A Refugee From Vietnam – Why I Got Into Politics

Tam-Doan

Tam Doan, Research and Policy Director
Every Voice Center (Albuquerque, New Mexico)

Shortly after moving to D.C. to work for Every Voice Center, I had the opportunity to meet Tam Doan. Typically, I did not get to see her much because she was working out of New Mexico; however, while working on an assignment in Miami-Dade County, I got the opportunity to work with Tam and learn more about her work and her journey in this field.

This interview was conducted to share Tam’s story with other women who many be refugees and believe that they cannot work in American politics because they or their families may be immigrants.

Q. So tell me a little about yourself.

I grew up in the Los Angeles area, after coming to the U.S. as a child and a refugee from Vietnam. For undergrad, I went to Swarthmore College (near Philadelphia) and majored in physics and for grad school, I went to the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning. Looking back at when I went off to college on the opposite coast, I can see that step now as a continuation of my independence streak and a journey I paved for myself over the years, but it was also possible because of the many difficulties my family worked through as immigrants, many of which they still face today.

It took many different steps in my academic and professional journey to arrive where I am now, but each part made sense as I went along.

Q. How did you get into politics?

In my early work experiences, I think I was trying to understand social and economic forces through larger and larger groupings of people: first in the classroom, then working with families, and then with local and national community organizations.

One of my earlier memories of activism was joining a protest on campus, freshman year, against Prop 187 (an anti-immigrant measure in California). Throughout my time at Swarthmore, there were opportunities to learn about politics, but it really wasn’t until I started working, first as an 8th grade teacher, and then in a nonprofit law firm that represents minors, then in a community organization, and so on, did I begin to understand how different systems interact to create conditions I wanted to change.

One of my starkest memories as a young activist was the free trade protest in Miami (of all places) in 2003—the police presence there was over the top. Then, the fall of 2004 was when I started short-term work on campaigns—registering people to vote and getting out the vote. But it was definitely my time at the Center for Community Change, starting in late 2005, when I learned the most about organizing and politics.

While I was in grad school, I was involved in activism related to globalization, corporate power, and labor standards—the sweatshop conditions I learned about reminded me of my parents’ experiences, as garment workers in Los Angeles. After graduate school, my work became more explicitly political, more about the intersection of organizing, policy, and system changes, probably because of the people I met before and during graduate school and the extracurricular activities I joined around that time.

I think ultimately I got into politics because of what I saw around me growing up poor in Los Angeles and what I’ve seen around me in different parts of the country (like Detroit and Louisiana), as I grew older.

Q. Did you experience and significant challenges as you were getting into politics?

I think most of the challenges I faced came from having to find my own way for a lot of it, maybe because I didn’t always have people around who could offer guidance or maybe because I didn’t know the questions to ask or how to ask them.

Probably another challenge is that my own personal style of moving around in the world may be different from recognizable or dominant styles, particularly styles of leadership.

Q. What made you get into research and ultimately policy designing?

I’ve gravitated toward roles that involve sorting out complex information and can be done mostly in the background vs. having higher visibility.

Q. What type of policy do you develop? Why is that type of policy important to you?

I focus on designing policies that bring more everyday people and voices into politics, because I want to see more representative and responsive governing, and ultimately, I hope my work contributes to a more just and humane society.

Q. Do you think there is a need for more women to get involved in research and policy-making?

There are great women in this field, and it is always a pleasure to meet more women in these roles.

Q. What advice would you give to other women who are looking to pursue a career in political research and/or policy development?

I think finding more of a community, including mentors and peers, can be helpful.

Q. Is there any one thing you wish you knew before you decided to pursue this line of work?

With all the long hours behind a computer screen, I wish I had better ergonomic practices early on. =)

Q. What do you hope to do in the future?

For now, I just hope I can continue to play a helpful role in the work for social justice and improve my ability to do so over time.

I Fell Into Politics

scoop

Sara Cooper, Policy Coordinator
New York State Network for Youth Success (Albany, New York)

I met Sara Cooper in 2014, while working as a Field Organizer for the New York State Democratic Committee in Syracuse, NY. She was so passionate and I enjoyed seeing her out our weekly meetings. We didn’t see each other very often since we were located in separate offices but whenever we did have the opportunity to talk, I was always impressed by how much she had been able to accomplish for someone her age.

This interview was conducted to find out more about what drew Sara and the experiences that led her to politics.

Q. Tell me a little about yourself:

I am 23 years old and am originally from Guilderland, NY. I left the Albany area about 6 years ago to attend SUNY Oswego. While at SUNY Oswego, I majored in Communication and Social Interaction (CSI) and dual minored in Peace and Conflict Studies and Political Science. During my time at SUNY Oswego, I also founded a chapter of ONE, the international grassroots advocacy organization co-founded by Bono to eradicate extreme poverty. After graduating from undergrad, I put my roots down in Central New York due to the exciting development in the region.

Q. Do you think civic engagement is important? Why or why not?

Yes. I believe it is important for all members of a community to work together, despite their differing points of view, in order to improve the quality of life for all. With all of the social injustices occurring on a daily basis, it is crucial for all Americans to be engaged in the political process in order to put an end to all of these injustices.

Q. Do you think it is important for more women to become involved in politics/activism? Why or why not?

Yes. It’s as simple as this: our ancestors fought hard for women to have the right to vote, among many other rights women didn’t always possess. It would be a dishonor for women today to not be politically active in one way or another. In terms of activism, I think it is important for anyone, women and men, to be vocal about something they are passionate about.

Q. How did you get into politics?

I like to think I fell into politics. Growing up, my father relied on abusive methods to “teach me lessons” about my behavior and my choices. When my parents got divorced, I chose to stop having a relationship with my father. In the days following my severed relationship with my father, my mom told me something incredibly powerful that changed my life’s course: “There are people who have it much worse than you in this world. They don’t have loving mothers, or mothers who are alive, they don’t have pets, they don’t have a roof over their heads, and they don’t have access to clean water or food. So next time you’re upset over losing your father, know that it’s okay to be upset, but be happy you do have what you have and the pain your father has caused, while it’s been horrendous, it is nothing compared to what other people in the world experience on a daily basis.” Because of this conversation, I traveled to New Orleans and Mississippi, during my sophomore year of high school, to help rebuild homes for families who were still trying to get on their feet, three years after Hurricane Katrina. While in the South, I realized there were other countries in the world that needed even more help because their governments corruption and I wanted to go to other countries and learn firsthand how I could make a difference.

So, I set my sights on Africa, but not one particular country – I wanted to go perform some sort of research and aid work in Africa because at 15 years old, I was the world’s biggest U2 fan and Bono’s activism focused on eradicating extreme poverty, primarily in sub-Saharan African countries. As I approached my senior year, I decided it was time to focus on how to get to Africa. Instead of having the “normal senior year experience”, I participated in a program called New Visions Law and Government where I spent every morning in downtown Albany interning with the State Assembly and various non-profits while also taking college level courses. As a New Visions Law and Government student, I was also able to travel to Washington, D.C. during the spring. While in DC, we met with politicians, Congressional staffers, White House staffers, and non-profit leaders. One of the staffers we met with was an Obama aide and a former employee of ONE (Bono’s non-profit to eradicate extreme poverty). After meeting with this aide, I told my teacher that I was going to intern at ONE so I could continue helping those who needed help and who didn’t have someone fighting for them.

Fast forward a few years to the summer going into my junior year of college when I found out I was accepted to go on a study abroad trip to Benin, West Africa. My trip to Benin changed my life in more ways than I can ever articulate. First, I learned and I HATED that girls fell behind in school because they missed classes every month due to menstruation, something I would have never even thought was a problem until seeing it first hand. My time in Benin also gave me the final push to make it my life’s mission to find a career that would enable me to put others first and help make the world a better place. While still in Benin, I also applied to intern at ONE during the summer of 2013.

My time at ONE catapulted my budding career in activism and politics. I was asked to bring a chapter of ONE back to SUNY Oswego. Within three months of creating ONE at SUNY Oswego, over 430 students and faculty had written letters to their members of Congress, asking them to co-sponsor the Electrify Africa Act (House version)/Energize Africa Act (Senate version). On February 10, 2014, Congressman Dan Maffei co-sponsored the Electrify Africa Act and less than a week later, I met with him in DC. During my meeting with Congressman Maffei, I was pleased to see that my member of Congress cared about the issues that were important to me and I began to think I “owed him one” since he listened to his constituents and respected their efforts. I offered to volunteer on Congressman Maffei’s campaign and unbeknownst to me at that moment, my offer to volunteer turned into a full-time Field Organizer position with the New York State Democratic Committee. Toward the end of the 2014 campaign cycle, I knew I wanted to stay in Central New York and I applied for jobs in the area. I worked for iHeartMedia for about 9 months until an opportunity with a United States Senator’s Central New York regional office came about. I was lucky enough to hold a position with the Senator’s office for just under a year until it was time to move on and move out of Central New York.

Q. How challenging was it to break into this political arena?

I did not find it challenging to break into the political arena. I actually found it quite easy. I knew that my passion for helping others and making the world a better place would get me pretty far as long as I showed my commitment to working long, draining hours with high expectations.

Talk to me about being an organizer. How was that experience?

I have held two different types of organizing positions: a grassroots issue organizing position and a field organizing position – for a political party during a Congressional campaign.

Grassroots issue organizing is incredible, rewarding work. As a grassroots issue organizer, you are challenged to create different ways to inspire people from all walks of life to get behind “your issue” and help you advocate for that issue. My time as a grassroots issue organizer was one of the best time of my life. I was able to educate my college community about poverty related issues and preventable diseases, primarily in sub-Saharan Africa. My efforts encouraged many of my peers to take catalytic action for the first time in their lives and write letters to their members of Congress, call their members of Congress, and use social media to get in touch with their members of Congress and ask for their support for various legislation aligning with poverty eradication. Knowing that I encouraged my college community to take a few minutes to learn about legislation they knew nothing about and then to hold their members of Congress accountable for the passage and maintenance of that legislation was moving for me because I knew that I was inspiring my peers to be engaged with their elected officials.

Field organizing for a political party during a Congressional campaign is a little different. As a field organizer for a political party during a Congressional campaign, you are responsible for party building efforts and voter outreach in the district you are assigned. Similar to grassroots issue organizing, you are responsible for mobilizing your community. However, unlike grassroots issue organizing, you are using techniques your party believes in to perform voter outreach and education about a specific candidate and his or her platform. This type of organizing is also rewarding, however it comes with more challenges. Some of these challenges are a lack of interest in the community where you are working, your party being the minority in the area you are organizing, and a lack of education about all of the candidates running for election despite the party they belonged to.

What do you think is was the most challenging thing about being an organizer?
The most challenging thing about organizing is activating the first five volunteers. When you start from scratch, you need to quickly identify who your core group of supporters and volunteers will be. Without your core group of supporters, it is challenging to inspire people to get involved, because no one ever wants to be the first one. In order to overcome this challenge, you need to be creative and identify the best way to resonate with the community you are trying to organize.

What do you think is the biggest difference between being an organizer and being a staffer?
As an organizer, you are essentially marketing an issue or a candidate. As a staffer, you are representing the elected official. Organizing gives you the freedom to create new ways to “sell” your issue or candidate while staffing requires you to own the elected official’s platform and be able to represent him or her in any given situation (an event at a museum, a meeting with a constituent to name a few).

Which did you enjoy more and why?

I enjoyed working as a Senate staffer and I am incredibly lucky to have had the opportunity I had, but I enjoyed organizing more, especially organizing on a grassroots and issue advocacy level. I love being able to share what I am passionate about with my peers and with the members of my community. I also love being creative in educating my community about the issues I care about and watching my neighbors and friends learn about something new and become involved in advocating for that issue. There is something really special about being able to empower a classmate, neighbor, friend, family member, or a stranger to learn about something they once knew so little about, like poverty eradication, and then be able to see them take action to become engaged with their elected officials.

How challenging was it to break into this political arena?

I did not find it challenging to break into the political arena. I actually found it quite easy. I knew that my passion for helping others and making the world a better place would get me pretty far as long as I showed my commitment to working long, draining hours with high expectations.

Talk to me about being an organizer. How was that experience?

I have held two different types of organizing positions. The first was grassroots issue organizing and the second was field organizing for a political party during a Congressional campaign.

Grassroots issue organizing is incredible, rewarding work. As a grassroots issue organizer, you are challenged to create fun and different ways to inspire people from all walks of life to get behind “your issue” and help you advocate for that issue. My time as a grassroots issue organizer was one of the best years of my life. I was able to educate my college community about poverty related issues and preventable diseases primarily in sub-Saharan Africa. My efforts encouraged many of my peers to take catalytic action for the first time in their lives and write letters to their members of Congress, call their members of Congress, and use social media to get in touch with their members of Congress and ask for their support for various legislation aligning with poverty eradication. Knowing that I encouraged my college community to take a few minutes to learn about legislation they knew nothing about and then to hold their members of Congress accountable for the passage and maintenance of that legislation was moving for me because I knew that I was inspiring my peers to be engaged with their elected officials.

Field organizing for a political party during a Congressional campaign is a little different. As a field organizer for a political party during a Congressional campaign, you are responsible for party building efforts and voter outreach in the district you are assigned. Similar to grassroots issue organizing, you are responsible for mobilizing your community. However, unlike grassroots issue organizing, you are using techniques your party believes in to perform voter outreach and education about a specific candidate and his or her platform. This type of organizing is also rewarding, however it comes with more challenges. Some of these challenges are a lack of interest in the community where you are working, your party being the minority in the area you are organizing, and a lack of education about all of the candidates running for election despite the party they belonged to.

What do you think is was the most challenging thing about being an organizer?

The most challenging thing about organizing is activating your first five volunteers. When you start from scratch, you need to quickly identify who your core group of supporters and volunteers will be. Without your core group of supporters, it is challenging to inspire people to get involved, because no one ever wants to be the first one. In order to overcome this challenge, you need to be creative and identify the best way to resonate with the community you are trying to organize.

What do you think is the biggest difference between being an organizer and being a staffer?

As an organizer, you are essentially marketing an issue or a candidate. As a staffer, you are representing the elected official. Organizing gives you the freedom to create new ways to “sell” your issue or candidate while staffing requires you to own the elected official’s platform and be able to represent him or her in any given situation (an event at a museum, a meeting with a constituent to name a few).

Which did you enjoy more and why?

I enjoyed working as a Senate staffer and I am incredibly lucky to have had the opportunity I had, but I enjoyed organizing more, especially organizing on a grassroots and issue advocacy level. I love being able to share what I am passionate about with my peers and with the members of my community. I also love being creative in educating my community about the issues I care about and watching my neighbors and friends learn about something new and become involved in advocating for that issue. There is something really special about being able to empower a classmate, neighbor, friend, family member, or a stranger to learn about something they know little about, like poverty eradication, and then take action to become engaged with their elected officials.

What advice would you give to other young women who are looking to pursue a career in politics or issue based work?
Do NOT give up when someone presents a roadblock and do NOT let others in more powerful positions than yours tell you you are not good enough to change the world. If someone creates an obstacle for you as you are starting your career, stay strong and fight your way around that obstacle. Know that these hindrances will help you develop your career and your work and if they happen to you, they are happening for a reason.

I would also advise anyone looking to pursue a career in politics or issue based work to never lose sight of their values and their true self no matter how many people attack their character. If you’re bruised, or feel broken because of what someone has said to you, don’t lose sight of why you wanted to get into politics or issue based work to begin with. Some people in politics get pleasure out of “beating you up” and putting you down. Don’t let them win. Be yourself. Listen to your gut. And know that politics can get dirty, but you involved in politics for a reason.

Is there any one thing you wish you knew before you decided to become a politico?

I wish I knew that I’d become addicted to the news. Every hour, I am checking updates on local news apps, national news apps, and international news apps on my phone to make sure I am as up-to-date as possible. Lame, but honest answer.

What advice would you give to other young women who are looking to pursue a career in politics or issue based work?

Do NOT give up when someone presents a roadblock and do NOT let others in more powerful positions tell you you are not good enough to change in the world. If someone creates an obstacle for you as you are starting your career, stay strong and fight your way around that obstacle. Know that these hindrances will help you develop your career and your work and if they happen to you, they are happening for a reason.

I would also advise anyone looking to pursue a career in politics or issue based work to never lose sight of their values and their true self no matter how many people attack their character. If you’re bruised, or feel broken because of what someone has said to you, don’t lose sight of why you wanted to get into politics in the beginning. Some people in politics get pleasure out of “beating you up” and putting you down. Don’t let them win. Be yourself. Listen to your gut and know that politics can get dirty, but remember that you’re involved in politics for a specific reason – to make a difference.

Is there any one thing you wish you knew before you decided to become a politico?

I wish I knew that I’d become addicted to the news. Every hour, I am checking updates on local news apps, national news apps, and international news apps on my phone to make sure I am as up-to-date as possible. Lame, but honest answer.

What do you hope to do in the future?

Ultimately, I want to create my own non-profit organization.