Growing Up Where Women Lead

This op-ed was submitted in advance of Women’s Equality Day, which will take place Wednesday, Aug. 26. —Editor

My dad snapped my clip-on-tie into place. Uncomfortable with the clip pressing so closely against my neck, I pulled the collar for relief. But even at the age of 6, I knew not to complain. It was an important day. My parents were going to host a town hall with the mayor of San Jose, Susan Hammer.

Months before, my mom had the idea to organize a town hall for Vietnamese-American residents to meet the mayor. At the time—in the early ’90s—political participation by Vietnamese residents in San Jose was not as common as it is today. Back then it was groundbreaking.

My parents would meet every few days with a Vietnamese couple that owned a restaurant on 1st Street and Young, which would serve as the site of the town hall. They coordinated everything: securing the mayor, advertising, creating the agenda, etc.

I saw firsthand how hard my mom and dad worked to put this event together. As my parents discussed plans, I usually sat at one of the restaurant tables finishing up my homework or doodling to pass the time. Years later my mom explained that she intentionally brought me to most of her community events so I could observe and learn from them.

When we arrived at the restaurant on the day of the town hall, the owners had already rearranged the room according to plan. The podium was at the end of the restaurant, most of tables were moved into another room and the chairs were lined against the wall so everyone could see each other. This created an open environment for dialogue.

A steady stream of Vietnamese residents trickled in, and by the start of the town hall the room was nicely packed. A local news station also arrived to cover the event, delighting all the children who hoped to get on TV.

My mom formally welcomed everyone and introduced Mayor Hammer in English and in Vietnamese. Mayor Hammer gave her prepared remarks and then opened up the floor for questions.

Complete silence.

I didn’t understand it at the time, but for many Vietnamese refugees, English and democracy were still foreign to them. Born and raised in America, I had the privilege of learning English and also knew that participating in politics was normal. So I raised my hand.

Mayor Hammer called on me, probably wondering what a child had to ask her but relieved that someone had a question.

“What will you … uh ... do to help Vietnamese people in … uh ... Vietnam be able to come to America?”

Earlier my mom had explained to me that “the mayor is like the President but for the city.” My mom’s analogy impressed upon me a little too much power and authority for a mayor. First grade had not taught me about federalism. So I mistakenly thought the mayor was all-powerful.

Always thoughtful and kind, Mayor Hammer answered my question as a serious one. Her response, as well as the continued lack of audience participation, encouraged me to ask another question about federal policies.

Honestly, I don’t remember what Mayor Hammer said exactly. It’s been about 25 years. But I remember how she made me feel. As a kid, to be able to ask the mayor of one of America’s largest cities policy questions and receive serious responses felt absolutely empowering. Mayor Hammer’s actions taught me that my voice was important and that I could—and should—participate in our democratic process.

I wasn’t the only one in the audience who picked up on Mayor Hammer’s message. Other hands began to rise. Soon a lively conversation started.

Looking back, my first political experience not only encouraged me to continue participating in politics, but it also subconsciously shaped my beliefs. Without telling me that women can be leaders, Mayor Hammer and my mom showed me it’s reality.

I never had to learn that women are just as capable as men to hold elected office, because Susan Hammer was the first elected leader I met. She was—and still is—my reference for what an elected official should be.

My mom didn’t have to tell me, although she has, that Vietnamese Americans must be politically active. Her proud activism broke racial and gender stereotypes of the submissive Asian woman in my household, and I am a better person for it.

When you have role models that show you that there are no limits, your worldview is richer, and your possibilities are endless.

Richard Nguyen is a trustee of the Campbell Union School District, which serves elementary and middle schools in west San Jose and other neighboring cities. He wrote this piece to commemorate National Women’s Equality Day. His views are his own.

5 Comments

  1. Richard, this is a beautiful piece of your history. I am sure that Susan Hammer will be so pleased. She was a great mayor and a wonderful woman. I learned a lot of things from her when we worked together to start ACE Charter Schools in Alum Rock. One day I was walking with her to a meeting at a school in Alum Rock, and I noticed that while talking and walking she also casually stopped to pick up litter. To this day, I now make a point of picking up litter and putting it in a nearby trash can. Imagine if we all did as Susan did – picked up litter as a matter of course. It seems such a small thing to do, but it could be ultimately transforming for a community. Thank you for sharing this. Your parents were so far sighted and courageous. Glad I got to see your mother and sister on your first day as CUSD board member.

  2. > My mom didn’t have to tell me, although she has, that Vietnamese Americans must be politically active. Her proud activism broke racial and gender stereotypes of the submissive Asian woman in my household, and I am a better person for it.

    How politically insensitive!

    An article all about the gender stereotypes held by Asians.

  3. Oh OutsideTheBub – you must be such a blast at parties – you don’t have to rag on every article posted. Damn.

  4. Richard, I just love you so much! You are a wonderful son, brother and friend. Good people of San Jose, I have known this young man since he was 6 years old. I don’t have any children, but he is like my son too. We the good citizens of San Jose are so very fortunate to have an individual who is compassionate, thoughtful and who is a high intellectual with a gentle spirit in our midst and as our future leader. I was at one of those events given by his mother 25 years ago. Richard is absolutely correct about how dynamic Susan Hammer and his mother were at that time and are today. Richard is fortunate and made rich as a man, as all of us when we have mothers, sisters, aunts, cousins and friends whose presence and knowledge impact us in such away that our lives are pointed in a trajectory of success and greatness. Richard and to others, don’t let detractors deter you from your path of success. Like Susan Price-Jang, pick up the liter and put it in the trash and keep going with your beautiful and successful life.

    You are the very best Richard! God loves you and I do to.