In celebration of LGBTQ+ Pride Month, throughout June, MPR News is featuring stories about transgender and nonbinary Minnesotans making an impact. See more at mprnews.org/changemakers.
Cameron PajYeeb Yang, 28, is a Ph.D. student at the University of Minnesota and a development manager for Freedom Inc., a Wisconsin-based nonprofit organization that works with low-income communities of color, particularly Black and Southeast Asian communities, to help them navigate housing, healthcare, the legal justice system, and other services.
Yang is a second-generation Hmong queer, transgender, nonbinary person who was born and raised in St. Paul, where they still live. Yang uses they/them pronouns.
“There are a lot of great pockets of Hmong, queer, trans folks,” Yang said of the Twin Cities communities. “There are a lot of other informal spaces that cultivate great relationships within the Hmong queer trans community.”
After leaving their career as a high school English teacher in 2018, Yang has turned their attention to academic research. They’re researching the larger systems meant to support students of color, and how those systems are failing. Some of those systems include the public education system as well as charter schools.
Yang also has a background in storytelling. They have a film production company called PY Production. Yang is currently working as an editor on a local documentary about Hmong spirituality called “Spirited.” They also co-produced Nplooj Radio, a Hmong LGBTQ+ radio show.
Yang is also an activist. They’ve been working with elected officials in the city of St. Paul and the family of Yia Xiong, a Hmong man who was killed by St. Paul police in February. Through their work with Freedom Inc., Yang connects people experiencing gender-based violence with a wide range of services they may need, such as housing, health, legal, and other services.
Editor’s note: Our conversation with Yang has been edited for length and clarity.
Tell me about yourself.
I would consider myself a lifelong storyteller. I’ve noticed that throughout my short life, I’ve been drawn to different forms of storytelling. I’ve messed around with radio, filmmaking, script writing, photography.
Even in my previous nonprofit jobs, I always found ways to highlight community stories and experiences. Right now as a researcher and Ph.D student, I feel like research is a different form of storytelling. Overall, I’m a storyteller. I think I’m happiest in community, telling stories of other people and myself.
What are some causes that you feel are important and are advocating for?
Right now, I’m really focused on the murder of Yia Xiong, who was a Hmong 65-year-old elderly man who lived in Winslow Commons, an apartment complex for elderly folks with a disability. He was killed by St. Paul police and right now that’s a campaign that is near and dear to my heart.
When he was murdered by St. Paul police, I actively organized with St. Paul City Councilmember Nelsie Yang, Ramsey County Commissioner Mai Chong Xiong, and Snowdon Herr, the founder of the Justice for Yia Xiong movement, by meeting daily to really hold SPPD accountable. Yia’s family, they’re calling on the arrest and indictment of the police officers involved. I don’t believe in incarceration, but I believe in holding the police department accountable for his wrongful death.
I’m also advocating against the femicides of Hmong women. There have been so many throughout the country just within the last year. There’s a larger coalition of nonprofit organizations, Transforming Generations being one of them, throughout the Midwest. Freedom Inc. is another. There are a few more nonprofit organizations in Wisconsin, too.
I play more of an advocate support role in that I support local organizations like Transforming Generations and Freedom Inc. to make sure folks know of and have resources when they’re experiencing situations of violence, specifically marginalized folks in the Hmong community.
What work are you passionate about? And can you tell me about your research?
I just finished my first year in my Ph.D. program at the University of Minnesota. I’m currently interested in education equity, specifically for marginalized students and families. I’m specifically interested in neoliberalism, ethnocentric charter schools, and how the education system continues to fail a lot of our students of color.
I went to undergrad to become an English high school teacher. I decided not to pursue teaching anymore, like a lot of BIPOC [Black, Indigenous, people of color] teachers, because of the system. There are so many issues you run into as a young educator that preparatory programs do not prepare you for.
What are you reading right now?
I’m reading a lot of academic work. Not as exciting. I’m really focused on finding ways to learn more about transformative justice. I’m not an expert in it at all, but I’ve been trying to find texts and videos to learn more about it and ways to practice it. Right now, I’m reading [Pauline] Lipman’s work from UW Madison, specifically around neoliberalism in charter schools.
What is it that you want young people to know, especially in terms of their identity and self-expression?
Gosh, I don’t want to be cliché and just say it gets better — but it does get better.
I would want them to know that they should be able to dream beyond tangible things.
What’s special about this location that we’re meeting at, Swede Hollow Park?
My fondest childhood memories were created in this little park. I was born, raised around a mile from this park. I spent a lot of my summers and after school time here biking, walking, running with my family — my parents, my grandparents, my siblings. A lot of good childhood memories here, too. My parents still live about a mile down, within walking distance.
Who are your trans and nonbinary heroes?
I’m immediately thinking of local community folks. I would say Skye Vang, Schoua Na Yang. These are my friends! These are folks who are not elders — they’re like my age, but in queer terms they would be considered elders. I guess I’m considered an elder now. I think they’ve really shaped my young adult, queer, trans self.
What is that like, being both a mentor and a mentee?
I guess I’ve never really thought about it. That’s just the sense of community, where I’m able to connect and reach out to folks if I need support or if others are in need of support. There’s not a formal structure. I just exist in it.
Who is a rising trans or nonbinary leader in Minnesota?
I would say Seng Xiong is a great person. I’ve known them since I was in undergrad. It’s been amazing to see them grow artistically and as an advocate.
What is something you want everyone to know about trans people?
That we just want to exist, simply put. We just want to exist.
Do you feel like you’re a part of a community of other Hmong queer folks in the Twin Cities?
There are a lot of great pockets of Hmong, queer, trans folks. Transforming Generations is a great formal organization that cultivates queer and trans Hmong folks and community. There are a lot of other informal spaces that cultivate great relationships within the Hmong queer trans community.
I would also highlight the Asian American Organizing Project. They’ve been doing amazing work for almost a decade now. But there definitely is a lack of, like, formal spaces for Southeast Asian queer trans folks or even Asian queer trans folks in Minnesota.
Why is it important to have that sense of community?
For one, having a formal space to build relationship. I know that it’s hard to. When I was like a little queer baby, it was hard to find support and friendships among other queer trans folks.
When Shades of Yellow was a thing, which was specifically a Hmong queer trans organization that has since closed, that’s where I created, cultivated and developed most of my friendships that continue today. And I think that’s why it’s so important.