Hmong Innovating Politics community organizer Mai Vang and her family met their hometown Stockton mayor, Michael Tubbs, for the first time in Sacramento. Photo by Mai Thao

Connecting the Political to the Personal

By Mai Vang

I started my job as Hmong Innovating Politics’ (HIP) Community Organizer nearly six months ago and despite being fluent in Hmong, I’ve had a really tough time trying to explain to my parents what it is that I do. The Hmong language is limited and does not have the vocabulary to describe my role as a community organizer. Without exact words to describe “voter engagement” or “organizing,” I end up describing processes, procedures and titles—unfortunately, I don’t always get it right.

This month’s Equity on the Mall hosted by the San Joaquin Valley Health Fund gave me a chance to show my parents what I do and why I do it. As a Stockton native and proud resident of the Central Valley, this event was distinctive in that it elevated the stories and experiences of residents of the Central Valley to the forefront. We saw thousands of people from all over the Central Valley come together to call on lawmakers to step up and stand by the residents of the Central Valley.

The San Joaquin Valley is home to the world’s largest agriculture industry, and yet 26% of our children are not guaranteed access to adequate food and 1 in 4 of our schools does not meet safe drinking water standards. Many parts of Stockton face high poverty and unemployment rates that are nearly double the regional average.

The low rates of civic participation can be attributed to the lack of accessibility and opportunities in these areas. I find all of this to be so absurd when we call ourselves a first-world country, but we don’t even have the confidence to say that our citizens have access to safe drinking water.

Before I started working for HIP, I remember how furious I felt reading article after article about elected officials and their attempts to gut the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Growing up in the Central Valley, I knew that taking away healthcare from thousands of people would have a devastating impact on Hmong and other vulnerable communities throughout California. It was in that moment that I knew I couldn’t stand by anymore and wait for change to happen.

HIP gave me the opportunity and tools to amplify the voices of my communities. Through one of our civic engagement projects, I along with six other phone bankers collected more than 170 stories from Hmong voters who directly benefited from the ACA. The goal was to capture how the ACA affected our community and what the repeal would mean for them and their families. It was important for us to capture and transcribe these stories because we wanted to give those who might not have the ability to voice their own narratives. It is easier to stay “non-political” but for those most affected by policies—that is not a privilege they could afford.

I’ve spoken with many community members who have given up on the systems and felt like they had no say in the decisions that were being made. Some felt resigned to the status quo, feeling like their vote would have no impact. It was important to have my parents there with me at Equity on the Mall because it was an opportunity to show them that their voice and their vote is important.

I loved seeing my parents’ reaction touring the State Capitol for the first time since they came to the United States more than 25 years ago. They enjoyed looking at all the different county displays and sharing memories of the places they had been to.

My parents, who rarely take photos, ended up taking photos of themselves walking up the stairs, on the benches and in the marble hallways. They even got the opportunity to shake hands and meet Stockton Mayor Michael Tubbs.

I hoped that this trip to the State Capitol would give my parents a chance to see that while changing systems might feel impossible, in reality, it is tangible. That although we came from a place where we had little resources, we still possessed the power to challenge the injustice happening around us.

*****

Mai Vang is a Stockton native and currently works as a community organizer for Hmong Innovating Politics in Sacramento.

  • The Community Alliance is a monthly newspaper that has been published in Fresno, California, since 1996. The purpose of the newspaper is to help build a progressive movement for social and economic justice.

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