Meet Sandra Vu Le: A Bridge Builder Between Her Community and American Politics
The month of March is Women’s History Month, which is a time to recognize the many women trailblazers who made many historic contributions to America. Among those trailblazers is Sandra Vu Le, the first Vietnamese American woman to run for a state legislative seat in Texas history. Today, she is building the pipeline for future political candidates within the Vietnamese American community. I caught up with Sandra recently to learn more about her political path.
Tonia: What does it mean to be an Asian American woman involved in politics?
Sandra: It means going against the flow of the current. In Vietnamese culture, women are taught not to speak and to be gentle and submissive. So there was a natural tendency for me to keep quiet, never raise my hand, to be a follower rather than a leader. But I give credit to my father in law who shaped my ability to lead. He defined a good leader as “one who knows when to open her mouth to speak, and when to close her mouth and swallow.” As an attorney, I had to speak up for myself and for others; more importantly though, especially in politics, I had to learn to “swallow” my pride for the greater good to be accomplished. It hurt me (and my pride) on many occasions when potential voters would slam the door or hang up the phone on me, but I remember my father in law’s words and that kept me focused. You definitely have to develop a thick skin in politics.
Tonia: What advocacy efforts have you done for the Vietnamese American community?
Sandra: When I was living in Dallas, I served for 7 years as the Vice-President of the Vietnamese American Community of Greater Dallas, being the bridge between the community and the American media and local/state government officials. For example, when we had an incident whereby a police chief made a racial slur about Vietnamese-American candidates in an interview process, I helped to organize the protest. I was elected by various Vietnamese organizations to make the official statement for the Vietnamese American community before the press demanding a public apology and suspension, both which were achieved by these advocacy efforts of the community coming together. I now continue my advocacy efforts today on a national level, having led many Vietnamese-American groups from all over the country to knock on many congressional doors in DC.
Tonia: What type of challenges did you face as a female community leader running for office?
Sandra: “Why would you run? You should just work and be a mom.” Many similar comments were told to me by relatives, friends and clients in the Vietnamese-American community when I decided to run for an open seat for the Texas House of Representatives-District 112 back in 2007. For many of them, American politics was foreign and the concept of a Vietnamese woman wanting to lead was something outside the box or cultural norm.
Tonia: What inspired you to run for office?
Sandra: It wasn’t the pay of $400 a month! (laugh) As attorney and a community leader, I was able to get to know the day in and day out problems of your average Americans. Having so many clients who were experiencing foreclosures, who couldn’t pay bills on time, and who had lost their jobs, I wanted to be a voice for them. I also have this deep sense of gratitude to this country and thought that this was a way for me to contribute my time and talents to the building of this great nation.
Tonia: How did you leverage your personal experiences to help move your campaign forward?
Sandra: While I didn’t have as much support of my own Vietnamese American community as I had hoped for, there were many Americans who flocked towards my campaign because they were moved by my immigrant experience and supported and encouraged my sincere desire to do good. I came to the United States in 1975 at when I was 6 years old. Although we were on welfare and got our clothes from GoodWill, my parents taught me to be grateful for the freedom to live and create our own future here. We saw immediately the generosity and kindness of the American people like our sponsors, teachers and neighbors who opened their homes and hearts to us. These experiences motivated me to go to college, law school, and live a life full of possibilities, while exploring different ways best to serve and give back.
Tonia: What are you doing now that help other women become involved in the political process?
Sandra: I am involved in the developing the program and workshops for the political track of this summer 2nd Annual National Summit of Vietnamese American Leaders here in Washington, DC. At this summit, participants learn from former political candidates, political consultants and individuals who work on PACs. As co-chair and a panelist speaker in 2011’s summit, I am extremely proud that one of our participants, Ms. Thuy Tran, decided to run and got elected to a Parkrose District Board position in Oregon.
Tonia: What advice would you give to future women campaign staffers or political candidates when conducting outreach?
Sandra: You yourself would need to understand and know your audience well so you do not offend them. For example, due to cultural or religious reasons, a man may not want to shake a woman’s hand. Understand the cultural etiquette and norms when speaking to different groups: men vs. women, young vs. elderly, ethnic vs. religious, etc. If you don’t understand, find a conduit who will help you in the process. Learning more about the community in which you are conducting the outreach is a way to show that you truly care in serving them.
Sandra Vu Le, Esq. is currently a resident of Olney, Maryland and is the TV host of MMC-TV show “The American Journey.” This is the first feature in a series highlighting women who are helping shape American politics. Are you a woman of color who has worked on the campaign trail in Maryland or another state? Share your story on “Politics Within Politics”! Email Tonia at: email@example.com. Get the latest news on Twitter: @abuoyedpath #politicswithin