As a young child growing up in a refugee camp in Thailand after the Vietnam War, Kashoua "Kristy" Yang only knew two words of English.
They were “Pepsi, please.”
“In the refugee camp in Thailand, if we were lucky enough, we’d have a few sips of Pepsi,” Yang told NBC News. “It’s something that we’d only get once or twice a year during holidays, so it was one of those things that if you had the opportunity, you’d ask for it.”
Experiences like that one influenced the way Yang, an attorney in Wisconsin, now looks at social justice and the legal system. They are also a big part of why Yang decided to declare her candidacy to be a Milwaukee County circuit court judge. She’s currently campaigning throughout the district ahead of the April 4 election.
“Justice is defined differently party to party and person to person,” Yang said. “The ability to understand that doesn’t come from legal practice. It comes from experience.”
If elected, Yang would become the first female Hmong judge in the country and only the second judge of Hmong descent after Judge Paul Lo in Merced County, California, she said.
“Before we came to America, we were told that the streets were lined with gold,” Yang said. “We didn’t find any gold, but we did find change, just finding a dime or a nickel that people had dropped. You don’t find that in a refugee camp.”
During her career as an attorney, Yang said she’s worked with clients on family law issues, workplace injury cases, and disability lawsuits. “As a former refugee child, I never thought that I’d become an attorney,” Yang said, noting that she and five of her 10 siblings were born in the refugee camp. “I went to law school with the intention of helping people and then I realized the role I needed to be in is that of a judge.”
In particular, Yang said she is particularly concerned about how conditions like language barriers and inadequate representation negatively affect many defendants in court. “Often you see that they did not know what they were signing when they took a plea deal,” she said. “If they had known, they would not have pled guilty, they would have gone to trial.”
To Yang, it is the role of a judge to make sure these barriers are not impeding the case. She gives the case of a witness speaking through an interpreter as an example. “If there is an interpreter and the answers always seem to be off, either the interpreter is not interpreting or they are misunderstanding the question. The judge needs to inquire about that,” she said. “There is a huge difference between the judge understanding the issues and the judge tipping the scales.”
Because Yang’s candidacy overlapped with the President’s recent refugee ban, she said she’s sometimes asked about her experiences as a Hmong refugee by community members and voters. “To go from ‘Pepsi, please’ to mastering the English language and making a living from it [as a lawyer], it takes hard work,” Yang said. “It was not without trials and tribulations, it was not without discrimination. But seeing my parents go through all of that, it really opened my eyes.”
Yang also stresses that she and her family also learned about the kindness of Americans soon after their arrival in the United States. “My maternal grandparents were already living here and through support from their church, we received bags and bags of gifts,” she said. “We knew other people were cheering us on.”