A little over a decade ago, Sheng Thao was living in her car, sleeping on strangers’ sofas with her newborn son, unsure of where to find her next meal.
On Monday, she will become the youngest mayor of Oakland, California, in 75 years and the first Hmong American to lead a major city after winning November’s election by fewer than 700 votes.
“Being the first Hmong to represent a town with hardly any Hmong people — that broke a glass ceiling that the Hmongs have never seen themselves,” said Thao, 37. “It shows we can represent people who don’t how we look that we have passed the point of running our own communities.”
The son of Hmong refugees fleeing the Laos genocide during the Vietnam War, Thao grew up in poverty in Stockton, California, as the seventh of ten children. She lived most of her life in public housing and in her early 20s got into a relationship with an abusive partner who left her pregnant and homeless, she said.
Those experiences influenced their progressive policies, Sheng said. As a city council member, she helped pass legislation expanding paid leave and making Oakland California’s first abortion rights sanctuary. As a candidate for mayor, she pledged to strengthen renter protections, create recreational vehicle parking for those who live in their cars, and expand violence prevention services. Over the next eight years, she said, she hopes to build at least 30,000 new housing units across the city.
Thao spoke to NBC Asian American about her vision for Oakland and how her upbringing shaped her commitment to working families. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
NBC Asian America: You are the first Hmong American to become mayor of a major city. How did your origins and background shape your view of American politics and your progressive beliefs?
Thao: We’re very clan-based, so we really care about each other. We are working on a clan system and electing presidents at community level. Everyone is an aunt or uncle or cousin to everyone else. Growing up in poverty in such a close-knit community gives me a whole different perspective on how to support my community. I remember when I was 4 years old I counted loose change for my mother in the supermarket because she doesn’t understand English and can’t count. My parents are still on MediHealth even though their daughter made it. So I’m interested in making an impact on the lives of those who live on the fringes. This has been my mission in life since I was a young girl.
How did your origins and background shape your view of American politics and your progressive beliefs?
Thao: We’re very clan-based, so we really care about each other. Everyone is an aunt or uncle or cousin to everyone else. Growing up in poverty in such a close-knit community gives me a whole different perspective on how to support my community. I remember when I was 4 years old I counted loose change for my mother in the supermarket because she doesn’t understand English and can’t count. The Hmong historically have had no formal education. When I was growing up I was in a school that taught 4th and 5th grade together and 5th and 6th grade together. It’s hard to see that my parents are still taking MediHealth even though their daughter has made it. So I’m interested in making an impact on the lives of those who live on the fringes. This has been my mission in life since I was a young girl.
With your child’s welfare support, you went to community college and finished top of your class, then transferred to UC Berkeley and graduated with a law degree. Why was it so important to educate yourself while raising a child?
The Hmong historically have had no formal education. When I was growing up I was in a school that taught 4th and 5th grade together and 5th and 6th grade together.
What then brought you into politics?
Thao: It really was an accident. While I was on my way to law school, my son grew out of his clothes. I didn’t have the money to pay for new clothes for him, so I needed a paid summer internship. I found a program called APAPAwho paid me $1,000 to intern with At-Large Council member Rebecca Kaplan. That’s when I learned that the policies these legislators enact have the greatest impact on the lives of people on the fringes. I started out passionately about being a voice in local government for working families.
In your 20s, you escaped an abusive relationship and lived in your car with your young son. What does it mean for Oakland’s homeless to have a mayor who shares experiences?
Thao: If you are without shelter, turn on survival mode. It has a tremendously negative impact on your mental health that can impact many other things, including substance abuse or the further aggravation of mental health problems. Getting into a very abusive relationship, having to use public services, and not seeing the government show up to connect the dots — that really made me say, “poverty and homelessness are very systemic issues.” It is universal for people who didn’t grow up with the resources they were meant to receive. The urgency of moving people into temporary or permanent housing becomes very personal to me.
Oakland’s homeless population increased by 24% in the last three years – one of the biggest increases for a big city. As mayor, what first steps are you planning to take to deal with the housing shortage?
Thao: It’s a comprehensive approach. In order to ensure safe roads, clean streets and good schools, we need stability that starts with housing. That means ensuring we can build decent shelters, centralize them, and provide comprehensive resources for mental health, substance abuse, and more. We must prioritize families and those with minors so that children can go to school with peace of mind. At the same time, we have to establish the construction of affordable housing in parallel. When I was a councillor, I figured out the mechanism by which we fund public housing and we will continue to do so.
Oakland does not have a large Hmong population. But your choice has made waves among the Hmong diaspora in Sacramento, Stockton and Minnesota’s Twin Cities. What impact do you hope to see from Hmong youth with political ambitions?
Thao: We’ve only been here 47 years. So many people who came here in 1975 never thought they would see the day when their daughter could be mayor of a city like Oakland. The Hmong community itself is already politically active. But there was never a time when my parents said, “You can be a politician too.” My story shows that Hmong values are very much in line with American values; we are American enough. It shows that even as a single mother and domestic violence survivor who grew up in poverty, you can be a mayor of a big city. These things should not be stigmatized; You are my super power. This has had a particularly strong impact on our Hmong girls because the Hmong community is still quite patriarchal. Breaking down all those barriers pushes the line of inspiring all women in general.
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