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Sacramento City Councilmember Mai Vang & Being a Community Steward

This month, SJPC is focusing on local elections. As a reminder to our readers, SJPC is a 501c-3 and therefore cannot endorse candidates running campaigns. For this month’s newsletter we are centering two candidates whose most recent runs for office have come to a conclusion as of the March 5th primary: Sac City Councilmembers Mai Vang and Katie Valenzuela. We are striving to use this month to focus on the importance of grassroots candidates and building progressive majorities in local governing bodies. 

The following write-up captures a conversation between SJPC’s Editor and newly re-elected District 8 Sacramento City Councilmember, Mai Vang. CM Vang (pictured right) served as a member of the Sacramento City Unified School Board from 2016-2020, before becoming the first Asian American woman to serve on the Sacramento City Council in 2020, representing District 8. CM Vang was re-elected to office in 2024. Among other accomplishments, CM Vang previously served as the Executive Director of the Buck Scholars Association, and co-founded Hmong Innovating Politics (HIP)

CM Mai Vang has consistently shown her dedication to social justice and provides a crucial progressive vote for Sacramento (alongside her fellow CM Valenzuela) on policy decisions impacting our most impacted and underserved community members. Although both CM Vang & Valenzuela are often out-voted on these important decisions, the community sees and appreciates their effort to move forward with progressive policies, rather than continuing to defer to those most privileged and with the most access to resources and influence. In this conversation, CM Vang discusses the importance of building trust in - and co-governing with - the community, serving as a community steward, helping young folks get involved with local government and run for office, and more!

Large headings indicate the topic being discussed or question asked by SJPC, remaining text indicates CM Vang’s responses. 

Table of contents:

You ran a 2024 re-election campaign, even though technically you didn't have to [CM Vang ran unopposed], can you tell us why you made that decision and why it's important?

Well, even without an opponent, I've always seen campaigns as a vehicle to engage the community and turn out the vote, especially for South Sacramento communities that are often underserved. It's not just the District 8 seat that was up for a vote, but also the mayor seat and so many important initiatives. Even when I ran for school board back in 2016, I still ran a full-fledged campaign, even though I was the only candidate. I think that's important because when you think about a campaign, it's not just about you, it’s about the larger collective vision of creating a better world for people we love. So for me, it's ensuring that voters were engaged and knew what was going on.

The campaign also allowed me to talk to voters about the work that we've done collectively together for the past three years. If you were to talk to an average voter and  knock on doors, most of them don't know who the mayor is. Although some of the volunteers [for CM Vang’s campaign] said that a lot of folks already knew who I am, that's great, but I always run into voters who don't know who their council members are.

You're always going to miss residents and voters. So, being out there to share about the campaign, and about the work that we've done for the past three years is important, and educating people about other measures that are out there, [as well as] other local races is just as important.

That's the reason why I ran [a re-election campaign]. I know some people said, save your campaign funds, but I'm like, the whole point of campaign funds is to activate your community, it's to get your message across. For several of those weekends [during the campaign], my house, my garage was my campaign headquarters, pretty much in Meadowview.

We held several walks for Dr. Flojaune Cofer [Sacramento Mayoral candidate] in South Sacramento as well, and you will see on the map that most of the district - all of the Meadowview pretty much - supported Dr. Flo as well. Getting my message out there, and that [the election] is bigger than just the District 8 seat, was important to me.

I always say, even if I didn't have an opponent, we did, there was an opponent, the [opponent was] making sure people turned out to vote. Especially under-served communities. In campaigns, we take nothing for granted - it’s always Heart & Hustle to the finish-line. 

Do you see a real difference in people’s levels of awareness and engagement with local government when you’re out in the community consistently?

Yeah, absolutely. I'm really proud to say, and the volunteers will share with me, that when they knock on the door, most of the folks know who [I am], and that's great.

But I always know that we're going to miss people at the doors, so constantly engaging with residents is important. The other piece is that [I don’t] just [do outreach] during elections, I make it a standard practice to canvass when we're hosting events through my council office as well. If there is a concert in the park, or we’re having a community meeting, then me, my team, my staff, we go knock on doors and canvass. I don't know other council members that I canvass as a councilmember to let them know that there are community events happening in their neighborhood. So it's something that I do, not even during campaign time, but just knocking on doors, is something that, one, I love to do, and two because I think it's really important.

Sometimes folks get so many emails that they don't read them, and yeah, we put flyers up on our local libraries bulletin boards, but you may miss folks, right? So I think every medium to reach the residents and the voters is important, and I will utilize all of those mediums 

If that means old-school canvassing one on one, then it's old-school canvassing one on one, which I actually think is one of the best ways to reach folks.

I think about how many people are missing [in terms of engagement with city hall], the unhoused community especially, is one of the most impacted communities in our city and county, and one of the least listened to. Has your office tried strategies for outreach to the unhoused or is that something that still needs to be developed? 

Yeah, I think it definitely still needs to be developed. What I lean on are advocates who work closely with our unhoused folks.

At least [what I’ve perceived from working] in my office, is that oftentimes folks think about unhoused folks - and this is a perception that I get from some South Sacramentans - that it's a very [race-based] black or white issue, and that you don't see Latinos or Southeast Asians, but homeless knows no boundaries, it impacts everyone.

I've been out with my staff to various encampments to do outreach, provide services and resources. If there's a slot open, because we know that there's a waitlist, we try to get them housed.

I think that there needs to be better outreach. I feel like I could be doing better in terms of reaching our unhoused folks, but I always lean on our advocates because I want to make sure that I'm being sensitive too. I don't think it's just me showing up [that’s needed], because that could also be invading their space. I want to be thoughtful and intentional about how I reach out to our unhoused folks, and usually, I do that through the community, and through advocates who've been on the ground doing this work, and I'm following their lead.

CM Vang on upcoming policies regarding housing and homelessness to look out for at city council 

We need stronger tenant protections. I know Katie Valenzuela, Caity Maple, and I are trying to put forth the Sacramento Forward proposal, which has five pillars, one of which is requiring stronger tenant protections. [another pillar of Sac Forward is to] bring back inclusionary housing again, not everyone's going to agree with us, but we're trying to push for a few things. A lot is coming too. It's going to be tough the next couple of months, I think we'll be good.

I'm [also] worried, but I'm grateful for the community because I know that no matter who comes in and out, or sits in those [council & mayoral] seats - I always say - mayor and council changes all the time, but the one thing that remains is the community. That consistency of us fighting for our community is going to be critical

I share that because of the outcome for District 4 [CM Katie Valenzuela conceded the race for Sac City Council District 4 on 3/26/24], right? I'm going to continue to lean heavily on our community advocates, and my networks, and the village that has gotten both Katie and I here. Yes, we may be one vote down now, but for me, it just means we’ve got to continue working harder as a movement to push our progressive agenda to ensure no one is left behind.

I’ve been in conversations with people working in proximity to local government who talk about advocates in public meetings essentially as a nuisance & only representing their own demands, which is the opposite of what advocates show up for. What is your perspective on advocates engaging with public meetings?

Here’s where I stand, we (all elected officials) - and I can only speak for myself - we made a decision to run for office and to serve the community, and it is our job to hold space to listen to everyone. [This is true for] every advocate from all sides - we have to hold space and be present and listen to all of them. That's just where I stand, and I can only speak for myself, because I know other colleagues feel differently. 

[For example] I don't believe we should be arresting people in the chambers. I think [we need to be] able to hold space for everyone, so they can be heard - oftentimes, that is the only time they feel like they can be listened to and heard

Because that's the only time electeds are there, right?

Because we all [electeds] - and rightfully so - have incredibly busy schedules, but that is the time where we're doing the people's business and the people want to speak to us. So, we should make sure we're holding space for that, that's my position on it 

What is the significance of public participation in local government meetings?

Our job as elected officials is also to be a good steward of community engagement and ensure that all voices are at the table literally OR looking around the table and asking ourselves who else is not here? That's the question we should be asking. Because Sacramento is so diverse - with residents from various backgrounds and experiences, speaking different languages, [having] different statuses in terms of housed or unhoused, etc. The more public participation we have, the more perspectives we're able to include in the decision-making process, which makes Sacramento so much better. Absolutely at the local level, it's so important to be engaged.

What would you say to people who care about local policy, need representation, but aren’t able to participate in electoral campaigns? 

I would say that no matter how busy your schedule is [there’s a way to be involved in electoral campaigns]. I know this first hand - because of my parents and my uncles and my aunties, representing South Sacramento - that folks are working multiple jobs to provide food, to put a roof over their family's head - they're incredibly busy.

But even amidst that busy schedule, there is a role for every elder, every resident, and every child to participate in a campaign. So whether you're documented or undocumented - because we know who gets to vote is a privilege as well - there are multiple ways to get involved. I have folks who are not 18 yet, who can't vote, who were working on the campaign, registering people to vote or assisting and letting them know, this is what Council Member Vang has done in the past three years, and we hope that we can count on your vote.

I have aunties that don't speak English and they can't go and talk to voters, but what they could do is cook for volunteers. For those that can't participate [through campaigning], if they are a resident and can vote, then exercising that ability to vote is really important. 

There's a role for every person. Every person has a role in the campaign, it's really just how they would like to be plugged in. I think it's also incumbent on the campaign team to find ways to hold space for ways that people can get involved. Because there's multiple, multiple ways to plug in, to be engaged. It's also [the job of the campaign team to] educate the community about ways [they] can get involved.

If you want to walk every weekend with us, if you want to phone bank from home, if you don't want to talk to voters, and you just want to write thank you cards, that helps us [as well]. I always think there's a role for everyone, no matter what your capacity is. [It’s] just [understanding] how you would like to be plugged in - I want to make sure that we create that space for [everyone] because there is so much to do to educate the community and there's a role for everyone.

On empowering members of our community to run for office

Like I shared [previously] regarding the city councilmembers and mayors - elected officials come and go, but what sustains the movement and work is the people. I often think about that. I'm grateful that I'm going to get another four years to serve the community that I love, but I might not be here after that. You know, I [might serve] a third term, but I would love to see another young person step up.

It's also about building that ecosystem and [base of] people who are interested in running for office, and being [there] to support and guide them as well 

[Participating in] campaigns is always a great way to get that experience as well and learn about the candidates that you believe in and how to run an effective grassroots campaign. The work never goes away, it's not just the electeds, but the people, that matters most. 

Is there a role for folks holding office to help prepare community members to run?

Yes, I would say absolutely. Absolutely. I think any opportunity, from [supporting] someone who is working in my office, to a fellow or intern, to [myself] presenting and speaking at various programs and platforms that encourage folks to run [for office], I think about - how are we looking for candidates that have our shared values, and how are we training them to be ready? Even though I would say that nothing will ever prepare you for running for office, just do it.

Your existence is already changing the game when you run for office because the policies that you bring, your values, and your lived experiences is something that everyone will be listening to, and watching 

You [will] be changing the dynamic of the race because other candidates who may not care about the issues that you are talking about, eventually take some of your issues and start talking about them as well.

So, I always tell people whether you think you’re ready or not, you're absolutely ready to run now and today. Obviously, you have to be 18, but even before that, you could prepare for it before you turn 18.

At 18, you're qualified to run, because you have lived experience, and nothing will ever prepare you besides you just doing it, and having a good support system around you - maybe folks who have [previously] gone through it. If you’ve got love from your village, from those who believe in you and care , and you have a shared collective vision with those folks, anything's possible. 

I always say, even if you don’t “win” - meaning get all the votes at the end - in so many ways you won already, because you've already changed the dynamic of the race. That's why I always encourage young folks. 

On how inaccessible participation in local government can be for young people 

That's [one reason] why I wanted the [Sac City Council to establish a] youth liaison seat, and [the proposal] passed in 2022, and then it came back to council [in 2023] and it fell [4 to 5 votes]. [More context on this saga here]

I was just like, we're really fighting this right now? We don't want a young person sitting on the dais? [This] person doesn't even get a vote, they just get to participate and engage in conversation [about policy] that impacts their daily lives. This initiative was led by young people - and it passed in 2022, and then the new council members came in and they voted the other way. 

So I'm not giving up hope, let's see what the makeup is in two more years and we’ll be back to fight again.

On navigating the influence of developers on city policy

I think it's about special interests too. When you think about our current elected officials you'll still have to look at who's supporting them. In terms of the developers, I'll listen to them because they've got projects in our district, but what are they also doing to improve the lives of the residents in the neighborhood? Because you can also have nonprofit housing developers who sincerely are very intentional about how they build and finance a project.

I hold space for those developers in particular, that are really intentional about that. But not all the developers are the same.

I think the most important thing is, how do they see their role in supporting the community? 

I usually ask them that question, and depending on their answer, [that] really shares with me what their intentionality is behind the project that they're working on, [and/or shows me] what is in it for them. I always ask - any developer that I meet - to explain to me how your project is going to help folks who have been left behind, [for example] in terms of the workers, in terms of affordability. I ask those questions because I think those types of questions let me know what the intentionality behind the developer is.

On equity and social justice

If you were to look at [policy decisions] from a social justice equity lens, we know that not every individual or group requires the same levels of support to achieve the type of outcomes that we want.

Social justice equity is about removing those structural barriers and inequalities to ensure that every person has full opportunity and access to all those resources and opportunities

We know that we live in a system that does not function in that way, so that's the reason why the work we do is so important, why the work [SJPC does] is so important.

As a policymaker, as a community organizer, as whatever position you're in, whether you're a nonprofit affordable housing developer or an unhoused advocate, whatever role you [have] in the community, these are the types of [equity] questions you should be asking: are you being intentional? Are you working from a racial equity, and social justice lens when you are doing a project, when you are developing a policy? How is this going to hurt, harm, or help those most in need and those disenfranchised?

On public participation & Sacramento City's recently passed ceasefire resolution 

*the resolution was put up for a vote while CM Vang was out of town

I asked [on the timing of the ceasefire resolution vote] can we move it? You know, we [CM Valenzuela and I] presented a resolution months before. 

But, I would say to that [making sure people are permitted to engage in public comment], we have to hold space for everyone who shows up and speaks.

That's just my position.

If it’s 120 folks who are lined up, then let's make sure that we sit here and listen, that's what we decided to run for office for, right? That space is so important - the people's chambers - that's the moment they get to speak to their elected officials and share their insight and what they want to see

That's the whole point of democracy, and we should be making every effort to ensure that that's happening. 

On white supremacy culture, and the importance of building trust with the community

We're working within that type of institution [influenced by white supremacy culture], right? I think for me it’s - how do I use the position that I'm in now as a councilwoman to constantly disrupt that? 

One thing I’ll share with you - and I wish someone had told me this before I became an elected official, but I learned quickly as a school board member - that closed session [means hearing] closed session items that we can’t discuss [with the public]. Obviously, closed session deals with [things like] human resources concerns or lawsuits, these are things that we can't discuss. But this is the reason why having a strong relationship with the community is so important, because they trust you and they know you, and [they trust that] you can't share everything, but you can share what you're going to be able to share. 

That trust between you and the community is so important, and when you break that trust, that's when the government won't work for the people.

For me as an elected, I have to continue to earn the trust of our community every single day - in my actions, in the decisions that I make - because if you don't have trust with the community, you can't co-govern 

What I want to do as a city councilmember is say, yes, I'm sitting on the council and I'm governing with seven other electeds and the mayor, but I want to co-govern with the community, and you're only able to do that if there's trust. 

You break that trust when you don't hold space to listen to the community. [You break that trust] when you categorize specific advocates in a box of how they are based on “decorum”. So how are you holding space for everyone? That's really important. Again, I can only speak for myself, but these are the things I think about. Every day [I’m asking myself] how do I become a better public servant for my community?

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