In a recent interview with Carolyn Bick for the Northwest Asian Weekly, Washington state Rep. My-Linh Thai, the first refugee elected to the Washington State Legislature, opens up about her groundbreaking journey in politics. She shared insights into the challenges faced by refugees and the need for representation, and she discussed the establishment of a National Southeast Asian Caucus, aiming to provide support, build capacity, and create space for healing within the community.
Northwest Asian Weekly: Tell me about your background.
Rep. Thai: I’m the first refugee being elected to serve in the Washington State Legislature—really, in the political realm of history in the United States as a whole and in Washington state as well.
There’s truly a wave of people recognizing that they need representation. And then there are people who are also recognizing that their community has been marginalized for so long. It’s just that those recognitions alone has been, in my mind, historical.
I got elected in 2018. So, the first two years was sort of, for me, a learning thing, because we never got to be in the room, or learn the role, seemingly, because of these power structures. Everybody’s out there to capture the power, versus out there to share that power. So my first term, deliberately, I wanted to use that time to learn the system. Because I don’t believe in going to anything, and just thinking that you know it all, and attempt to fix it, or change it. It is a recipe for unsuccessful attempts, simply because you don’t understand and shows the world how much of a fool you are.
And I am so aware of that title—of the title of being the first refugee to serve in the Washington State Legislature, because it’s almost like it can be viewed as, ‘See? We told you these people don’t know what they’re doing. They shouldn’t be in the seat.’ Right? ‘They shouldn’t hold this power.’ So I took that work extremely seriously.
Northwest Asian Weekly: Tell me about your idea for a National Southeast Asian Caucus.
Rep. Thai: Truly, it was not until the beginning of 2022—so it wasn’t long ago—that I started to expand myself into the national space. That’s where I learned that there is a national caucus (the National Asian Pacific American Caucus of State Legislators).
There was a conference … so I attended for the first time, and there was an outgoing legislator who served as the secretary for the caucus. And so yes, crazy me decided to run for that position. And I got the position. And that’s where I was able to have a ground to start planting, to start sowing seeds.
Being a refugee from Vietnam, I have always recognized that the refugees, during that period of time, in the United States, carry with us a lot of trauma. It’s really odd, because when you go out in public, it is said that the United States lost the Vietnam War. So, technically, if you identify yourself as Vietnamese, or Cambodian, or Laotian—people often call it the Vietnam War, and they completely erase a significant part taken in history, from the Cambodians and then the Laotians. And sitting right in the middle of that are the Hmong.
The history is, number one, misrepresented, and, number two, very partial. So in my heart of hearts, I have always wanted to work in this space where we not only provide support for those who are so courageous to jump into the arena to represent their community, but, like myself, most of the time, feel very lonely. No support at all.
And then beyond that is to start building capacity. Because this shouldn’t be just one of us. But it should be every single state having our representation, because we lived in every single state. And then, of that, we need to also build the bench. Because if we learn anything from our Japanese friends, from our Chinese friends, from the Asian Pacific Islanders, who have been having the third and the fourth generations in the United States, the discrimination and the oppression continue.
So building support, building capacity, and creating space for our next generation to see themselves as part of the system, yet appreciate and value the rich heritage. And I’m continuing to be hopeful that we can actually rewrite history to the place where it is not only accurate, but complete.
I started serving as Secretary of the national caucus in 2022, convening, creating space in August 2023 for the very specific Southeast Asian legislators in the United States.
We didn’t call ourselves the caucus yet, because this is the thing about working with people who are experiencing trauma. I already see these amazing colleagues of mine as extremely courageous. And they themselves have such deep love for their community to find that courage within them, because it has to draw from that deep love.
I wanted to create that space for them. I wanted to start with that very first hope that I shared with you, which is support. I need people to be grounded in a sense that we have each other, we are not alone, and we go out of our way to support each other. First and foremost. And that was literally what happened in our very first convening in August 2023.
This is so personal to me. To me, it’s historical. To me, being able to fulfill that dream, even though it’s a very humble first step, is great.
We didn’t talk about politics, we didn’t talk about policy. We talked about our family. We talked about ourselves. We want to make sure that we put in the space building and family structure, that support structure for ourselves.
In all honesty, I don’t know how my friends who identify themselves as Laotian, as Hmong, as Cambodian feel about us Vietnamese. We have not even gotten to that difficult conversation yet. I feel like we need to go through a lot of those healings, a lot of those understandings, a lot of those building of infrastructure, before we can get to the next level building capacity.
Northwest Asian Weekly: What do you want the community to know about this? How can they get involved?
Rep. Thai: My hope is to solicit the support of the community.
If the community can actually come together, and sponsor this kind of convening that one, we don’t have to wait for a national conference to convene, because they only do that once every year. And two, the limitations of which legislators can afford airfare.
And the reason why we tagged along with these national conferences is because our respective office would be able to pay for it. But that means it’s limited to time in the capacity building.
When there’s an ask out there, there are community members who work with a variety of industries. My focus is on my legislations and my policies around healthcare, so I ended up being able to leverage some of the companies in the healthcare sector to sponsor our first convening.
We can tap into the air, the airline industry. We can tap into the hospitality industry, as far as room and board. If it happened in Seattle, we can tap into some of the community structure that we already have in place for our meeting. We don’t need to go out there, creating extra cost, because our goal is to build capacity. Our goal is to heal and to create space so that we can speak to our history, like I said, in the more accurate and complete [way].
Northwest Asian Weekly: Speaking of the history—and you did touch on this before—I would like to know what about your experience as a human being and also as a professional in the legislative space has specifically informed your desire to start this caucus. You mentioned hope and support.
Rep. Thai: First of all, I feel very alone. I am constantly feeling like I need to explain myself.
I still have people who would say, “Well, you guys (the Vietnamese) won the war. So, what’s your trauma?” Like, “technically, you’re the victor, you shouldn’t be seen as the refugee.”
Those were the kinds of questions that I get to experience. And so I feel like I learned from those questions. It triggered me to go deeper and find answers. Because, during the war and growing up in it, I was a child. I wasn’t in the government structure. I wasn’t participating in any of the policies or strategy when it comes to the war itself. But at the same time, now being an adult, with the identity that I intend to keep, I have no interest in erasing my identity. And so, personally, I have found that I have to do a lot of digging and a lot of self-learning and a lot of self-healing in order to do my job as a legislator.
In the U.S., I’m representing the 41st district. I’m also representing all the past refugees, present refugees, and future refugees.
It is not that we are not courageous. It is not that we’re not ready to roll up our sleeves and enter into the space where we get to represent and share our narratives and our stories. The problem is, we have never been prepared for this. This system has never included us in this. And by experiencing that, I feel that there is a need to create the space for this very specific group of legislators.
Northwest Asian Weekly: What has the reception been like from your fellow legislators?
Rep. Thai: Excitement! I wish there was a record of our vibrant, joyous conversation.
In general, it was wonderful. I got a very supportive response from the national caucus and staff, who are constantly asking me what’s next, what else they can do to provide support for me.
The reception has been absolutely wonderful. And in my own caucus, in the Washington State [Democratic] caucus, there’s definitely a sense of pride. We were so happy that we were able to, one, recognize the importance of building support and building capacity, [and] not only saying “Yes, that’s what we want,” but actually realizing it.
Northwest Asian Weekly: Is there anything else you would like the community to know?
Rep. Thai: I want our community to know that it’s not only the legislators who needed their support, but I understand that our community themselves needed that kind of community building and community support.
Because the drama and the pain and the hurt is too much to revisit, sometimes, we want to generally be left alone, so we can rebuild our life instead of revisit it. I’m not saying it’s right or wrong, it just is. But when we’re ready, my sincere hope is that we can begin building within our Washington, our King County, our Seattle, our state to come together, and be able to simply share stories, simply feel heard.
The 50th Anniversary of the Vietnam Conflict—and it’s a U.S. war that involved Cambodia and Laos—that anniversary deserves space provided for all those who experienced it. And once again, it’s not about right or wrong. It’s about being heard. It’s about healing.
I would love to hear from organizations who have already started that process, who are already thinking about it, and who want to partner in this work, because I do not want us to stay silent. And it’s not about breaking down the wall or anything. What I mean by not staying silent is about being able to start the path on healing by sharing our own stories.