By Mahlon Meyer
Northwest Asian Weekly
Amy Lam’s introduction to politics was cold, brutal, and curt.
A graduate of Yale with a master’s in graphic design, with years under her belt nurturing talent in industry, Lam applied for a job teaching at Western Washington University, which has a commitment to diversity. But the final candidates were simply three white men between the ages of 35 and 45 whose qualifications were in no way superior to hers. The entire design department was white, she found. And students of color at the public university had complained about being invalidated and disparaged. When Lam simply asked about the university’s hiring practices, she was stonewalled, and eventually ordered out of the committee’s office with the door slammed behind her.
“That,” she told Northwest Asian Weekly, “was the genesis of my decision to get involved in politics.”
Lam is running for Sammamish City Council, position 1. If elected, she will be the first Asian American woman, the first woman of color, and only the second person of color to serve on the council in the city’s 22-year history.
Her decision had been a long time coming.
As the city faces major challenges ahead, including concerns about growth, Lam underlines her commitment to inclusion, above all else.
A plan to build multi-use units in a complex called “The Town Center,” that could accommodate an increase in population, has been on hold for years after being approved by the council in 2008.
She approves of it—not because she promotes accelerated or unsustainable growth, as her opponent has falsely claimed. On the contrary, it will actually decrease congestion, she said.
Currently, the city is careening forward with building large single-family homes at random locations, which will bring even more cars into the city.
A mixed-use development will accommodate residents who rely on fewer cars and actually decrease congestion going forward, she said.
Besides, the city has no choice but to accept the increased population, she points out. It is mandated in state law—the Washington State Growth Management Act.
But Lam sees a way to manage the growth, including supporting municipal broadband, that would allow more residents to stay off the streets besides having cheaper access to the highest-quality fiber-optic service without having to rely on private service providers.
This will be important in a city that is 40% immigrant and filled with IT workers.
“Inclusion is still the foremost principle that guides me,” she said.
Her parents started the first Chinese restaurant in Saginaw, Michigan, a city she said was equivalent in poverty and neglect to better-known places like Flint, Michigan.
Her experience early on highlighted the importance of inclusion.
“Growing up in high school, my brother and I were the only Asians,” she told Northwest Asian Weekly in an interview.
She chose Brandeis University. One reason—it did not have fraternities and sororities, which could exclude you “based on how you looked.”
“You may already know this,” she wrote in a follow-up email. “But Brandeis was founded after WWII, because many Jewish people couldn’t get into top universities due to discrimination. So the Brandeis culture has always been about inclusion.”
Asked about her earlier corporate career, and if she was “branding” herself by focusing so strongly on one theme, she responded graciously.
“Yes, I do know a lot about branding. Brands are successful when their public image mirrors what’s happening internally and their history demonstrates what they do is marketing but real,” she said. “You can’t fake it. We all see when there’s misalignment.”
After Yale, her journey took her on a search for work that would reflect her personal values.
She worked for Starbucks as the senior graphic designer but then left to work freelance for nonprofits. She returned, however, propelled by her realization that “the corporation was doing more good due to its size than I could do as an individual.”
“Their coffee is Fair Trade, they give health insurance for part time baristas, teach farmers sustainable farming practices” and other practices she valued.
After eight years at Starbucks, including three years as the creative manager, she moved on to MOD Pizza.
“They gave second chances to individuals that had a hard time finding jobs,” she said.
Subsequently, she went to Noble House, a collection of luxury hotels—“because I like to travel.”
“But I realized while I was there that I couldn’t work for a lux travel company that was exclusionary to people that could not afford high-end travel,” she said.
She couldn’t stay at the company.
“I had never worked in hospitality before. I see now that the travel industry is inherently discriminatory in how it portrays travel, which is that people of color do not travel,” she said. “I saw first-hand how difficult it is for people working the front lines of hotels, particularly in housekeeping, which is mostly people of color.”
Now the creative director of the Seattle Museum of History and Industry (MOHAI), she is overseeing a review of all exhibits through the lens of diversity, equity, and inclusion.
“I went to MOHAI because I can affect how history is shown to the public. This is especially important at a time when people in this country are starting to distort the truths. History needs to be truthful and inclusive of all people,” she said.
She has been on the job for three months. One of the first changes made under her tenure was to change an exhibit that referred to the “internment” of Japanese Americans during WWII to “incarceration.”
Her decision to go into politics seems the final step in this trajectory.
“When I was in grad school for design at Yale, the chair emphasized using design for social justice by creating posters for issues we cared about,” she said. “However, I recognize now I am able to use my career experience as a way to affect change in Sammamish.”
Her commitments include “helping to fix the inequities in housing, ensuring we have a climate action plan, reviewing policy from the viewpoint of color, asking that city playgrounds are designed to be inclusive of all abilities.”
For more information, go to https://www.amyforsammamish.com/
Mahlon can be contacted at email@example.com.