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knew that I was ready for a change, so he suggested me for the position.” Her newly created job required Yao

to build a one-person legal department from scratch. Most of that involved generating policy to ensure she was looped in on a lot of contracts and convincing the more veteran employ- ees that by involving her in the legal aspects of the organization, it would help—not hinder—the process. “For the fi rst time in my career

I had to sell myself to various projects. While many were happy to have a lawyer on hand, others found them- selves settling back into their regular routine,” Yao recalls. “In city govern- ment, things were diff erent—everyone is hyper-involved. Fourteen people are required to sign-off on one thing. Luckily, Feeding America is a conge- nial, not-too-large organization and people came around pretty quickly.” Yao had worked for the City of

Chicago for 14 years before joining Feeding America. She served as assis- tant corporation counsel to the City of Chicago Law Department, Real Estate Division. She was chief counsel for the Department of Transportation and the Public Way. She also served as counsel to the Chicago Plan Commission and was one of the primary attorneys responsible for the successful Chicago Abandoned Property Program. “Just about everything I did

working for the city helped to build Chicago. It was all very gratifying

because it’s where I’ve always lived.” A native Chicagoan, Yao attended

Catholic high school where the found- ing religious order was known for its dedication to social change. In order to graduate, students were required to accumulate a signifi cant number of com- munity service hours. “It was then that I fi rst volunteered in soup kitchens. It was also around this time that I fi rst became interested in issues of social justice.” Her parents prioritized academic

success. She and her sister were taught to appreciate what they had. Yao’s father and his family were political refugees who left China and received asylum from the British government in Hong Kong. Her father knew what it was to literally arrive with just the clothes on his back. T roughout law school, Yao

eschewed all things corporate, prefer- ring classes like international human rights, law and social change, or women and the law. If she perceived a professor as a kindred spirit, she made sure to take the class. While Yao enjoyed the intellectual challenge of law school, she was put off by some of the students who saw the experience only as a route to making money. Early in her career, Yao did work

People give to food drives during the holidays, but people need to eat every day: hunger knows no season.


for a fi rm. Immediately after graduat- ing from Northwestern University Law School, she was hired by a small Chicago fi rm to work temporarily on a class action lawsuit against the City of Rockford, Ill., regarding school desegregation. It was 1992. “One of the last big desegre- gation suits in the country,” she says. It was an impactful, eye- opening experi- ence because she could see the fruits of the fi rm’s eff orts in her own backyard, since it happened so close to Chicago. T roughout

her tenure with

the city, Yao dealt with everyone from elected offi cials to 40-year union employees to members of the public. T e experience, she says, taught her how to be approachable. “I’m not the ‘big bad lawyer.’ If people of all ranks aren’t comfortable coming to me with concerns before they become an issue, then I’ve missed an opportunity.” Something else Yao learned while

lawyering for Chicago was the impor- tance of optics: Everything can be looked at in a diff erent way depending on the audience. As an attorney for the city, she was vigilant in making sure sto- ries about the mayor never hit the papers for the wrong reasons—only for good reasons. “When we make a decision at Feeding America, I understand how it’s going to be viewed by our members, the public, and our potential food donors. I have a good feel for diff erent stories that come out of the same decision. Someone with an exclusively nonprofi t back- ground may not think like that.” Today, Yao encourages other

attorneys to consider nonprofi t law as a viable career option, citing that it can be rewarding, stimulating, and often more interesting than more traditional practices. Lamentably, at least for the foresee-

able future, hunger is not going away. Feeding America’s challenge is to keep hunger in the forefront, and to persuade individuals, government, and corpora- tions to remain involved in their mission. “Typically, people give to food drives

during the holidays, but people need to eat every day; hunger knows no season,” she says. “Of course, there are a lot of tough issues today—homelessness, underwater mortgages, tsunamis—and all of these pressing issues are attention worthy. It’s important for people to pick something they care about and be consistent in that caring. We can’t ask for more. Stay involved, connected, and be aware of the needs around you and be open to fi lling those needs.” D&B

Patrick Folliard is a freelance writer based in Silver Spring, Md.



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