Sitting in her high school honors Spanish class, Kashoua Kristy Yang overheard one of her classmates boast about her aspirations to go to the prestigious Yale Law School. Yang allowed herself to imagine herself having that opportunity, but quickly shut down this seemingly unattainable dream. Her family emigrated as Hmong refugees from Thailand when she was six and her parents worked long factory jobs to support her and her other 10 siblings. She didn’t think she was capable and couldn’t think of putting the burden of such an ambitious goal on her parents’ back.
Yang settled for studying computer science as an undergraduate out of practicality. However, when her youngest brother was involved in a terrible car crash, she couldn’t help but feel “powerless.” Yang did not have extensive knowledge of the law to help her parents navigate the legal system or to know their rights, which motivated her to finally go for her dream to go to law school.
“If you’ve ever been through a situation where you feel so vulnerable and that your future is in the hands of other people, it really motivates you. Once you’ve had an opportunity to appreciate that and feel it in your fiber, it really motivates you to do things that maybe at one time you didn’t think you were capable of doing. That’s the reason I continue to do the work I do representing individuals and affecting the daily lives of people,” Yang said in an interview with Madison365.
Now Yang holds a law degree from the University of Wisconsin Law School, numerous accolades for the work she has done, including being named Super Lawyers Rising Star from 2013 to 2016. She is now running her own law firm in Milwaukee, practicing family law, worker’s compensation, and social security and disability law.
While running her own private practice, Yang is also running for judge for Branch 47 in Milwaukee County Circuit Court in the April 4 election against criminal defense attorney and Fox Point municipal judge Scott Wales.
She is the first Hmong and Asian American womyn to run for this position in the history of Wisconsin. If she is elected, she will be the first female Hmong judge in the U.S., and only the second Hmong judge in the nation.
Her passion for helping others and those in her community motivated her to move from being an “activist” as an attorney to a position of more authority as a judge. Her experience growing up and witnessing situations where her parents sacrificed their “dignity” to support her family, such as being racially discriminated at work or at the grocery store, shape her perspective of the world and the way she treats others.
“When someone you love goes through difficult situations and you see them lose their dignity and humility in front of you, I think it makes it more real when you witness someone else goes through it. It reminds you that everyone has feelings and a family, behind that person is a community. I envision my parents in those people and I would never want to treat my parents or those people the way that other people treated my parents,” Yang said.
Yang has been committed to reaching all communities in every corner of Milwaukee since last August and to take them “as they are” and respect their boundaries. Her campaign strives to reach different communities to combat the segregation of Milwaukee and civically engage them.
Many people doubted Yang’s decision to run for judge and her capability to run a law firm, a campaign, while being a wife and mother of three daughters. She believes that her experience in multiple areas of the law will distinguish her in making level-headed decisions as Milwaukee judge along with her life experiences being a Hmong womyn, similar to when Sonya Sotomayor said her Latina identity and experiences as a Latina allow her to come to better conclusions compared to a white male.
“The fact that we have mass incarceration as an issue in Wisconsin and over 90 percent of Wisconsin’s judges are white should tell us something. I think it does matter where we come from and what we bring to the table,” Yang said.
Continuing her goal to ensure justice, Yang is hoping to reach more people through her campaign and be an example for those like her who think they are not capable of reaching their dreams such as graduating from law school, setting up a private law firm, and now making U.S. history by running for judge.
“Benjamin Franklin once said, ‘Justice will not be served until those who are unaffected are as outraged as those who are.’ When you know what you know and you don’t do better, it’s unsettling – it doesn’t feel right. That’s the call to action. It doesn’t mean a change overnight but once you have that knowledge, it would be a waste to not do anything with it,” Yang said.
This piece was produced by a reporter in the Madison365 Academy. To learn more and support our educational programs, please visit madison365.org/academy.