By KYMELYA SARI
Not long ago, Bor Yang, the new executive director of the Vermont Human Rights Commission, contemplated leaving the state.
At the time, Yang was an administrative law examiner at the state agency, which investigates allegations of discrimination in housing, state government employment and public accommodations. Part of her job was giving “implicit bias training” to state employees, housing providers, legal providers and social service agencies.
After one such session, a law clerk told Yang she had overheard two individuals having a private conversation during which they muttered, referring to the trainer, “Well, maybe she should go back to her country.”
“I have not heard that since I was a little kid,” said Yang, 41, as she recounted the incident in her work quarters on Baldwin Street in Montpelier. Born in Laos, Yang and her family moved to the U.S. when she was 3. “It really did make me sad, and also it made me want to leave Vermont,” she said.
Since she started working at the commission in 2015, Yang said, she has heard from other members of minority groups who planned to leave the state because of the discrimination they experienced, feeling that “sticking around to fight this fight seems really impossible.”
But Yang herself has a reason to stick around — the chance to make a change in her new community. In November, the ethnic Hmong woman became the first person of color to head the Vermont Human Rights Commission since the state agency was formed in 1988.
When Karen Richards, Yang’s predecessor, was appointed in 2013, she brought team-building skills, budgeting experience and solid legal skills, said Donald Vickers, who has been a commission member since 2008 and was on both selection committees. Richards also hired quality staff and built new partnerships, he noted.
“We were looking for the same skills in Bor,” said Vickers, “plus the ability to take the commission to the next level by building a strong information and training component.”
“It was Bor’s passion and her vision for the Vermont Human Rights Commission that, to me at least, pulled her ahead of the field,” said Mary Brodsky, who was appointed to the commission in 2010.
“My goal and vision for this agency is doing more proactive work and not just always reacting to discrimination,” Yang said.
Many Vermonters still don’t know about the agency and its work, she noted. What the commission needs, in her view, is an outreach and education coordinator to create, develop and deliver a comprehensive strategic plan to educate Vermonters about the law.
“We only have investigators,” said Vickers. “If they have cases, they can’t do training.”
While the agency handles more than a dozen protected categories, Yang wants to start out by focusing on race and national origin. She named three high-profile cases in the past year that saddened her: Kiah Morris citing racial harassment as a reason for her resignation as state representative; the alleged racial profiling of slam poet quartet Muslim Girls Making Change at the Burlington Elks Club; and the racist treatment that attendees of a camp for transracial adoptees reported encountering in Stowe.
Among the complaints Yang has investigated was one made by an African American employee against patients and staff at the Vermont Psychiatric Care Hospital in Berlin for discriminatory and racist behavior, as Mark Davis reported in Seven Days last February. Yang said she was shocked to learn that adults were still using racial epithets and lacked the tools to facilitate discussions of racism.
“We’re kind of in crisis in terms of race relations in Vermont, and I’d like to see us be more proactive in that regard,” said Yang.
Yang hopes the next state budget includes funds that would enable the commission to hire an outreach and education coordinator, but that’s not assured. She also plans to organize annual conferences and community forums to address race and national origin. “I like the idea of doing very clear campaigns around human rights and diversity,” said Yang, “and showcasing the people who live here and who they are and what they do.”
Yang was born in 1977, two years after the communist Pathet Lao forces overthrew the monarchy in her landlocked Southeast Asian country. Her father and uncle were among thousands of Hmong soldiers who had fought a secret, Central Intelligence Agency-funded war against the communist soldiers in northern Laos. When they were defeated, the U.S. airlifted about 2,500 top Hmong military officials and their families to safety in Thailand. But many others, including Yang’s family, had to trek through jungles to cross the Mekong River and make their own way to Thai refugee camps.
Hmong soldiers had been led to believe that, in the case of defeat, they and their families wouldn’t be left to fend for themselves, Yang related. To this day, her father laments that abandonment.
Yang wrote about her family’s escape from Laos and move to the U.S. in an essay in Expand Your Bubble, a combination of memoir, self-help book and anthology by central Vermont author Amy Carst. The pair met about two and a half years ago when Carst was a legal apprentice at the Vermont Human Rights Commission.
Carst sat in on several mediation sessions with Yang, she said, and was impressed by the latter’s diplomatic skills. In one session with school administrators, Yang demonstrated that she had the ability to speak the truth, to even criticize or condemn, in a way that even the person at the receiving end can respect and appreciate, Carst recalled.
In the autobiographical essay, Yang described how her right leg was paralyzed by the polio virus when she was about a year old; today, she uses a brace and a crutch. During the family’s escape, her mother swam across the Mekong River using a makeshift plastic float; her father bribed Pathet soldiers to release family members who had been captured.
Because they feared an infant’s cries would reveal them, some fleeing families used opium to sedate babies, Yang wrote. When a child died from an overdose, the parents grieved in silence.
“It’s a story that is prevalent throughout a lot of [the] Hmong people’s journey,” said Yang, “of what they were doing to make it through the jungles and cross the river.”
The first Hmong refugees resettled in the U.S. in 1975, and the biggest wave of arrivals — slightly more than 27,000 — was recorded in 1980. The 2010 census reported about 260,000 Hmong in the country, with the highest concentrations in California, Minnesota and Wisconsin.
Yang grew up mainly in Minnesota and attended the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the University of Minnesota Law School. She became an attorney at age 25 and practiced in the areas of family law, government benefits and Social Security.
She also volunteered for about two years with the Minnesota Volunteer Lawyers Network, where she dealt primarily with family law and immigration work. “In the area of family law where [Yang] has experience, the demand for services far outstrips the staff,” said Tom Walsh, the organization’s executive director. “Having pro bono volunteers who are willing and able to provide advice is extremely valuable.”
Yang was working as a solo practitioner and college instructor when her husband suggested moving to Vermont, where he had attended school. Yang agreed because she wanted to try something new.
As a person with a disability, a woman and a person of color, Yang has had to defy stereotypes throughout her life. “The burden with being a minority is that you’re never given the benefit of the doubt,” she said.
As an example, she cites her difficulty finding a job in Vermont over the course of 11 months, despite her qualifications. “I can’t help but feel it has something to do with the fact that my name is very foreign sounding,” said Yang.
She’s seen firsthand the kind of notice her disability can draw. On hikes, she recalled, she’s encountered strangers who said to her with great gusto, “You’re amazing” or “You win.”
“And I’m just walking,” Yang said wryly.
She knows such passersby mean well, Yang continued, but to her their comments indicate that they perceive people with disabilities as incompetent or lacking in confidence. “There’s a lot of people who are well-intentioned people and they consider themselves good people,” she said, “but they can still participate or behave in discriminatory ways.”
Yang has also seen discrimination manifest itself in Vermont hiring practices. It isn’t unusual for employers to engage in informal hiring processes, she said. They tend to hire applicants they already know and like, and it can be hard to persuade them to widen their search for the sake of diversity.
“Our group of friends tend to be people who look like us,” said Yang. “If you’re hiring people that you know, chances are that ‘who you know’ tend to be other white people.”
While she’s determined to combat such behaviors, Yang acknowledged that bias is a natural phenomenon from which no one is immune, born from life experiences. In her view, the remedy is constant mindfulness.
Several years ago, Yang said, after taking an implicit bias test, she was surprised to learn she had a slight bias in favor of able-bodied people. On reflection, she realized she had worked so hard to defy stereotypes that she had given herself a bias against having a disability.
This is a story Yang often shares during training sessions to encourage participants to be open about examining their own bias. The more aware they are, the less likely they are to act on such bias, she said.
Yang is optimistic about the likelihood of eliminating implicit bias and systemic racism in Vermont. And Montpelier is where the change can start, she believes.
“When I think about policies that could be improved to be more inclusive, those policies are going to start in Montpelier, with the legislators and the heads of agencies,” said Yang.
A version of this article first appeared on sevendaysvt.com and in Seven Days newspaper, a Burlington-based newsweekly published on Wednesdays and distributed for free at more than 1,000 locations in northern and central Vt. and Plattsburgh, N.Y. Photo by JEB WALLACE-BRODEUR