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My New Book!

Thursday, September 29, 2022

September 29, 2022: Asian American Leaders: Lisa Wong

[On September 28th, 2002 the great Patsy Mink passed away. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy Mink and four other Asian American leaders, past and present!]

On a telling story that reveals a lot more than just a leader’s initiative.

One of the cooler things that happened during my first few years as a faculty member at Fitchburg State University was the 2007 election of Lisa Wong as Mayor of Fitchburg. Only 28 at the time of her election (two years younger than me!), Wong was both the youngest woman and the first Asian American woman to be elected mayor anywhere in Massachusetts. A number of my FSU colleagues had worked on Wong’s campaign and/or been early supporters of it and her, which certainly made it feel that the election results were as much as about the campus community and future as they were those of the larger city—and indeed, some of Wong’s many achievements as mayor involved helping bridge the town-gown gap in ways that have continued to echo in the years since the last of her four mayoral terms ended in 2016. She also began the fraught and ongoing but crucial process of revitalizing the city’s downtown and cultural sectors, among other signature goals and achievements of her 8 years as Fitchburg Mayor.

I could write plenty more about what Wong did as mayor (and what she has done since), but the story on which I want to focus for the rest of this post concerns how she became mayor in the first place. In 2007 she was running against three-term incumbent Dan Mylott, a popular figure in the city from well before his time as mayor. As Wong tells it, those in the know told her that of the city’s just over 40,000 residents, about 5000 consistently voted in mayoral elections; Mylott was particularly, overwhelmingly popular with that community of voters, and Wong was advised that she would have to find a way to win over more than half of them if she were to win the election. But Wong’s response was: what about the other 35,000 residents? She focused much of her campaign on finding ways to reach out to and connect with those other Fitchburg residents, including going door to door to meet and talk with folks and families, and convinced enough of them to vote and vote for her specifically that she won the election quite easily (as I understand it).

That’s quite a story, and reveals a lot about Wong’s innovative and forward-thinking perspective and politics (which I’m sure have likewise served her well in those subsequent town manager gigs). But I think it also and even more importantly reveals another side to a topic I’ve written about quite frequently (perhaps more frequently than any other), in this space and many many others: how we define who is fully, centrally a member of our collective communities, who is American. Voting isn’t the only way we develop such definitions, of course, but it is certainly a consistent and clear one—and, even more than voting itself, the question of who we see as voters and potential voters, on whom our political and social efforts focus, defines so much of politics, policy, and public conversations. As an Asian American, part of one of the communities that for centuries have been far too often ignored in those frames by our white supremacist power structure, Wong was in a particularly good position to help reframe those narratives toward a more inclusive vision—and she did so, for her first election and throughout her time as a Fitchburg and Massachusetts leader.

Last leader tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Other Asian American lives or stories you’d highlight?

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