To celebrate Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, we asked some of our Young Elected Officials network members to reflect on how their backgrounds have influenced and improved their leadership, and about their experience as part of the Asian American or Pacific Islander communities.
This conversation was with Michigan State Senator Stephanie Chang, who represents District 1, which includes a large portion of Detroit and downriver. The interview below was lightly edited.
I definitely think that being a daughter of Taiwanese American immigrants has shaped a lot of my values and the work that I have been doing. Before I ran for office, I worked as a community organizer on a number of different social justice issues. I didn’t necessarily run for office to become the first Asian American in the Michigan state legislature, it just happened to come along with the job. My identity has a lot to do with the values that I have, the work that I do, and why I’m motivated to continue doing this work.
My parents, like so many others, came here looking for a better opportunity, and they believed that everyone in America should have that opportunity. Because of my background, fairness and access are things I’m constantly trying to uphold during my career – in terms of educational opportunity, of course, but also the opportunity to have clean air to breathe, or the opportunity to have clean and affordable water in one’s home. All of these values work together, and that’s why I’ve been focused on social justice issues, before and also while I was running for office, as well as now that I’m serving as an elected official.
Being Asian American, being Taiwanese American, has definitely been a big part of my experience – it affects everything I do. I’m in a district that doesn’t have a large Asian American population, but I also see it as a big part of my responsibility to serve Asian American community members. There’s been a lot of conversation recently about the fact that we need to do more to include Asian American history into our curricula in our schools. I also think it is important to point out that there are people that will come to me who don’t necessarily live in my district, because they know that I’m Asian American and know that I will be able to understand what it is they are experiencing or might be able to help figure out what to do. So I recognize that this is a part of my job – and obviously, it’s one part of my job, as I work on a lot of other things, too. Being Asian American has shaped a large part of my experience, but I work on so many different issues at the same time, especially social justice issues, that affect my district. I want to make sure people don’t pigeonhole me as someone who only works on Asian American issues, but it is a really important part of what I do on a day-to-day basis.
In Michigan, we have an Asian American Legislative Caucus that we started when I took office in 2015, which includes the Asian American legislators as well as other legislators that represent districts with large Asian American populations. We do a lot of work together to bring in Asian American community members to talk about the issues that they care about, and to do various resolutions throughout the year, like recognizing Asian American Heritage Month, or Korean American Day, or Filipino American Heritage Month, all of these different celebratory events.
We also work together on different issues, in particular looking at voting rights issues and the significant rise in anti-Asian hate going on right now. My colleagues and I have also been working on getting money in our budget for more outreach from our Department of Civil Rights within the community around discrimination, around the hate crime hotline that exists, and around what a hate incident is, because we know that a lot of community members don’t know where to report or don’t know the definition of discrimination, a hate incident, or a hate crime. This type of “know your rights” outreach is incredibly important. The MI State Senate budget passed this month with $250,000 allocated for this type of outreach, which I was able to help secure, and now we need to make sure that we see that funding through to the end of the process.
In the past few months, in the wake of so much anti-Asian hate, it has been Asian American women leading on so many of these issues, in responding to the Atlanta shooting and more broadly in responding to the rise in hate across the country. U.S. Rep. Grace Meng (D-NY-6) and Senator Mazie Hirono (D-HI) have been leading at the federal level, but we’ve also seen Kathy Tran (VA House Delegate), Bee Nguyen (GA House Representative), and a number of the legislators in Illinois who got the TEACH Act passed – it’s been Asian American women in particular that have been leading much of the response in our state legislatures. And if we weren’t represented in our government, I think it would be even more of an uphill battle to address some of these issues. Obviously, non-Asian American legislators can work on these things, and they’re very much needed, especially as allies, but I do think that there’s a need for more Asian Americans to run for office and serve in state legislatures, local city councils, county governments, and elsewhere, because if we’re not there, then there may be issues that get overlooked, or there might be issues that don’t get lifted up in the same way without having the personal, family, or community relationships that we might have as Asian Americans.
It has been inspiring to see so much of the activism that’s been happening around our country over the past few months in the Asian American community. In Michigan, we passed my and Rep. Ranjeev Puri’s resolution in the House and Senate condemning anti-Asian hate and encouraging people to report if and when they experience hate or discrimination. And we are going to keep working at it. A lot of these issues are uphill battles, but they are critically important to our community. I just want the community to know that we are working hard and are doing the best that we can, and I think that Asian American Heritage Month is a great time to highlight the important work that’s going on right now.