2 East Siders among 2019 Bush Fellows

KaYing Yang

Tony Sanneh

Fellowship helps leaders continue to grow and serve


The Bush Foundation on March 19 announced the 24 winners of its Bush Fellowship program, which include two East Siders. 

The fellowships are given to “visionary leaders who are thinking big about how to invest in their leadership to creatively solve problems in their communities,” according to a release from the organization.

The East Siders chosen for the fellowships are KaYing Yang and Tony Sanneh.  

The Bush Fellowship provides up to $100,000 over 12-24 months to leaders to “pursue learning experiences that help them develop leadership skills and attributes.”



Yang’s 20-year community-building career has focused on Hmong women in St. Paul, the U.S., and across the world in Laos.

Early in her career in the 1990s, Yang served as executive director of the Women’s Association of Hmong and Laos, the first Hmong women group in Minnesota, which was started in 1979.  

During her leadership the group was located on the corner of Payne Avenue and Kenny Street. She said it was a challenge running the organization, as gender norms in the Hmong community were at odds with women in leadership.

It was during that time that she said she witnessed the trauma Hmong women experience from living in refugee camps, resettlement and gender-based violence, which drove her passion to work toward gender equity.   

Yang’s career has also involved her working in Washington, D.C., for the Southeast Asia Resource Action Center, being the first Hmong person to lead the national advocacy group. 

In 2003, Yang and Bo Thao-Urabe advocated to help resettle the roughly 17,000 remaining Hmong people from the Wat Tham Krabok refugee camp in Thailand. 

Yang also spent 10 years living in Laos, where she helped establish the first women’s community building organization in that country, called VivNcaug. 

Today she works as the the director of programs and partnerships for the Coalition of Asian American Leaders with Thao-Urabe.

She said the past 20 years have been nonstop and she’s realizing now it’s time to slow down, reflect, re-energize and figure out what her next steps are in advocacy.

“Because of the constant work, I’ve never had a chance to pause,” Yang said, adding she hasn’t been intentional about addressing her own traumas and is realizing it’s something she needs to make a priority.

Outside of her personal growth, Yang said she wants to use her fellowship to take policy classes to add to her real-world experiences and to connect with new and emerging social justice leaders. 

She also said she wants to use the time to document the history of Hmong women and the strides the community has made, especially during her career. She’s not sure how that will take shape, but she’s hoping to connect with other creatives to help document this modern Hmong history. 

While she said it’s amazing to receive the fellowship and is grateful to be able to take a pause from a fulfilling career, she said just the application process itself helped her begin to boil down what her career means to her: “The potential to change the world everyday.”


Continuing youth support

Sanneh is already well-known for the organization he started — the Sanneh Foundation. It manages programming at Conway Recreation Center on the East Side and works within local schools to help youth who may be struggling in class, along with many other sports-related programming.

Sanneh, a retired professional soccer player, said he’ll be using the fellowship to concentrate on two things: highlighting the teaching profession with an emphasis on recruiting teachers of color, and working with professional athletes to redefine professional philanthropy.

“What helped me as a young man was the relationships,” Sanneh said of his time growing up on the East Side, adding it’s important for youth to have teachers and mentors who look like them and come from similar experiences. 

Working toward those goals, Sanneh said he’ll be studying to get an undergraduate degree in urban education, and then working on a sport philanthropy certification.

Just like Yang, he said he’ll also be using the time during the fellowship to reflect on his career and how he can keep serving the East Side community in which he grew up. 

“It’s going to be challenging to improve myself and it’s going to be challenging to reflect,” said Sanneh, adding he looks forward to working through those challenges with his fellowship cohorts. 


Surrounded by leaders

Other fellowship winners that East Siders may be familiar with include Thao-Urabe, executive and network director of the Coalition of Asian American Leaders. 

Much of her work overlaps with Yang’s, as the two have worked together on a number of the same issues over the years — resettlement, gender and community building. 

According to the Bush Fellowship press release, Thao-Urabe will “take time to determine how to best tell and share the lessons she’s learned on her leadership journey. She will also study the emerging field of solidarity economics to shed light on invisible practices employed by cultural communities to improve collective life.”

Ia Xiong, a winner from White Bear Lake, is a practicing psychologist working with the Hmong community to create access to culturally appropriate mental health services. She’ll be using her fellowship to reduce barriers to mental health services for the Hmong community and to learn more about traditional Hmong healing practices. 

Tou Ger Xiong, a winner from Woodbury, is an activist, artist, storyteller and comedian. He shares his personal stories about being Hmong to help break down barriers to understanding Hmong culture. He plans to use his fellowship to document his activism and share it with a new generation of activists, as well as earning a master’s degree in public affairs. 

The 24 fellows chosen for the 2019 Bush Fellowship came from a group of 684 people who applied. The winners were chosen by Bush Fellowship Alumni, Bush Foundation and regional leaders through a multi-step process. 

According to the release, applicants were asked to describe “their leadership vision and passion and how a Bush Fellowship would help them think bigger and become more effective leaders.”

The Bush Foundation will accept applications for the 2020 Bush Fellowship starting Sept. 24. The Bush Fellowship is open to anyone age 24 years and older who lives in Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota or one of the 23 native nations that share the same geography.


–Marjorie Otto can be reached at 651-748-7816 or at eastside@lillienews.com

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