thomas “is called to protect and enhance human dignity, in community with each other, and to work for a more just and equitable society.”
Despite these initiatives already in place, the work Yang does on a daily basis is not easy. In addition, the results she hopes to achieve are not always tangible.
“If I were to get $1 for every time someone said, ‘I don’t envy the work that you do,’ I probably wouldn’t have to work,” said Yang.
Despite the difficulties of her job, Yang finds sources of motivation, such as remembering where she came from and reflecting on her own experiences.
“What motivates me to continue to do this work is that it’s personal,” she said. “I am a refugee to this country, and my family has personally experienced acts of intolerance.”
Coming to the U.S. as a refugee from Laos, Yang always wanted to feel like she belonged. Growing up in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, she didn’t know that this longing would turn into a lifelong career in fighting for social justice.
“As a young child, I knew that I wanted to belong, for myself. Then I knew that I also cared about community, and I also cared about people and helping people,” she said. “So that … harnessed the passion in me in terms of, ‘What do I want to be when I grow up?’”
Years later and with a family of her own, Yang is also motivated by her two young daughters, who are 6 and 8 years old.
“I’ve always been passionate about cultivating an equitable society for all. But once I became a parent, it even hones in more,” Yang said. “You get to see these innocent and pure minds that you just want to protect and not see them in an environment where — because of the color of their skin or because of their hair or because of whatever social identity that they were born with — they would be treated in a different way.”
Yang envisions a more inclusive world for her daughters, but she knows intolerance will unfortunately never become a closed chapter in our society. However, there are small ways that people can combat this issue, including on the St. Thomas campus.
One of the most important things Yang stresses is engaging other people in promoting diversity, equity and inclusion. Training opportunities, events and directed discussions educate students, faculty and staff on these issues. There are also more than 140 clubs that students can join. Yang believes in the power these initiatives have in contributing to a greater cause.
“What keeps me going is that every little thing that we do in this will amount to a bigger impact,” Yang said.
Much like the wall at the 20-mile mark, there will always be obstacles in the fight for social justice. So while this race for diversity, equity and inclusion seems like a painful, energy-demanding marathon, Yang knows that we must continue running in order to create a more welcoming world.