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, as well as officials serving in public 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.
What is your full name?
What office are you seeking and/or what office do you currently hold?
Canton Township Trustee in Michigan
When is the election date and/or when is the end of your term?
November 3, 2020.
What is your party registration (if any)?
This interview was conducted orally and was transcribed for publication. It has been edited slightly for clarity and length.
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 was born and raised in a small mining town in India and came from very middle class roots. I went to school for engineering in India, and I was probably the first engineer and working woman in my family. I moved to Michigan in 1999 for work purposes. And then, after coming here, I pursued my master’s and then my MBA from the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business. I started off working in the IT field in Michigan and then in the automotive industry, where I’ve worked for a very niche agency called the Department of Transport, and I managed the finances of the American offices. That’s what I do professionally as an Indian American. When I first came here, it was important to find my community; you have to find the different people that live here, the festivals that happen here, how can you be part of the community. Once I started doing those kinds of things, I was in the biggest cultural organization locally here in the Indian community. I was the Vice President and President for a couple of years, and we managed to raise $45,000 for the community to spread cultural awareness.
Indian Americans, generally in the suburbs of Michigan, are middle class or above middle class — probably at least one person is a working professional. But there’s a huge Bangladeshi American community in Detroit that lives in a city called Hamtramck. There, you will see a lot of issues of poverty.
I understand the privilege that I have, in terms of economic privilege and education. I was able to send my daughter to a good public school because I live in a district that has good public schools. We had lots of opportunities. Then in 2008, when the meltdown recession happened, it was just 15 days before the election, and I lost my job.
So I founded an Obama for America office. I went there, and I started phone banking there. That’s how I spent my first 20 days in unemployment: I just found a place, and I wanted to really get involved in politics.
How did you become inspired to seek elected office?
In 2016, during the primaries, someone called me and said, “Would you like to be our community volunteer leader for Hillary’s primary campaign?” I didn’t know anything about it, but I started phone banking. I was very apprehensive about calling people and asking them to volunteer, but I thought I should also get involved more.
My family and I made a lot of calls on Election Day in 2016. My daughter was in high school, and then on election night at 2 a.m., she comes crying down to my room, saying, “Why are people so stupid?” I realized then that I needed to do something more than phone banking. So in January of 2017, a few of us Indian Americans decided we needed to get out the South Asian voters because South Asians who live in privileged suburbs don’t vote. That’s when we did a town hall for our local congressional race. We connected all the candidates that decided to run that year to South Asian voters, and we knocked on South Asian doors in the 2018 election.
I later got involved in my congresswoman’s election when she ran for the first time. I was a grassroots co chair for her primary campaign; I did things like connect her to the local temples and Gurudwaras and mosques. So that’s what I got very heavily involved in. In the past few years, my house probably has held at least 10 fundraisers. I did a fundraiser for Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel, for the local Congresswomen and for the people who ran for school boards.
Then somebody told me, “Why are you doing so much volunteering? You should also run for office.” I was thinking in 2017 of running for something local because I had done a lot of volunteering in the community in my daughter’s school. I was thinking of running for the state race because we are term limited. But then, due to some family issues, I decided to run locally in a smaller race, and it has been pretty good. I won my primary against three other Democrats in the race.
Our community is 25% immigrant population, but we don’t have anybody on the state or on the township board that’s an immigrant. If I run, I will be probably the first immigrant woman, Asian woman, first generation woman. I’m reaching out not just to the Indian American population. I am reaching out to everybody, and I’m running for everybody in this community.
What three issues do you think are most important to your constituents, and what step(s) do you plan to take to address them?
The first thing is that our community is growing at an explosive pace. 10 years ago, our population probably was 60,000, and now we are close to 100,000. We have grown at a very rapid pace, but the way we are cutting down trees and building houses, by 2023, I think there will not be any more space in Canton to grow. What we want to do is make sure that we have smart planning. I want to incorporate green spaces in the community, so if builders are building something, we want to leave spaces for parks. The goal is to have a park at 10-minute walking distance from where you live. We also have a very big aging population here. The issue is that they don’t have transportation to go from one place to another, so there’s a huge issue of loneliness in this community. There are some kids who are on the spectrum, and if they age out of the system, there aren’t programs for them; they have to go to Ann Arbor, which is 30 minutes away. So the first issue is to incorporate green spaces and smarter planning.
The second issue is to make sure we make our community welcoming because we have a 25% immigrant population. I want to have programs for everyone in the community so that they feel welcome, so there’s no animosity when a new cultural center gets built, and somebody says, “Okay, why?” I want to do a know-your-neighbor series.
The third thing is we have a recycling program here, but people don’t really recycle well. A lot of things that originally go into the recycling bin get thrown into the trash while they’re sorting at the recycling center. The landfills are right behind our townships and are filling up at a rapid pace. If we keep on doubling these landfills, we will not have any more space, so I want to make sure to educate our population and our residents about what can or cannot be recycled. We can minimize waste and make sure that within the next 10 years, we have built sustainable communities. There are a lot of automotive companies here, and we can put up charging stations for electric cars because a lot of companies are going that way. We can also make the township become more carbon neutral and use sustainable energy and renewable energy resources.
What impact has the current political climate had on you as an Asian American and/or Pacific Islander progressive seeking (or in) elected office?
The first thing that bothers me is the hostile political climate. I’m an engineer, I come from a science background, and this whole denying of science and COVID bothers me. Why are so many Republican elected officials contracting COVID and not Democrats? I feel that it’s because they are ignoring the science. We are not doing enough research; we are not investing enough in science and technology in the community. At the same time, ignoring science also makes people at the political helm ignore climate change. Those are big issues because I would definitely like to leave this planet in a better shape for future generations.
The second thing that upsets me is when President Donald Trump terms us as “others” in this political climate. That is another thing that I think is important for us to understand as progressives — that although some immigrants are privileged, some are not. You cannot put every Asian American in the same space; there is poverty in our communities too. If I go to the Bangladeshi community in Hamtramck, I see that. We are not homogenous as Asian Americans; we are very different. Making space for everybody is important to me, as well as understanding that we have come into this country riding on the Civil Rights Movement that happened in the sixties. When we come here, we need to understand those concepts, and I’m scared that after this election, some people might tell us that we are not welcome anymore. Because of the type of climate and the hatred the current president is propagating, I feel that sometimes people in our own communities might consider us as aliens and tell us to go back. It is important for us to participate in the democratic process; go out and vote and get 10 of your friends to vote.
What advice would you have for other young Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders currently considering a career in politics and/or public service?
If you are in high school or college, get involved in volunteering, and try to understand how the political process works. A lot of Asian Americans are running for office; get to know them. Even if you don’t find an Asian American near you, get involved in the political process by volunteering for a campaign by understanding how to knock doors and make phone calls. As you get into college, understand policies that affect us; if you want to run for a bigger office, you want to understand healthcare, education, climate change. So, find a mentor and learn how to run a campaign, and if you’re fortunate enough, you’ll find an internship with a congresswoman or a state legislature, or even a government office, like an attorney general’s office. If you’re really interested in civil liberties, go and intern for the ACLU.
When you are running for politics, it’s definitely important to understand where you’re coming from because as an Asian American, there will always be biases against you. I think the current leadership is white, mostly men and mostly older. You have to break those stereotypes, and it has been a very tough run to run in this office. I was told by my own party not to run. When I started running locally, there was a lot of resistance from the people who were already elected officials. I won the primary with the highest number of votes, but the difference between me and the next person was 200 votes, and I probably must have worked 10 times more than the next person to get those 200 extra votes.
Start off small by making 10 phone calls for a campaign. If you want to run for office, take some political training sessions because I understand a lot more terminology since I took two training [sessions, including] New American Leaders. If you’re a woman, it’s going to be even harder to run; some of our communities are very patriarchal. When you’re running as a woman, you will raise less money than the men who are running for the same positions. Because I had a primary, I had to raise a lot more money; I raised $38,000 by calling people, shamelessly asking for money from friends in the community, college people, anybody and everybody. Because I worked so hard in the 2018 election cycle, people knew that it was worth giving their money to me. If you can build that political capital by volunteering for different things, it’s a little bit easier to run for office, so you have to try to gain experience by working at the grassroots level.
Where can readers go to learn more about you and your platform?
- Website: www.tania4cantontrustee.com
- Facebook and Instagram: @tania4cantontrustee
- Twitter: @taniaforcanton
How can readers get involved? Are there any upcoming events you’d like for us to know about?
There’s a volunteer page on my website: www.tania4cantontrustee.com/volunteer.
If you could fill out your information, we are doing phone banks. In addition, if people are doing something locally in Michigan and want to help me out, they can knock and drop literature at the doors, and of course they can donate money to the campaign.
Interview conducted and transcribed by Hannah Han.
If you are a progressive Asian American or Pacific Islander running for or currently serving in elected office in 2020, and would like to be profiled in this series, please contact me for more information.