For millions of young Americans, the past year has been by far the most remarkable time in recent history. Not only are we living through a once-in-a-century global pandemic, but many of us also became acutely aware of the social-political upheavals in our nation. From the Black Lives Matter protests that focused our attention on racial inequality to the 2020 elections that resulted in the inauguration of a new administration, deep political and ideological divisions not only led to vehement disagreements among family, friends, and co-workers, but also the insurrection at the Capitol on Jan. 6 — all of which will leave indelible marks on the minds and outlooks of teens in their formative years.
So what can we learn from all this? Can America still live up to its promise of liberty, equality, and justice for all? Can we heal as a nation and move forward while embracing diversity? How can we engage in politics in a meaningful way? How do we help those who are left behind during these difficult times?
With these questions in mind, I interviewed Representative Judy Chu (D-CA), who was elected to the U.S. Congress in 2009. She serves as the Representative of the 27th District of California, which includes Pasadena and the West San Gabriel Valley, one of the most diverse regions of the United States. Representative Chu is also the first Chinese American woman elected to the U.S. Congress.
Chloe Wong: More than ever, teenagers are tuned into our country’s politics. We have always been taught that America is a country of liberty, equality, and democracy. Most of my classmates were shocked and dismayed by the violence on Capitol Hill on Jan. 6th. It is difficult for us to look at the images from that day — white supremacists waving Confederate flags, armed rioters ransacking the Capitol — and reconcile them with the idea that America is, as President Reagan once said, “a shining city on a hill.” What would you say to young people disillusioned by the Jan. 6 insurrection and who now have doubts about the future of America?
Rep. Judy Chu: I completely understand the shock from Jan. 6. It was a horrific and violent attack on our democracy itself, and it is the product of years of divisive speech, bigotry, and xenophobia. But to those who are discouraged by what happened, I would remind them to look at what these violent rioters were reacting to: the election of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris. In the midst of one of the most difficult and divisive times in our country, the country elected a president who made civility and compassion centerpieces of his campaign and a vice president who is the children of immigrants, the first woman of color to ever hold this position! And that gives me hope. It shows me that we can embrace change and that people are hungry for compassionate leaders who actually represent the country as it is, not as a few racists want it to be. There is still so much work to do, but these results gave me reason to be optimistic that we can make the changes we need in this country.
Chloe Wong: Despite making up about 5% of the country’s population, and a far larger percentage in some states, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders are typically not the focus of national political campaigns. In 2020, AAPIs demonstrated their political clout by turning out heavily and were credited with helping to flip the crucial battleground state of Georgia from red to blue. As one of the few AAPIs in Congress, how do you think AAPIs can increase their voice at the national level, and what do you hope to see from the Biden administration to address the concerns of AAPIs?
Rep. Judy Chu: It’s true that there are not many AAPIs in Washington, but the good news is that has been changing. This Congress, we have a record 21 AAPI members of Congress, our highest in history! And not only that, we have our first Asian American in the White House with Vice President Harris. So we are making progress, but obviously have a long way to go. Something that encourages me, though, is the incredible increase in AAPI voter turnout that we saw this past election, especially in places like Georgia.
Part of the reason you saw such an increase was that campaigns have started to do outreach to AAPI communities in culturally and linguistically appropriate ways. People are being talked to in their own language about issues that impact them, and that makes a difference. And so something I’m doing is encouraging more leaders to actually engage with the AAPI community to encourage more participation.
There is a real role for the Biden administration in this as well. The President has committed to building a diverse Cabinet that looks more like America, and that is why I pushed hard for an AAPI Cabinet Secretary. Unfortunately, this is the first Cabinet in over 20 years to not have an AAPI at the secretary level, but I will continue to push for more AAPIs at every level of government to help ensure our concerns are being addressed.
Chloe Wong: In preparing for this interview, I learned that my dad was my age and living in Monterey Park when you were first elected to Monterey Park’s City Council in 1988. 32 years later, you are now a member of Congress who just won her 7th term. What spurred you to get involved with politics in Monterey Park, and how did that lead you to where you are now?
Rep. Judy Chu: I had never actually imagined I would ever run for office because I never saw anyone who looked like me in positions of power. That changed when an ugly anti-immigrant English-only movement occurred in the town I was living in, Monterey Park. A vocal group of long-time residents resented the new immigrants moving in, and wanted English only for the signs in the city and only English books in the library. The last straw was when they got a resolution in the city council saying that only English should be spoken in the city.
Well, when the English-only resolution passed, many of us said, “Enough was enough.” I joined a multiethnic coalition to fight this resolution and helped lead an effort to get thousands of signatures on petitions to overturn this resolution. And finally, we succeeded. But it became so apparent that the city council did not represent the city. So I ran for city council and won. I served there for 13 years, working to bring people together and becoming Mayor. And I was so gratified when the fruits of my labor were rewarded when we won the grand prize by the League of California Cities for innovation in addressing diversity!
Chloe Wong: President Trump recently became the only president to be impeached twice in the country’s history. Although a majority of Americans supported a conviction, with only seven Republican votes supporting conviction, the Senate trial resulted in an acquittal. Are you concerned that the Senate trial only served to deepen the partisan divisions in our country, at a time when the new president has repeatedly called for unity?
Rep. Judy Chu: I was disappointed by the Senate’s decision to acquit. But it was encouraging that some Republicans were actually convinced by the evidence and voted to convict the president, making it bipartisan even though it was short the votes required to remove him from office. The divisions in this country are deep, but we do not heal them by ignoring them out of fear that someone will be angry. We can only heal this country through accountability and honesty. That is why I believe the Senate trial was important.
Chloe Wong: Your opponent in the 2020 election, Mr. Nalbandian, has refused to concede because of “disturbing reports of widespread voter fraud,” even though there is no evidence to support his claims. Mr. Nalbandian is just one of a number of candidates who refused to concede in 2020. Accepting defeat with grace is part of good sportsmanship, something all children are taught from an early age. What message do you think their refusal to concede sends to young people who look up to their leaders as role models?
Judy Chu: We need to set an example for our country. The horrible violence that occurred on Jan. 6 simply would not have happened if certain leaders had not repeatedly lied about the election results. Our words have consequences, and if you use your words to drive down faith in our elections, then you make more Jan. 6’s inevitable.
Chloe Wong: The pandemic has been hard on the whole country, but I have noticed that although many neighborhood shops and restaurants have closed or are struggling, big-box stores and chain restaurants seem to be thriving. What can the federal government do to help the San Gabriel Valley’s economy, particularly the small businesses that are so crucial to the long-term vitality of our communities, but have a hard time adjusting to the short-term demands of the pandemic?
Rep. Judy Chu: As a member of the Small Business Committee, helping our small businesses has been a priority of mine since the start of the crisis. And one of the problems at the start of the pandemic was that poor guidance from the last administration meant that too many loans went to the biggest businesses who have relationships with the biggest banks. I worked hard to fix that by directing billions of dollars in loans directly to underserved communities by working with small and nonprofit lenders. And we built on that in the American Rescue Plan by creating a new program to directly connect Paycheck Protection Program loans with underserved businesses to make sure that this money is going where it was intended to go.
Chloe Wong: The Arcadia Unified School District, where I attend school, has conducted classes virtually since last March. Although there have been some hiccups, on the whole, things have gone pretty smoothly. While we all hope the pandemic will be over soon, case rates remain high in California, particularly in Los Angeles County. Do you think it is better to use the school district’s limited resources on potentially unsuccessful attempts to reopen schools before the pandemic is over or focus on refining online learning until we are sure schools can stay open?
Rep. Judy Chu: Safety has to be the priority. We need to keep students, teachers, and their families safe while we work to contain this virus. But this burden should not be on schools alone. That is one of the reasons I was so proud to support the American Rescue Plan because, by speeding the distribution of vaccines, we can make it safer to open schools up more quickly. And I’m proud to support the allocation of the resources necessary to make this happen. And the best part is, these investments are not just for the pandemic. They will lead to better, safer school facilities that benefit students for years and years to come.
Chloe Wong: Finally, what are some ways that young people who cannot yet vote get involved in the political process?
Rep. Judy Chu: The best thing you can do is be informed! You never know when the opportunity to run for office will present itself, and the more you can prepare yourself, the more likely you’ll be ready to run. But it’s not just running for office. Making sure our neighbors have information from how to register to vote to how to sign up for a vaccine is a way of helping others, and there are so many community organizations you can join to help organize people in your community. You can even start your own!