Once again, a record number of Asian Americans and a growing number of Pacific Islanders are running for public office at the local, state, and national level.
Every week, Reappropriate will profile progressive AAPI candidates for higher office. Check back at Reappropriate throughout 2020 to learn more about these candidates and find out how you can get more involved in their campaigns.
Godfrey Santos Plata is endorsed by Run for Something, which recruits and supports talented, passionate young people who advocate for progressive values now and for the next 30 years, with the ultimate goal of building a progressive bench. Since its launch on inauguration day 2017, they’ve recruited 16,000 young people to run for office.
What is your full name?
Godfrey Santos Plata
What office are you seeking?
California State Assembly, District 53. I’ve qualified as one of two candidates for our general election, following our March 3rd primary.
When is the election date?
November 3, 2020
What is your party registration (if any)?
Tell me a little bit about your background in general, as well as your relationship to your identity as an Asian American and/or Pacific Islander?
I immigrated to LA from the Philippines in 1988 and knew from an early age that race was important in the United States – but not necessarily my own.
My elementary school was predominantly Black, and teachers ensured we had a strong command of African American contributions to US history. I was in the second grade during the 1992 uprisings, which followed the acquittal of four white police officers that beat Rodney King, a Black man. My early education positioned me to situate the uprisings within a centuries-long battle for African-American lives. Unintentionally, I came to understand anti-racist activism primarily as something that would achieve justice mainly for Black America. Looking back, I can name moments of bias and discrimination against my Asianness, but I started my racial justice journey as having bought into a Black-white binary, and seeing myself as an aspiring ally without attention to my own need for liberation from white supremacy. Moreover, I saw my Filipino parents, invested in an economic American Dream, push for assimilation into white meritocracy – a desire I distrusted because of the ways in which whiteness had subjugated Black people. In doing so, I resisted their advice, and by extension, them, and the limited version of Filipinoness they modeled for me.
This began to change when I left California to attend a predominantly white college in Virginia. There, the southern Black-white binary rendered me illegible; I belonged nowhere, with no role, not even as aspiring ally. Institutionally, I was erased: my university’s Vice President mistook me (with my last name Plata) as “Hispanic”; my theater major made space for white stories and Black stories, very rarely acknowledging other lives. I changed career paths because I realized my exemption from the cultural mainstream meant I would not survive as Asian in my intended industry.
I became a public school teacher in a predominantly Latin@/x community, working in a space where both me and my students shared space outside the Black-white binary. For many of my kids, I’d be the first Asian person they’d know. I was two things to them: Chino and a mystery, neither two acceptable to me. I felt called to be even more specific about who I was, particularly in relationship to other Asian folks. In helping my students learn about me, I found it necessary to center my heritage, unique among the incredibly diverse Asian diaspora.
As I realized that I was living my Filipinoness in relation to other identities – in relation to white, Black, Latin@/x, or Asian – I recognized that I had internalized this habit of Othering myself, exhibiting awareness of other communities over mine, showing up for others before myself. Since then, I’ve developed a wider consciousness of my history and people to find sources of self-love, value, and power counter to white supremacy’s narratives for me. Learning and unlearning, I’ve demystified policies and systems that have kept me going so far into my life unaffirmed. It’s this analysis that drives my run for office: my desire to dismantle systems of oppression.
How did you become inspired to seek elected office?
In 2018, I participated in a fellowship with 21 other education leaders of color. Huddled at a retreat center, we ended up recalling that our nation’s Constitution doesn’t protect the right of youth to a quality education; it simply requires that states provide an educational system. This was frustrating, as many of us had spent much of our adult lives convinced that public education ought to be equitable for all students, regardless of their background. I remember looking at us – a group of people of color angry at this reality – when I realized that this reality was first constructed by white men who decided to lock themselves in a room and make up our country’s rules. It occurred to me that we were also locked in a room, very capable of leading as well, except that we might come up with completely different rules that would serve our communities in ways we have never been served.
That was the first time I recognized that working within non-profit organizations or schools would ultimately be limited in impact. We’d keep band-aiding our communities from laws and policies legislated by others who may not know our realities, or worse, may not care about realities at all. If we wanted ultimate change, we would need to find other ways to change our status quo beyond the comfortable schemas of non-profit or school jobs. It was then that I began to imagine running for office, not only for the possibility of policy wins for communities of color, but also as a reminder to us – regular, everyday people like us – that we might be the leaders we have been waiting for.
What three issues do you think are most important to your constituents, and what step(s) do you plan to take to address them if elected?
Priorities are constantly evolving given the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. As an immigrant and a renter in a community of immigrant renters, I know keenly that two top needs include: (a) protections for tenants (particularly for our most housing-insecure tenants) and (b) supports for unhoused folks. Prioritizing these two issues ensures that all Californians are at least able to fulfill some of the first rung of Maslow’s hierarchy — that is, to have at least some of their physiological needs taken care of.
- Protections for tenants would look like a repeal of California’s Costa Hawkins and Ellis Acts; championing a tenant’s right to counsel; creating routes for tenant co-ownership as possibilities for building owners seeking to go out of business; and given COVID-19, ensuring that as many folks as possible are released of the burden of backpay that they cannot afford given lack of employment. All of those would hopefully prevent more families from sliding into houselessness.
- Meanwhile, supports for unhoused folks would include an expansion of supports established during this pandemic, including leveraging hotels/motels as housing; preventing the seizure of property, including cars/RVs that are providing shelter; and ensuring the availability of basic sanitation services, including bathrooms and hand-washing stations. While many of these policies are tackled city by city, our state level legislators can prioritize these protections for all Californians.
Both because of the pandemic and because of California’s high cost of living in general, it is likely that our third priority would revolve around supporting the economic stability of our families and communities.
- Pre-pandemic priorities have included fighting for a fair work week for hourly workers, so that workers can predict their schedules, account for expected wages and benefits, as well as plan for other jobs or responsibilities they must juggle in order to meet LA’s cost of living; protecting and stabilizing commercial rents where gentrification is threatening family-owned or small businesses; and incentivizing businesses that are able to increase worker wages quicker than the state-required minimum wage schedule (toward an actual living wage).
- While those policies are still vital, recovery from the pandemic will be slow, and in phases, and this will demand different types of policies to ensure economic justice. For example, given that the economy will be re-started almost “piece by piece,” we have an opportunity to make courageous decisions about what re-employment looks like: how do we get more people back to work, and ideally in work that pays at least a minimum wage (if not a living wage)? How do we get people to work in jobs that support recovery from crises we’ve always had: jobs that serve the needs of those who are unhoused; jobs that move us toward a clean energy world; jobs that fill in capacities at schools, or in bureaucracies that are overloaded? And how might we codify, for the long term, some of the financial supports our state was able to provide in the midst of pandemic unemployment – possibly moving from an emergency stipend to a form of universal basic income, including for folks who are undocumented, so that basic survival doesn’t have to rely completely on our ability to work?
Imagining policy responses to these questions is a huge priority as we transition from this earliest part of the pandemic, and I hope to collaborate on and clarify these proposals as we learn more about the stipulations of public health and public life in the coming months – acknowledging that at least some of these proposals really can’t wait until our next legislature.
What impact has the current political climate had on you as an Asian American and/or Pacific Islander progressive seeking elected office?
Especially as an Asian progressive candidate, the political climate has inspired me to challenge respectability politics wherever I can.
Respectability politics refers to ways we’ve upheld certain ways of being as “the” way to do things, like:
- “Climbing up the ladder” to earn a political party’s blessing;
- Wearing business suits to appear palatable; or
- Avoiding controversial issues to play to the “center” of voting blocs.
These tactics for “success” mirror behaviors encouraged among immigrants to the US: follow the rules; play it safe; assimilate into meritocracy.
Today, people are frustrated by their representatives. When lawmakers prioritize corporate donors because it’s “how the game is played,” it builds resentment with regular, everyday people who might have different needs, yet would never be approached because they can’t write big checks. Officials play to a privileged class, buoying fundraising and increasing “viability” to politicos. In turn, this incentivizes candidates “who look and play the part” (white-passing, with access to high-dollar spaces, etc.) and policy-making that undermines our most politically marginalized communities.
To challenge respectability politics is to blaze a trail in who runs for office, how we run, and what we propose to do in office. Who I am is already an inherent challenge: I’d be the first queer immigrant in our assembly’s history, and the only renter in our legislature (where homeowners and landlords reign). With an organizing and education background, I depend on grassroots, small-dollar donors. I eschew special interest money. I’m unapologetic about centering folks who are Black, trans and gender-nonbinary, unhoused, and undocumented – which means calling for decarceration, abolition, and universal health care. We do not have enough high-profile API electeds willing to rock the boat. I’ve realized that if we don’t see models of who we want to be, we might have to be the first.
What advice would you have for other young Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders currently considering a career in politics and/or public service?
- Don’t enter politics if your primary interest is ego, money, and fame. We have enough of those people in public office. How will entering politics help you share power with others typically left out of the political process? How will entering public service help you stop people whose ego, money, and fame have displaced everyday people at the decision-making table? Build up your willingness to rock the boat. That’s how you will make real change.
- Don’t try to be like people who have been successful in politics and/or public service. We have enough of those people in public office. Be as much of your regular self as possible. Bring perspectives and ways of being that we don’t get to see run for office: you don’t have to speak a certain way or dress a certain way; you don’t have to give up your TikTok; you don’t have to seek approval from those who have “been there.” We need you to enter public service because there is no one like you in public service. Do you: that’s how we will experience a difference in our leadership.
- Don’t be afraid to fail. People run for office all the time just to win. We have enough of those people in public office. Running for office allows you to redefine leadership. It means you get to change what people are talking about. It means you get to hold current elected officials accountable to work they might not be doing. Running for office is an opportunity to increase civic engagement in your community, to light a fire underneath politicians who might be taking their seats for granted, to build relationships with neighbors you might organize with in the future. Run for the many possible wins of running for office.
Where can readers go to learn more about you and your campaign?
Find out more about our campaign via our campaign video and website, or follow us on Facebook (@godfreyforassembly), Instagram or Twitter (@godfreyplata). Use the hashtag #GoWithGodfrey to track us on social media.
Trying to spread the word by email? Here’s a handy one-pager with language to share with your networks.
How can readers get involved to help your campaign? Are there any upcoming events you’d like for us to know about? (150 words or less)
Sign up for our mailing list on our website, or fill out our volunteer form to connect with the right volunteer committees for you. We’re a people-powered, grassroots campaign, which means we’re dependent on volunteers and individual contributions to drive everything we’re able to accomplish. Keep track of campaign events via our Facebook (@godfreyforassembly), Instagram or Twitter (@godfreyplata).
Run for Something recruits and supports talented, passionate young people who advocate for progressive values now and for the next 30 years, with the ultimate goal of building a progressive bench. Since its launch on inauguration day 2017, they’ve recruited 16,000 young people to run for office.
If you are a progressive Asian American or Pacific Islander running for elected office in 2020, and would like to be profiled in this series, please contact me for more information.