By Meera Maaytah
Northwest Asian Weekly
As a young girl living in a low-income neighborhood in Sacramento, Calif. and relying on government assistance, Ami Nguyen paid close attention to the inequalities around her, especially in historically marginalized communities like hers.
At 33, Nguyen is running in the 2019 race for Seattle City Council representing District 3, a vibrant and historic part of the city that includes Capitol Hill, First Hill, and the Chinatown–International District area. She faces a tough race against incumbent Kshama Sawant, as well as several other candidates.
“Coming from a low-income family, I would have never imagined that one day I would be running for office,” she said.
To truly understand who Ami Nguyen is, it is imperative to understand her parents. Dieu Nguyen and Ly Tran are from Da Nang, Vietnam. They fled the country at the end of the Vietnam War. In 1980, they, along with other families, stole a fishing boat and sailed to the middle of the ocean, where they were picked up by another boat and eventually relocated to Hong Kong.
During their long journey, her older sister died of malnutrition. Her parents were eventually sponsored by an American family and moved to Minnesota, but then relocated to California where they lived with a distant aunt of her mom’s for a while.
Nguyen’s parents never got the opportunity to learn English.
Growing up, she and her siblings translated and filled out most of the paperwork for their family’s subsidized housing, as well as for food stamps and cash aid.
“Because of that, I had to grow up quickly,” she said. “I had to make sure that we filled out the forms right. Otherwise, we would lose a roof over our heads or not know where food was coming from next.”
With the support of her counselors and family, she was admitted to Stanford University. During her first quarter, Nguyen struggled with culture shock and financial restraints, but she found comfort in many Asian American student associations that provided support for students like her.
After graduating from Stanford, Nguyen attended UCLA Law and became a public defender.
After law school, she volunteered at the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office, where on one occasion, she recalled being able to help a monolingual Vietnamese American fight a first-degree murder charge based on self-defense.
He was later acquitted.
“I was very excited to have been able to help him because he was a low-income person who had struggled to understand the criminal justice system, struggled to communicate with the attorneys,” she said. “I was glad that I was able to use my Vietnamese to comfort him or provide as much support as I could in that very difficult time.”
After interning with the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office, she went on to volunteer with the first Vietnamese judge in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.
One of the reasons for her move to Seattle, she said, was the cost of living in California outpacing her wages.
“And this is me coming from a background where I had a law degree,” said Nguyen. As an attorney whose wages are higher than many people, she still struggled to keep up.
While looking for job openings, Nguyen found a spot available at the King County Public Defender’s Office. She soon discovered after moving to Seattle in late 2016 that the cost of living has only been skyrocketing since.
As a King County public defender, she has worked with cases at Seattle Municipal Court, as well as cases under the Involuntary Treatment Act, which is a state law that hospitalizes people when they’re a danger to themselves or others due to their mental illness.
Nguyen noted a lot of cases where she sees the same recurring issues — her client isn’t getting the proper treatment or is having difficulty accessing the treatment that they want because of insurance issues or because they don’t understand the paperwork.
“A lot of my clients are homeless,” she said. “They’re also dealing with mental illnesses and drug addiction, and it’s really hard for them to get back on their own feet without help.”
Another factor that attracted Nguyen to Seattle was the desire to find a place where she could personally connect. She believes the community is looking for a representative who can understand what they want and need, and to also put things into action to make sure that we are dealing with the homelessness crisis and the affordability issues, not only in the district, but also the city.
Nguyen said that she’s running for City Council because of her firsthand experience working with the homeless, people who are dealing with mental illness, and trying to work on their issues with addiction. She sees the city spending so much money on these problems, but simultaneously remaining disconnected from the communities that they’re actually trying to serve.
“I think it’s very important that City Hall has someone from my background to also represent historically marginalized communities,” said Nguyen.
Since the launch of her campaign, she has been busy figuring out how to run for office, having not come from a politically tied family and community.
Growing up, she said her parents discouraged involvement in politics, but highly encouraged social work, another factor that made her dedicate her legal career to public service.
She has been spending most of her time connecting with the Asian Pacific Islander community, as well as the Black and East African communities. Coming from a community that has been historically marginalized, Nguyen said she knows what it’s like when politicians don’t feel like you’re worth their time. She wants to change that.
Nguyen said that Seattle and District 3’s homelessness crisis is a top priority.
“We need to make sure that we have policies that prioritize keeping people in their homes,” she said.
Nguyen brought up The Seattle Women’s Committee report about evictions, which showed that families are being evicted for not paying as little as $25 in rent. As a former tenant rights attorney and as someone who relied on subsidized housing as a child, she found this appalling.
“That should not be happening in the city of Seattle where there is so much wealth,” she said.
She said that the city should be providing the resources and policies to make sure that families and individuals are able to remain in their homes, preventing the trauma that vulnerable communities like seniors, children, and those suffering from mental illness would otherwise face. Nguyen also said that providing resources and preventative measures can save the city a lot of money.
“It is more expensive to try to rehouse somebody than it is to keep them in their homes in the first place,” she said.
In terms of fundraising, she said that she currently has about $45,000. Most of her funding comes from democracy vouchers — a method of public financing of political campaigns used in municipal elections.
Meera can be reached at email@example.com.