When Nelsie Yang first saw the dress, hand-sewn in brilliant pink and glittering silver by her family members in Laos, she knew just the occasion to wear it.
“I had a vision of me getting sworn in,” said Yang, who was inaugurated as St. Paul’s first Hmong councilwoman Tuesday in a ceremony at the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts.
Yang, who at 24 is St. Paul’s youngest council member, joins the most diverse City Council in the capital city’s history. For the first time, the seven-member group includes five women, two of whom — Yang and Mitra Jalali — are people of color and daughters of immigrants.
“This is a bright day in our city,” Mayor Melvin Carter told the crowd before council members were sworn in. “It’s incredible to feel the energy in this room, but even more so in our city today, and to be surrounded by so many dedicated teammates who make St. Paul such an amazing city.”
All seven council seats were up for election last November, and on Tuesday, council members were sworn in one by one on the concert hall stage, their family members beside them.
Yang won a crowded ranked-choice race to replace Dan Bostrom, who held the Sixth Ward seat for more than 20 years and retired at the end of 2018.
Jalali, who won the Fourth Ward seat in a special election in August 2018, was sworn in for her first full council term. Dai Thao, Rebecca Noecker, Chris Tolbert and Jane Prince were sworn in for second or third terms. Council members serve four-year terms.
Yang drew cheers from the crowd when she took the oath of office, surrounded by a crowd of 20 people.
Council President Amy Brendmoen, who was sworn in for a third term, said the inauguration ceremony was intended to honor the city’s history while celebrating “joy and diversity and youthfulness as well, and the direction that we’re headed, and what our charge is together.”
“We want to make this feel like everybody’s celebration,” she said.
About 200 people attended the ceremony, which included the St. Paul Fire Department and Police Department color guards, performances from spoken word artist Tish Jones, the Capital City Wind Ensemble and students from St. Paul Music Academy and Creative Arts Secondary School.
Sydney Beane, a Dakota elder, gave welcoming remarks and asked the council to begin the process of formally acknowledging Indigenous people and their traditional territories. “We have to change our narratives. We have to bring on new stories. We have to welcome new people,” he said. “Those are the values that institutions must incorporate.”
Yang gave the closing remarks, offering a dedication to the voters, donors, campaign workers and volunteers who helped council members win their elections.
“When we look back on this day, weeks and years and decades from today, we might not remember what we wore or who sat next to us,” she said. “But I sure hope that we remember the story that when people come together as a collective, we can make anything happen — just like how we elected and swore in our city’s first Hmong woman and youngest City Council member in the history of St. Paul.”