Shery Yang, a first-generation American whose family immigrated to the United States from Laos, has joined the California State Capitol as the first Hmong Chief of Staff in the state Senate. Her appointment by Senator Melissa Hurtado (D-Sanger) highlights the need for diverse representation in the government — and continued support and recognition of the minority population.
Yang brings a background of 13 years in politics, policy, and communications to her new role. She will direct, coordinate, and supervise operations at the senator’s office. Hurtado’s office represents the 14th Senate District in California, or the counties of Fresno, Kern, Kings, and Tulare. Hosting a population of 25,000 Hmong residents, Fresno has the largest Hmong population in the United States second only to that of Minneapolis-St. Paul. “It’s been a whirlwind of a journey,” Yang posted on social media following her appointment. “Thank you to @Senator_Hurtado for always standing up for underserved communities.”
Hmong people are underrepresented both in government and data collection. According to a 2018 report by PRRI and AAPI Data, 23% of Asian Americans in the state are working but struggling with poverty. Hmong people — reporting difficulties such as inability to pay monthly bills and reliance on food stamps — have the highest rate of 44%. Of 99,032 Hmong people residing California, most — like Yang — fled Laos following the Secret War of 1964 to 1973, a little-reported-on chapter of history in which the US military dropped 2 million tons of ordnance in a crushing anti-communist campaign.
The culture of Hmong immigrants to America is gaining recognition. In February 2019, an assembly bill introduced in California encouraged incorporation of Laotian history and cultural studies into California public schools’ curriculum. The state government previously approved a bill to include diverse perspectives from the Vietnam War and Cambodian genocide, in addition to Hmong history in grades K-12. These legislative advances follow on a gradual rise of Hmong representation in politics; in 2002, Mee Moua became the first Hmong elected at state level as senator of Minnesota.
Yang and Senator Hurtado are both daughters of immigrants. In recent bills, Hurtado has moved to increase healthcare access and social support in the Central San Joaquin Valley. Hosting a discussion on expanding water access to the state’s rural populations, Hurtado has highlighted the need for improved resource access and social support to marginal populations, notably Southeast Asians.
Amanda Mei is a research intern in the Young Professionals Program at the East-West Center in Washington. She graduated from Yale University with a bachelor's degree in environmental studies in 2018.