By Mahlon Meyer
Northwest Asian Weekly
Greg Wong grew up poor. And his first job out of college was taking calls from homeless people or others needing assistance.
“Each morning, I would call around to all the shelters and see how many beds were available,” he told the Northwest Asian Weekly.
That way, he could assign the callers beds for the night. It was colloquially called working at “the bed bank.”
Things have come a long way since then, at least for Wong. However, Seattle’s new deputy mayor of external relations says there is a through-line that has shaped his ends even as he has roughly hewn them through different successive phases.
Wong was born to a father from the Philippines and a mother from Indiana, who met at the University of Washington. His father speaks multiple dialects of Chinese besides English and Tagalog.
“He can speak to just about anybody,” said Wong.
And that, perhaps, is the through-line, or principle, that Wong has hoped to emulate—to be conversant with multiple sectors of society.
He grew up in the Highland Park and White Center area. And he saw some of his friends in serious trouble.
“I had a number of friends whose life paths took them down roads where they either became victims of crime or they got involved in the criminal justice system itself. And a lot of kids I knew and friends who I thought had a lot of promise and would do great things in the world, ended up on different life paths as a result of some of the barriers they faced,” he said.
At the same time, bussing to other schools in other parts of the city made him aware of other life trajectories and socio-economic realities.
“I was exposed to many parts of the city as a child, meeting people from all over gave me a great appreciation for understanding the city as a whole.”
It was his awareness of just how great a contrast there was between different “life paths” and how these were often determined by economic circumstances, was not only another guiding force in his life, but cultivated in him an awareness that he wanted to try to do something about it.
“I was able to see the differences and I think that gave me an obligation to help bridge those differences for those with less—because I saw that difference, it gave me a sense of responsibility.”
After two years as a homeless and low-cost housing specialist at the crisis clinic for Seattle King County, Wong was slightly frustrated. The problems he was solving were immediate, but the origins of the problems were systemic and not so easily solved.
Casting around, and reflecting on his own past, he came to believe education was the way to really effect change.
“I thought about it, and I thought one of the best levers to long-term change was education, the idea being that if you can change the education people receive, you can give them different opportunities in life, and that’s certainly something that I saw in my childhood that led to different paths,” he said.
Through Teach for America, a national nonprofit, he was assigned a rural teaching job in the Mississippi Delta. His first impulse was to say no.
“At first I said nope, no way,” he said. He had imagined teaching in the inner city. “Then I thought of it and thought what a great opportunity it was.”
What changed his mind was that he realized there were so many stereotypes about that part of the South that his curiosity was sparked. He discovered the stereotypes were wrong, but that the poverty was worse than what he had grown up with.
“These were families that were in the rural South and had very limited economic opportunities. It wasn’t like Seattle, where it’s tough, but you can find jobs. There just wasn’t an economy there in a small town,” he said. “But I learned there was a lot that we had in common…
Kids are kids. They often have the same desires and want the same things. They certainly have different cultural contexts. But we have a lot more in common.”
Wong taught there for two years and would probably still be there today, teaching, if he had not met the woman who would later become his wife during a training session in Massachusetts.
She was teaching in New York, and he moved there to be with her, while continuing to work for Teach for America, now as a recruiter of teachers.
Then 9-11 happened.
The family had a young child and decided Seattle was a better place to raise kids, especially because Wong’s entire family was still there. They moved, and Wong started running a tutoring center in Rainier Valley, mostly for immigrant kids.
At the time, the next logical step seemed to him to get training to become a principal. But then a friend who was in law school said Wong would really enjoy it.
“I kind of figured—why not, I’ll take the LSAT, I’ll apply to some schools, I’ll see what happens. It was an idea that if I didn’t like it, I could always leave,” he said.
But he found that he enjoyed it.
“It was an interesting option. The more I read about some of the lawyers in Seattle who were really strong civic leaders, doing community law, whether practicing lawyers or in another profession, the more interested I was.”
Going into law school, he had two kids, and a third was born while he was in the midst of his studies.
“It was a busy time,” he said.
Soon, Wong found himself working for a high-profile law firm. His success, he said, came from the fact that he was always narrowly focused on areas that truly mattered to him, that impacted the public good, not to mention a lot of good luck and timing.
“Just going to law school doesn’t guarantee you anything,” he said. “I had a very clear focus on the kind of lawyer I wanted to be, and I worked really hard. I also was very fortunate to get a position working with people who had some of that experience and it builds over time.”
He “cut his teeth” working on education issues, “heading up school levies for Seattle Public Schools,” he said. “You start building experience in one area that impacts another area.”
His expertise was in constitutional and appellate law, meaning he could see how a case would play out when it was appealed and went to a higher court.
One of the major initiatives he collaborated on was to limit the purchase of assault rifles to those under 21. Later called Initiative 1639, it also governed the storage of firearms in safe containers.
The process to get it passed involved a firestorm of opposition.
“I can’t count how many legal challenges there were, and every single one of them we won,” he said. “It took a lot of hard work.”
Asked why he’s giving up his law practice to work for the city (he worked briefly as the interim director of the Department of Neighborhoods), he said he would not have accepted the job if he didn’t think he could make a difference.
“We do have a lot of issues and we are at a bit of a crossroads, and I wanted to make sure that what comes out of these past few years is a stronger, better, more thriving and more equitable place for its residents,” he said.
Wong, however, seemed less persuaded that the Chinatown-International District (CID) was facing existential challenges, such as a potential transit hub that would shut down much of the neighborhood for up to a decade, or a new homeless megaplex shelter that could draw more violence down upon its residents and the residents of the CID.
“I get why people are discouraged. My kids are older now. I worry that their generation might feel as if there’s little hope. And there are multiple reasons for that. The Trump years for Seattleites, the pandemic, climate change, the economy. And those are very real things. But I also feel that in the course of human history, is this the darkest time that people have ever gone through? And I don’t think that’s true,” he said.
For instance, World War II, he said, was a dark time.
“I wasn’t around, but I guess people thought this could be the end of the world. Or during the Cold War. I remember we had to do drills in school in case a bomb was dropped.”
He said that doesn’t mean the fears today are not real.
“It’s just that we’ve faced hard times before, and we can get through them. And there’s a way we can work with some hope that we can actually fix the problems, that we can actually do it better,” he said.
Wong feels a strong connection to Chinese culture, through his father.
“Dad did a terrific job making sure we had a lot of cultural pride and awareness in everything—he observed cultural holidays and observances and he tried to teach us Chinese at home,” said Wong. “He still sends very long emails about Chinese history.”
Even earlier this month, during the Lunar Moon Festival, his kids around the state all watched the moon at the same time and thus erased the physical space between them, a Chinese tradition to join.
“I’m also mixed race,” he said. “And Chinese people will say you don’t look Asian, you don’t look Chinese. So I work in both worlds.”
Mahlon can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.