Reminiscent of the tropical climate of his home country, then-teenager Hoan Huynh and his family settled in Southern California after escaping the Socialist Republic of Vietnam under communist rule in the early 1990s.
Huynh, who was born in 1989 to Vietnamese and Chinese parents shortly after the Vietnam War, recalls living in darkness as he and his family tried to survive under the watchful eye of the new regime in fear of being penalized.
Although his father served in the South Vietnamese military and fought alongside United States military forces, Huynh says his family was left behind as the U.S. airlifted dozens of South Vietnamese out of Saigon after the war.
“My father’s entire family died during that war. They were killed by army forces so he spent five years in a prison camp during the war,” Huynh tells NextShark. “On my mother’s side as well, her dad died during that war. Her house burned down. She, her mother and sister were homeless during the war.”
The family survived under communist rule until they received refugee asylum from the U.S., where they were resettled in the early 1990s. Due to his refugee and immigrant background, Huynh would grow up understanding the value of hard work, public service and, most importantly, looking after those left behind.
During his youth, Huynh was involved in numerous community services before being accepted into Yale University as a sociology major.
“A lot of people supported me growing up. A lot of people believed in my potential and my educational goals. I was able to get a scholarship, student loans and part time jobs in Yale University,” Huynh shares.
He learned about the issues surrounding disadvantaged neighborhoods in New Haven as he worked in community organizations on and off campus. “A lot of that allowed me to think about the inequities and the lack of economic opportunities particularly for communities of color before I went on to a policy school at Harvard,” he says.
After obtaining his master’s degree at Harvard University, Huynh worked in social innovations at numerous technology startups and small businesses before working in social impact investments and economic development in Chicago, where he got to witness and understand disparities and the disinvestments in certain neighborhoods.
However, it was not until the COVID-19 pandemic that Huynh considered running as a representative of Illinois’ 13th State House District.
“We saw people who were left behind during the pandemic. We saw a lot of anti-Asian hate as well and that was eminent in San Francisco, New York and Chicago. It was a huge motivator for me to want to serve because we never had an Asian American represent the North side of the city of Chicago in the General assembly,” Huynh says.
Despite being the underdog throughout the race, Huynh became the first refugee and the first Vietnamese American to be elected to public office in Illinois state history — 204 years — and in the Midwest.
“A lot of folks did not take us seriously as a candidate at first. A lot of that just goes towards people who have never seen an Asian American represent the north side of Chicago, the State House and the State Senate,” Huynh says.
I think a lot of that is based on preconceived notions that we have in society of what it means to have Asian American leadership. We’ve seen this in the data points and studies. It shows that even in companies, Asian Americans are usually stuck in middle management and that they’re not able to break the glass ceilings. We had to run against these societal constructs and make sure that we are perceived as leaders in our state.
Huynh and his team’s strategy was simply to be on the ground meeting locals in different neighborhoods while making sure they were intentional in language accessibility.
“We tried our best to make sure we were running on a very inclusive campaign and that people would understand that we were here to listen to them and to address their needs,” Huynh says.
About 45% of the population of the 13th district, where 90 different languages are spoken, is made up of racial or ethnic minorities.
Huynh’s refugee and immigrant background has inspired him to introduce House Resolutions that officially recognize and honor veterans of the Vietnam War and the anniversary of the Fall of Saigon.
He has also been working to build better opportunities for refugees and immigrants through affordable housing, noting the importance of expanding units to lead refugees from Afghanistan and Ukraine to success.
As the pandemic exposed many inequities in the healthcare system, Huynh also hopes to secure healthcare coverage for everyone in the state.
“Recently in Illinois, we were able to expand healthcare coverage for those who are undocumented immigrants and refugees as well. This is an ongoing process where we are looking at expanding healthcare coverage for everyone in our state,” Huynh shares.
Moreover, the state representative is working on eliminating barriers for refugees and immigrants, such as ensuring access to legal representation when facing eviction and non-discriminatory driver’s licenses.
To uplift and support the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community, Huynh says he is pushing for additional funding for the implementation to make sure teachers are well equipped to teach AAPI history.
While building a collaborative co-governance model with communities, the state representative has also recently pushed for a grant to cover small businesses as a way to ensure that AAPI businesses are able to succeed and thrive amid the pandemic.
“Within the AAPI community, there’s a lot of diversity so we want to make sure we work with each community collaboratively to come up with different ideas to then translate to actual bills and legislations,” Huynh shares.
Huynh hopes that he is not the last refugee or Vietnamese American elected into office in Illinois, highlighting the importance of representation in government roles so that minority groups are not left behind.
He stresses that he has been very intentional about making sure that his office builds a strong pipeline of young people who are able to enter public service through training and opportunities.
“I think we have the opportunity to change the narrative right now,” Huynh says. “It’s an ongoing process of pushing to make sure that there’s representation. We can’t be the last.”
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