Mai Yang Vang (right) helps registering voters at a Hmong community event in Sacramento (Photo: Hmong Innovating Politics)
“I escaped Sacramento because of poverty and it’s poverty that brought me back,” explains Mai Yang Vang, one the youngest candidates ever to run for Sacramento School Board. Growing up with 15 brothers and sisters in south Sacramento, Vang is all too familiar with the poverty that accompanies many immigrant communities where members often speak little or no English and have limited economic resources.
“When I was little all I remember wanting to do was take care of my family,” says Vang. She left her hometown to pursue a college degree, knowing that an education could build a pathway out of poverty for her and her family. Today, Vang holds a bachelor’s in sociology and biology from the University of San Francisco and dual master's degrees in Public Health and Asian American Studies from the University of California, Los Angeles.
She returned to Sacramento well-equipped for a life of public service, though seeking an elected office wasn’t initially in the plan. At age 30, Vang works a full-time job as the community affairs director for Sacramento City Councilmember Larry Carr, is the co-founder of Hmong Innovating Politics (HIP), and sits on a number of local boards, all in her effort to engage local community members in the political processes and eliminate educational disparities.
Her enthusiasm for community involvement doesn’t necessarily line up with the cultural expectations of a self-interested, unambitious millennial. “I don’t know those millennials,” Vang says. Her peers “are all hard core about our communities and families while working full time jobs.”
Vang’s anecdotal evidence is supported research like that from the Kennedy School at Harvard University that suggests millennials see politicians as less trustworthy than their parents did and value transparency more than any previous generation. Rather than opt out of the political process, Vang wants to change the fact that policy “decisions are made for us, not by us” in communities like hers. “There’s something about sitting at that table and being able to influence policy. I want to be a part of those conversations.”
While she lauds her peers for their volunteerism, Vang would really like to see more of her generation on the campaign trail. “More millennials need to step up and run for office. We’re already doing the work.”
Her own political motivation comes from wanting to “improve outcomes for families and students.” Vang’s efforts are dedicated helping community members find their voices and realize their power. “Sometimes they overlook the impact they can make by working together to influence policy,” she says.
Vang saw how her work with HIP brought attention to public school closures and helped keep a number of local schools open in south Sacramento. Appreciative of her commitment, grateful community members suggested she step up and give their community a voice by running for a seat on the school board to play a bigger role in the policy-making process.
After careful consideration and consultation with her mentor and her family, Vang agreed. “You start looking around and realize you’re just as savvy and just as passionate as anyone else,” she says of her decision to run.
Editor's Note: Vang is a former employee of CA Fwd.