Last summer when George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis, just a few miles from the St. Thomas School of Law, 2L Phyu-Sin Than says she felt compelled to act. She turned to a group she was already involved with, the Minneapolis “Hub” of an organization called Global Shapers. The worldwide network of young people working to address local, regional and global challenges was created out of the World Economic Forum.
“After the killing of George Floyd, we discussed different ways we could take action to support our Black community, from showing up at protests and marches to educating ourselves about racial injustice,” Than said.
The group’s initial discussions and activities quickly turned to long-term projects.
“We were afraid that the movement would dissipate, and that people would move on into the comfort of their daily lives,” Than said. “We didn’t want people to look back in a year or two from now and portray this movement in our city as a singular historical event. We wanted to memorialize the movement, to remind people of the ongoing fight for justice.”
That was when Leesa Kelly, a fellow Hub member, proposed the idea of preserving the plywood protest artwork that had been created throughout Minneapolis and St. Paul. When some of the protests became destructive, businesses boarded up their windows and doors. Local artists used the plywood as canvases to depict images of Floyd or share quotes, poems and calls for change. As the businesses began to reopen, some of the boards were taken down and discarded. Kelly, Than and several others stepped in to save them.
"For me it was really about written and visual history," Kelly said in an interview with Minnesota Public Radio. "Art is, and has always been, a tool for storytelling throughout history.”
By the end of 2020, more than 600 panels have been collected and preserved.
In addition to her role in the Global Shapers team that started the process to save the artwork, Than became the leader of the Minneapolis Hub in July. Her focus expanded to support Hub members in other community-based initiatives, such as an environmental justice project with the East Phillips Neighborhood Institute.
Dedicated to social justice
From an early age, growing up in Maryland, Than has been dedicated to social justice. The summer after she graduated from high school, Than completed an internship with Radio Free Asia. As an undergraduate at Mount Holyoke College, she worked for the Fund for the Public Interest in Washington, D.C. on a campaign to educate the public about the Employment Non-Discrimination Act.
When she started college, Than says she wanted to be a journalist, in part, because she wanted to tell the stories of civilians living in conflict zones. The more Than learned about journalism, however, she discovered that what really intrigued her were the power structures behind the conflicts.
That led Than to pursue a bachelor’s degree in international relations, focusing on economics and global development. It was still unclear to her, though, how to channel her interests into a career, so right out of college, she took a business analyst job with a technology firm in New York City. It took less than a year for her to realize it wasn’t the right fit.
“I finally moved on to the field that I had been considering since sixth grade – the law,” she said.
Than was hired as a corporate paralegal at the New York firm of Stroock & Stroock & Lavan LLP in 2016, telling herself that if she liked it, she would commit to law school.
“I loved my job as a corporate paralegal,” she said. “In fact, it wasn’t just the work that I enjoyed, I also loved working in a law firm. It was rigorous, demanding and stressful, but I liked that it tested my boundaries and pushed me to my limits.”
As a paralegal, Than assisted corporate, tax and real estate attorneys in matters relating to private equity funds.
“I learned everything I could on the job,” she said. “In my free time, I tried to keep up with developments in regulatory policies around the world that would impact our client’s funds, such as reading up on changes in Swiss banking secrecy law. The experience gave me a very realistic insight into the lives of attorneys in a law firm.”
Pursuing the law and serving others
In the fall of 2019, Than started law school at St. Thomas.
“The Catholic foundation of the school, the civic-minded professors, St. Thomas Law’s commitment to duty to others and community service were the prevailing messages that drew me to the school,” Than said.
Now in her second year, Than’s professors say she is thriving.
“Phyu-Sin is smart, brave, funny and capable,” said Julie Oseid, Than’s Lawyering Skills professor. “She was never afraid to ask the questions that I suspected every other student also wanted to ask.”
In addition to her work last summer with the Minneapolis Hub of Global Shapers, Than completed an internship with the law firm Faegre Drinker and a clerkship with the U.S. Department of Commerce. She says both experiences were valuable, but she particularly enjoyed working with the Department of Commerce’s Commercial Law Development Program (CLDP), which provides technical legal assistance to other countries.
“One project I worked on provided assistance to a Southeast Asian country in the reform of their oil and gas regulations,” Than said. “My task was to provide a summary of the prime minister’s resolution on the oil and gas sector development and to draft a case study of Thailand’s liquified natural gas market. The experience taught me to dive beyond traditional legal research and that I love to continuously learn new subject matters. It’s also just cool to know that somewhere out there, halfway around the world, my work is floating around in a ministry from desk to desk.”
She also says her clerkship showed her a path in which she could combine her interests and talents –foreign policy, diplomacy and the law – into a career, something she had been searching for since college. And while she says this is exciting, she no longer views her future in these terms.
“I’ve reframed how I think about my professional future from who I want to become, to answering what problems in society do I want to solve,” she said. “Regardless of my profession, I hope to remain faithful to serving the needs of my community, while continuing to explore the issues we face.”