Assemblymember Yuh-Line Niou is a Democratic Party member of the New York State Assembly for the 65th district, which includes Chinatown, the Financial District, Battery Park City, and the Lower East Side. Born in Taiwan, Yuh-Line has focused her advocacy work around financial empowerment for consumers as well as tenant rights, while also helping form New York State’s first ever Asian Pacific American Legislative Task Force, which will focus on advancing issues impacting New York’s Asian American community.
TAP-NY had the chance to interview Yuh-Line about her background, current policy work, and her views on Asian American representation in government and what individuals and communities can do to increase political participation.
If you’d like to learn more and get involved, make sure to check out our upcoming Q&A with Yuh-Line!
What was your upbringing like? How did you end up entering politics?
I am a first generation immigrant. I am the daughter of two immigrants. My parents came to this country in pursuit of higher education and brought me with them when I was only six months old. Both my parents came here to get their degrees, but they quickly learned that it was really hard to move to a new country, have a young family, and both be in school. So, my mom made a sacrifice and gave up her educational pursuits for awhile so that my dad could stay in school. My mom took a job, worked, and took care of us. She did eventually get her Master’s when we were living in El Paso, Texas. My dad chased his Ph.D. across the country. Every time my dad got the call about a new educational opportunity, my mom would leave her current job, pack our family up, and she’d start all over again in a new city, new state. My parents had an astonishing amount of drive, and they always taught me the value of education and the value of opportunity.
When it came time for me to go to college, I chose Evergreen State College in Washington state. During college, I interned at the Washington state legislature and met one of my mentors, Representative Sharon Tomiko Santos. From then, my entire understanding of politics was transformed. Growing up, I really believed that laws just happen to us. Part of the reason I took the internship in the Washington state legislature was because I wanted to understand how government worked. I figured, if I could understand the inner workings of government, I could help make some change. I got much more than I expected; I really had an eye-opening experience. While working for the Washington state legislature, I learned that government is actually accessible. The people who are running the show just want folks to think that it’s some complicated machine that they can’t access, and we have to break that narrative.
After college, I continued working for the Washington state legislature, then for the Statewide Poverty Action Network. In order to become an even better advocate, I decided I had to get my Master in Public Administration. Like my parents, I left home to get my Master’s degree. I came to New York in order to pursue my M.P.A. at CUNY Baruch through the National Urban Fellows program. I grew a lot over a short period of time, but I still felt that politics needed to be more transparent and accessible for everyone, especially women and minorities.
When the Assembly seat in my district became available, I felt like I had the responsibility to run for office. I know how government works and I knew I could make a difference.
I also knew that if I didn’t run, it might be years and years before I saw an Asian Pacific American at the table.
So I ran. I also knew that, as an elected representative, I would be in a position where I could break the mirage and make sure that everyone could have a voice in government and help more and more people learn to advocate for themselves.
Can you narrate what a “day in the life” looks like for you?
It changes based on if I’m in Albany or in district.
In Albany: I don’t have a car, so I take the train up to Albany. I usually have my service dog Samson, with me. I don’t usually get to the capitol until pretty late, and I go straight to the Holiday Inn Express, my luxurious accommodations from January to June during the legislative session. The next morning, there might be a public hearing, committee meetings, or a meeting of the Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic, and Asian Legislative Caucus. That’s followed by conference then session. During session, I usually have some some off-the-floor meetings. The day usually ends with a second conference to discuss the next big issues. You have to keep a close eye on what pieces of legislation are moving and have an understanding of how a policy might affect our community.
In District: I much prefer to be in district — that is, when my staff doesn’t have me booked for back-to-back meetings, forgetting to schedule me for bathroom breaks much less a lunch break in between. When I’m in district, I usually take a couple of meetings at my office in lower Manhattan. More often than not, I attend events hosted by community advocate groups, tour different agencies to better understand how they serve my community, senior centers, and Chinese family associations. I have to say, I love hanging out with the seniors in our community. We have a number of settlement houses, Naturally Occurring Retirement Communities, and senior centers in our district, and each of them runs such dynamic programming for older adults. Whenever I visit, they’re always so energetic. They always want to do karaoke, and I almost always sing with them. They have some serious starpower when they’re up there singing and dancing.
What has been your favorite experience since joining the NY State Assembly last year, and any challenges that you have had to overcome?
My favorite experience since joining the NYS Assembly is getting to spend time with seniors in my district. They are so lively and always down to do karaoke and eat great food. Hanging out with them makes me miss my grandmother even more. I don’t get to go see her for the holidays, but getting to hang out with the seniors at community centers and settlement houses makes me happy.
As for challenges, I am only one of two Asian Americans in the NYS legislature. I am the only Asian American woman in the entire NYS legislature. That comes with its obvious challenges.
What are issues specific to the Taiwanese-American and Asian-American communities that you are passionate about?
Data disaggregation, poverty among Asian Pacific American seniors, small businesses, access to government, language access, and obviously, more representation. Asian Pacific Americans are the fastest growing racial group in New York, but the way the government collects data on us tends to misrepresent us as a homogeneous group. We need to have better data if we want to understand all of the different challenges faced by Asian Pacific American subgroups in our state. For example, as of several years ago, one in four Asian American seniors lived in poverty. Of course we want to help connect our aging population to the resources they need to improve their economic standing, but we can’t do that without better data.
As I mention later on, it’s critical that we get more representation at the local, state, and federal levels. Asian Americans are the fastest growing racial minority group in America, yet we barely have a voice at the table. Sure, we have allies, and there are some great folks vouching for us, but without enough voices at the table, we’ll never get the kinds of policies we really want. If there’s someone at the table who is Asian Pacific American, the policies that are meant to uplift us will be more whole and will benefit us to a greater degree. Having better language access is an example of this, without a minority at the table, policymakers might not even think to add language access in as a requirement for programs and agencies. Access to government goes hand-in-hand with increased representation. I think that minorities might be particularly frustrated by government because they feel like it’s not designed to help them. Well, that’s not the case, or rather, while it might at times seem like that’s the case, we’re actively trying to change that.
There’s no better way to show Asian Pacific Americans and other communities of color that they can access government and impact their communities than by having a seat at the table and driving positive change.
I am also really passionate about Asian Pacific American small businesses. I have the honor of representing Chinatown where small businesses are the backbone of this neighborhood. Despite this, Asian Pacific American small businesses have a hard time accessing capital, grants, major procurement programs, and in general, the help they need in order to grow and expand their businesses. Again, part of this goes back to having better data, so we can stop overlooking the folks who need our help.
Why do you believe voter turnout for Asian Americans is so low? What actions can we take locally to get Asian Americans more involved in politics?
Lack of outreach, language barriers, internalization of the model minority myth, a lack of Asian Pacific American candidates on the ballot. I can think of a lot of reasons why Asian Pacific Americans have a lower voter turnout.
Some reasons are obvious like not having citizenship and/or the prevalence of language barriers. Asian Pacific Americans are more likely than other racial and ethnic groups to be born outside of the U.S. Some of these individuals haven’t gone through the process to obtain citizenship, so they can’t vote. In that same vein, a significant number of Asian Pacific Americans have limited English proficiency. According to some studies, almost half (49%) of Asian New Yorkers between the ages of 18-64 reported having limited English proficiency. These obstacles certainly make voting harder, even if the paperwork is offered in the language or there are supposedly poll workers on-site who know the language. In my district, we have received calls from community-based organizations reporting difficulties with registering Asian Pacific Americans, who recently obtained citizenship, to vote. Some of the obstacles included issues with the spelling of names, for instance. These barriers deter many Asian Pacific Americans from taking the steps necessary to become active voters.
Another issue is lack of outreach by political campaigns. According to an article published in the LA Times, up until six years ago, Asian Pacific Americans never even got mentioned in election coverage. Perhaps candidates don’t have a relationship with Asian Pacific American voters to begin with, but more often than not, it doesn’t seem like they’re trying to establish one. They’re not calling Asian Pacific American households during phone-banking, they’re not keeping specific statistics on how Asian Pacific Americans are planning to vote. Asian Pacific Americans are in important group of voters, and I think that candidates will learn that they need to start paying attention to Asian Pacific Americans if they want to win elections.
Other reasons I can think of are lack of Asian Pacific Americans on the ballot and internalization of the model minority myth. Knowing that there is an Asian Pacific American on the ballot might encourage more Asian Pacific Americans out to vote. In terms of internalization of the model
minority myth, there is the argument that because the model minority myth paints a picture of Asian Pacific Americans as an educated, successful, and non-disruptive group, we as a group have internalized these harmful stereotypes and are weary of disturbing the status quo.
In terms of what actions we can take locally to get more Asian Americans to vote, we need: better language access, to encourage campaigns to reach out to Asian Pacific Americans, to dismantle the model minority myth, and as always, we need to increase representation.
Do you have a role model or someone meaningful who has influenced you?
I have so many role models. Uncle Bob Santos, Representative Sharon Tomiko Santos, Hyeok Kim, and Assemblyman Ron Kim are just a few of my mentors who have helped me to get where I am and continue to help me to get where I want to go. These are people who taught me to lead from anywhere. My mentors taught me how to learn, how to advocate for others, and how to work with others. In my everyday life and in my work, I constantly come back to the lessons that they taught me. One of these lessons is the importance of mentorship. I am always looking to build a pipeline for young people of color to get involved in politics, and this isn’t possible without mentors and role models.
What are your hopes for Asian Americans in the future? Any thoughts on how we as a community can get there?
More representation. We absolutely need Asian Pacific Americans in local, state, and federal office. As of 2017, Asian Pacific Americans were the fastest-growing racial group in the United States, but we are still vastly underrepresented at every level of government.
My hope for the future is that we’ll have more Asian Pacific Americans running for office, and we can get more Asian Pacific Americans at the table. I think that, even though the system isn’t created for us or for people who look like us, we have change it so that, in the future, it is for people like us. It’s hard to run when another Asian Pacific American hasn’t ever occupied a seat, but someone has to be the first. Once we get that first seat, more people will be inspired to run.
As a community, we need to continue empowering young Asian Pacific Americans. We need to keep organizing. You can never underestimate the power of organizing. Through organization, we can help young Asian Pacific Americans learn to advocate for themselves and inspire them to give back to the community. Many of these young folks are already trying to help their communities, so we need to bring them all together and help them connect with one another and with strong role models and mentors. Through this work, we can create a pipeline. Without building a strong pipeline, we won’t have a voice.
What’s something you wish other people knew about the Asian American community here, and how can we spread the word?
We’re not your token model minority. I think this is something that is being discussed more and more now, but ironically, discussions about this issue are still being muted. Asian Pacific Americans are still often considered a monolithic group. Part of this is because our data still hasn’t been disaggregated. The statistics still lump Asian Pacific Americans together.
I like to say, when the statistics change, policies have to change. But we’re still waiting for data disaggregation to become law. The perception that Asian Pacific Americans are one homogenous group leads to the creation and implementation of certain policies and practices which have negative impacts on particular Asian Pacific American ethnic groups. In reality, the Asian Pacific American population in America is very diverse, and Pew Research has reported that an estimated 20 million Asian Americans can trace their roots back to more than 20 countries in Asia and the Indian subcontinent. It goes without saying that each of those ethnicities has a unique culture, history, and language.
For instance, as per a study conducted several years ago, Asian seniors in New York had the second highest poverty rate of the four major race and ethnic groups. This is exacerbated by the fact that Asian seniors were less likely to receive Social Security benefits than other groups.
The discourse around Asian Pacific Americans is rarely about the struggles our community faces. We talk about the accomplishments, and the media highlights the stereotypes: that Asian Pacific Americans are successful, relatively well-assimilated, studious. But this doesn’t change the fact that there are Asian Pacific American children dropping out of school and seniors living in poverty without linguistically-accessible and culturally-competent services to uplift them out of poverty.
Part of changing the conversation involves changing our policies and practices. We need better data in order to have a clearer understanding of the ethnic groups that make up our Asian Pacific American population. In addition, the media needs to stop shying away from the difficult conversations about the adversities that Asian Pacific American groups face.
What are some upcoming issues or causes that the community can vote on, volunteer for, or get involved with?
The upcoming midterms are an absolute critical time to get people involved. From the Women’s March to the March for Our Lives we have seen such amazing grassroots energy and excitement around politics and policy, but now is the time to turn that energy into results. Now is the time to turn that energy into action and there is so much work to be done. You can go donate to a campaign you support, volunteer to make phone calls or knock on doors to help get people to the polls.
Right here in New York we also have big elections this year. The entire state legislature (including myself) and the governor are up for reelection. My campaign is just starting to ramp up and we are always looking for volunteers especially as we get closer to petitioning time. This is a great way to learn more about local politics. It’s an opportunity to do some hands-on political work; you get to meet people and learn about the issues that are important to them. I’m also always accepting interns. If you intern at my office, you’ll get to learn about how I approach increasing transparency and accessibility in government. You can work with my staff to help increase outreach to seniors and non-English speaking constituents. It’s also a chance to get some exposure to policy work — we do a lot work around preserving affordable housing, resiliency and recovery, and economic empowerment.
By getting involved in local politics, you’ll really be able to see how government impacts every part of people’s lives. You’ll be able to see firsthand how policies impact entire communities, and maybe, you’ll start thinking about ways you can help shape those policies so that they benefit our communities. You can think potentially think about running for office yourself one day!
Images courtesy of the Office of Yuh-Line Niou