The first of our Member Spotlight Series, CABA highlights the life and career of Virginia Yang.
By: Elaine Sit
Today, Chinese Americans and Asian Americans have parity in most U.S. law schools. But when Virginia Yang was growing up the 1950’s and 60’s, whether realistic or not, the image of “Perry Mason” – a man who won every case — was everyone’s prototype of an American lawyer. In the early 1970’s, American women were still few in number in law schools and in the legal profession (for even Justices O’Connor and Ginsburg had a hard time getting their first jobs). Chinese Americans, much less Chinese American women, were seldom in court or law offices, unless they were cleaning them or delivering take-out food.
Before she went to law school, Virginia attended the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and earned a B.A. in Liberal Arts (history and political science) and an M.S. in Library Science. While working as a part-time librarian with an engineering consulting firm she discovered environmental law. Presciently she was ahead of history’s curve: people said, “But Virginia, there’s no environment in Illinois.” The standard environmental law curriculum was not yet taught in law schools per se, or as an element of administrative, corporate, criminal or property law. In 1979 Virginia joined the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in Springfield.
As an attorney for the Illinois EPA Virginia saw the environmental regulatory practice come of age and she worked in all regulatory fields (including water and land issues, groundwater, safe drinking water, hazardous materials and emergency response management). In 1986, the DePaul College of Law Women’s Law Caucus honored Virginia’s public service in the practice of environmental law.
In the meantime, Virginia was also a wife and mother, raising a family with her husband Fred and son Alex in Oak Park. She eventually joined USG (formerly U.S. Gypsum Company) as Senior Corporate Counsel.
She became president of CABA in 1993 and served for an unprecedented 12 years. Under her watch CABA focused on the Chinese communities throughout Chicagoland and initiated many community service projects by partnering with Chinese American Service League (CASL), the Chinatown branch of the Chicago Public Library, the Pui Tak Center, Chinese Mutual Aid Association (CMAA) in Uptown, and the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office (TECO) in Westmont. Virginia spearheaded annual “Law Days” where CABA attorneys would offer free legal advice on a variety of topics including immigration, government benefits and small business development at a variety of community venues.
Under Virginia’s leadership CABA obtained grants from the Illinois State Bar Association (ISBA) through its “People’s Law School” program to purchase several dozen radio headsets that transmit on multiple channels. CABA used the headsets to provide real time translations from English to Mandarin and Cantonese during Law Day events.
During Virginia’s tenure CABA began fund-raising to “seed” scholarships for Asian American law students. By partnering with law schools to organize annual Asian Lunar New Year Scholarship Receptions (1995-1999), CABA “seeded” Asian American law student scholarships at John Marshall, IIT-Chicago Kent, Loyola, and DePaul.
Recently Virginia joined the Illinois EPA’s sister agency, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. She serves on the Board of Directors of CABA and continues to look forward. According to her, “We still have a distance to go. The journey has been meaningful. A wonderful trip lies ahead for our future.”