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A Refugee From Vietnam – Why I Got Into Politics


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.


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