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.
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.