Passion is a major moving force in politics. Some are passionate about change or to maintain the status quo or for their own ambition. Some wear their passion on their sleeve. With others, it burns quietly inside. Elected last fall, Sacramento City Councilmember Mai Vang projects a tremendous amount of passion on behalf of her District 8 South Sacramento communities. So who better to talk passion and politics.
The oldest of 16 born to Hmong-refugee parents, the 35-year-old grew up in South Sacramento, was first in her family to go to college. After earning a master’s degree, she returned to Sacramento and became active in voter registration and fighting local school closures. She later served on her school board before running and winning her seat last year on the nine-member Sacramento City City Council.
SACTO POLITICO: Where does your political passion originate?
MAI VANG: I really don’t know the answer to that. At a young age, I learned the importance of stepping up to take care of family and community. I learned the first thing you do when you wake up in the morning is taking care of my brothers and sisters. Nothing in the household can get done alone. Everyone has a role to play taking care of each other.
When I was younger, I also learned I was different. By this, I mean we were poor. I remember walking out of my house in South Sacramento seeing needles and condoms on the street and hearing gunshots. I was the first in my family to go to college, but I really thought of that as a one-way ticket out of Sacramento. I never wanted to return. A big part of that was I really never knew about my history and the Hmong community until actually I went to college. That is when a spark went off in my head, and everything started making sense about why my family was displaced, why I grew up in poverty. That is what really ignited my fire and passion to try figuring out how to correct injustices in the world and how to organize. When you know about the injustice, you can’t undo that.
S/P: During your 2020 city council campaign, your campaign slogan was “heart and hustle.” Was this meant to express the passion you think necessary to make change?
VANG: I believe so. During our campaign, our hashtag was #HeartAndHustle. This reflected it is going to take a lot of heart and hustle to fight for this community and get the work done. For me, if you have the passion and you have the hard work, anything is possible. The heart is the passion, and the hustle is the hard work. Are you giving it 100%? No matter what happens, you know you poured your heart into it.
S/P: From your first eight months as a councilmember, what successes are you most proud and what parts of the job have required the most adjustment?
VANG: That’s a real great question. When I was a candidate in 2020, that’s when the pandemic hit, and we had to readjust our campaign. So Covid recovery during the campaign and even now has always been our top priority. My district actually has the zip code, 95823, with the highest number of cases of Covid in the city and the county. There are multiple reasons why this is. One, many of the residents are essential workers. So when folks could work from home, many of the workers in my district couldn’t. They also worked in high public-facing roles, so their exposure and risk was higher. Last, my residents have large families and live in multi-generational households. So when one person had Covid, it spread to the entire family.
So when I was elected, one of the biggest accomplishments was fighting to get a Covid vaccination community clinic in the heart of South Sacramento at the Sam & Bonnie Pannell Community Center. It is the longest running community clinic in Sacramento, and it is all volunteer run by my office. Every Friday, we’re there hustling making sure that the community gets vaccinated. We also launched the Sacramento Alliance for Vaccine Equity, a coalition of 20 partners, because we knew it is so important to make sure you have trusted messengers on the ground to educate our communities to get vaccinated.
In terms of the biggest adjustment, I am very hands-on about doing the work. Now I have a staff that I can lean on. But at first I was double-booking meetings because I was still handling my schedule. That was real hard for me. I realized that I was getting pulled in a lot of different directions because everyone wants to meet a councilmember. So I needed to learn how to lean on a staff and that it was okay to do that.
And I am still adjusting. I still want to know who is calling, what is happening in the district, anyone with a concern on their street. It is amazing I have an entire team and learning to adjust to that has been great.
SACTO POLITICO: Data from the California’s 2020 Presidential primary show Progressives are now the largest voting bloc within the Democratic Party. This is true both throughout California and locally. But this doesn’t appear to have charged up local Progressives to challenge for more elected seats. Why do you think that’s been the case?
VANG: I think many of our Progressives are great at organizing. You are seeing that now. They are organizing around a lot of issues that we all care deeply about, but now we need candidates. They know it is important to have elected leaders who are Progressive and will be fighting for the working class.
It is also about building a pipeline [of potential candidates]. That is the reason I have Heart & Hustle fellows in my office for anyone who is interested in running for office. I think identifying and lifting folks who we know would be bold and courageous advocates for families is critical. That is very important: letting people know they are capable and can run for office.
I am always talking to our young organizers and organizations with training programs. Everything from Emerge to different organizations like the API Caucus also holds training. Even if they run and don’t “win,” they have won because they have changed the dynamics of the race merely by their existence and the things they are fighting for. In many ways, your existence as a candidate will become part of the vision of that seat.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Progressive Katie Valenzuela also won a City Council seat in 2020. For a past Q&A with her, click here.
SACTO POLITICO: We’ve also seen this year several times when political passions have run amok. This ranged from housing protesters throwing rocks at the homes of local Sacramento officials to the extreme example of the Jan. 6 D.C. insurrectionists. When you work to inspire others’ passion, how aware are you of this double-edged sword?
VANG: I have joined many protests, marches and rallies, especially after [the murder of] George Floyd. A big part of it is learning how to harness our fire in a way that is impactful. For me when I think about how best to inspire others, it is to lean in with love and care. It is really important to hold ideas and people accountable, but you have to lead with love and care.
There is a lot of passion out there and rightfully so because the need is so dire. There are folks dying on the street, literally, especially because of our homeless crisis. Everyone is fighting because they want a better world, especially for those who are marginalized. So for me, it is always about leading with love and care.
SACTO POLITICO: Perhaps the ugliest side of extreme passion is hate crimes and intolerant attitudes toward minorities including Asian-Americans. You have lent your voice to the standoff up in Siskiyou County between a Hmong community and the local sheriff’s office. Then there were the incredibly insensitive comments by Congressman Doug LaMalfa. What are some ways we should be addressing hate crimes?
VANG: Anti-Asian hate incidents aren’t something new in our communities. It is something we’ve endured for years and centuries. I think we are now seeing Asian-American hate crimes really entering the consciousness of Americans, and there are several ways to address it. One, I think jurisdictions definitely need to be more responsive to communities. When there is an incident that occurs, it’s not taken seriously enough. I can say that as an advocate and a city councilmember. I have seen it.
At the same time, we need a system that can help build trust among all the residents because folks have to be able to report it. If they don’t report it, we can’t track trends on what is happening. We also need to ensure we have victim services. The current system we have now sets us up for failure. Some people don’t trust law enforcement. Even if they do report it to law enforcement, what are the services available in the community to respond to that trauma?
At the same time, I don’t want people to see us as a monolithic group because we are incredibly diverse. We speak multiple languages. We have diverse cultures. In terms of income, Asian-Americans actually have the largest gap of income inequality of any other group, and you wouldn’t know that by looking at just the aggregate data.
SACTO POLITICO: Not everyone can be the passionate political animal that activists and elected officials are. But it has become very challenging for the average citizen to just stay reasonably informed as Sacramento newsrooms continue shrinking. Has that been noticeable from where you sit?
VANG: Yes, I would say now more than ever having independent voices is so important, whether that’s from Cap Radio or Voices of River City or young people creating podcasts. Really creating spaces for different and unique voices that often times are not mainstream media, that’s really important.
I listen to different podcasts. I listen to Voices of River City. I think they’re great at providing a very different and independent perspective. Then I also look at ethnic media to understand the dynamic in other communities. So I really try to diversify in terms of the news. It is also the one-on-one visits and being in community spaces that are so important for me.
SACTO POLITICO: In closing, any final thoughts you wish to share?
VANG: My last message is we are still in the middle of a pandemic. I have been laser-focused on pandemic recovery, and a big part of that is making sure our communities are vaccinated. We can try to do all these other things, but if we don’t protect each other, then it is going to be incredibly hard. That is why it is so important all of our communities get vaccinated. And if they are vaccinated, they need to mask up because the Delta variant is out there right now, and we have to do everything we can to protect our loved ones.
This past year and a half, I have been incredibly proud of all our communities, especially communities that are often left behind. They’re bearing the brunt of the devastating impact. If we are to truly recover and ensure our families and communities come out of this pandemic happier and stronger and healthier, then we have to make sure that everyone who can get vaccinated is vaccinated, and we mask up to protect each other.