S.10 E.6: “Delivering World-Class Leaders”

Learning for Life @ Gustavus podcast host Greg Kaster interviews Gustavus alumna and Minnesota Representative Samantha Vang '16.
Posted on October 12th, 2021 by

Representative Samantha (Sam) Vang ’16, one of the first two Hmong American women to win a Minnesota House seat, speaks about her path to Gustavus and politics, the police killing of Daunte Wright in her district in April 2021 and its aftermath, her work as a state legislator, Hmong political engagement, and #WhyGustavus.

Season 10, Episode 6: “Delivering World-Class Leaders”

Greg Kaster:

Hello and welcome to Learning for Life at Gustavus, the podcast about people, teaching, and learning at Gustavus Adolphus College, and the myriad ways a Gustavus liberal arts education provides a lasting foundation for lives of fulfillment and purpose. I’m your host, Greg Kaster, faculty member in the department of history.

On Sunday, April 11th, 2021, almost a year after the murder by police of George Floyd in Minneapolis, another Black man, Dante Wright, was fatally, if perhaps unintentionally, shot by a police officer in nearby Brooklyn Center. In response to the shooting, state representative, Samantha Vang, whose district includes Brooklyn Center, issued a statement which read in part, “No matter what we learned as this situation develops, it is clear that our community is facing a traumatic experience that will cause a lot of pain. We must stand together as a community and focus our energy on maintaining peace while seeking justice.”

Representative Vang, I’m proud to say, is a Gustavus graduate, class of 2016, where she majored in communication studies and political science. In addition to her academic work at Gustavus, she was active around issues of hunger, equity and justice, and cultural awareness. As a first-year student, she co-chaired a new campus organization, the Diversity Education Exploration Project, or DEEP, and as a junior, she was one of two Gustavus students out of 800 undergraduates nationwide to be awarded a prestigious Benjamin A Gilman International Scholarship, sponsored by the US State Department’s Bureau of Educational Cultural Affairs. The scholarship helped to support her year-long study abroad in Japan.

Sam won election to the legislature in 2018 as a member of the Minnesota Democratic Farmer Labor Party, or DFL, and one of the first two Hmong American women to win a House seat. She has sponsored and co-sponsored numerous bills, including one to end the kind of traffic stopped by police that led to Dante Wright’s death, and served on a variety of committees, including most recently the Public Safety and Criminal Justice Reform Finance and Policy Committee. She also chairs the Legislature’s People of Color and Indigenous Caucus. I’ve been looking forward to speaking with her about the Dante Wright tragedy and its aftermath, as well as her path to politics and work as a representative. And I’m grateful she could join me now that the jam-packed special session of the legislature has ended. So, Sam, welcome to the podcast. It’s great to have you on.

Samantha Vang:

Thank you, Greg. Thank you to you and Gustavus for having me on.

Greg Kaster:

Our pleasure. Yeah. Thank you. Hopefully you’re still standing. It just sounds like it was a pretty brutal session, special session. Maybe we could start there. I mean, what is a special session in Minnesota? Who called this one? What was it about? What did you accomplish?

Samantha Vang:

We have what’s called a regular session and we are constitutionally elected to work for four to five months, so it can be from January/February to the end of May. So, that’s what’s considered regular session and that’s the time that we go to the Capitol and we work on bills and try to get them into law. When we don’t get the work done, we have to do what’s called a special session, so an extended version of the regular session. And this year is a very important year because it’s about passing a state budget, and if we do not pass a state budget, that means we could face a state government shutdown, and we definitely do not want that.

And so, when regular Shen session ended, I think we also knew that we will also get called back into special session because we are in a pandemic and the governor had emergency powers in which he has to renew every month. And so, there was also a little less pressure to finish on time in May because we knew we were going to come back very soon anyway, so we took that time to really work and hone in on the final numbers of the budget. And thankfully we finished just in time by June 30th.

Greg Kaster:

That’s great. I guess, Minnesota too, right, has to have a balanced budget. Is that right?

Samantha Vang:

Yes.

Greg Kaster:

By law? Yeah, okay.

Samantha Vang:

Yeah, it’s by law we have a balanced budget.

Greg Kaster:

Right. And is it Governor Walz, the governor of the state, who calls the special session?

Samantha Vang:

Yes. Governor Walz has to call for a special session for us to come back to work.

Greg Kaster:

And I should know from… People who might be listening not familiar, Governor Tim Walz, also from the DFL Party. Well, that sounds good. I mean, at least it was successful, but boy intense, I gather and [crosstalk 00:05:08].

Samantha Vang:

Yeah. I mean, COVID has happened in the past couple of weeks. I feel like I can definitely write a whole book about it.

Greg Kaster:

Maybe you will.

Samantha Vang:

This whole entire session… Yeah. This whole entire session has been quite the session. I haven’t been able to find a word to best describe it, but… it’s only my second term and each term has never ceased to amaze me.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. I want to get into that. I mean, that’s interesting. And we should know, since you mentioned you’re not required to meet year round, so do you have a day job? Is that typical of state legislators in Minnesota?

Samantha Vang:

Yeah. Well, we are considered a part-time legislator, so we work pretty much half the year for regular session. And I actually am one of the lucky ones to be able to have another day job. A lot of my colleagues have to be self-employed because no employer wants to hire someone to work for half the year.

Greg Kaster:

Oh, sure. Yeah.

Samantha Vang:

Yeah. So, I got really lucky with my job, and I work at a nonprofit. They were able to be flexible with me, allow me to work full-time at the legislature during regular session, and then now that I’m done with session, I can go back to working on my other day job.

Greg Kaster:

That’s great. Tell us a little bit… If it’s a nonprofit, what does that involve?

Samantha Vang:

Yeah. So, I work at Homeline.

Greg Kaster:

Oh.

Samantha Vang:

Yeah. We are a nonprofit that we provide the only statewide tenant hotline. And so, renters have issues with their landlords, they give us a call and I’m one of the staff behind the phone call who give them legal advice on what their rights are, what they can do to help their situation.

Greg Kaster:

And I wonder, the federal government’s prohibitions on evictions, is that ending, I think?

Samantha Vang:

Yeah.

Greg Kaster:

You’re going to be even busier? Yeah.

Samantha Vang:

I mean, Minnesota has stronger protections than the CDC orders and so we didn’t pay too much attention to the federal calls, because Minnesota has stronger protections. There’s no more an eviction moratorium because the governor’s emergency powers ended, but we have passed into law what’s called like an off-ramp eviction moratorium. And so, that’s what we’re working with right now.

Greg Kaster:

That sounds, I mean, that’s good. So, another reason to live in Minnesota, it sounds like. This is all very interesting. We’ll get back to your work as a rep. I have a lot more to talk about with respect to that. But first, let’s talk a little bit about you, your own personal story or background. You were born in St. Paul, is that right?

Samantha Vang:

No. Born and raised in North Minneapolis.

Greg Kaster:

Oh, North Minneapolis. Okay.

Samantha Vang:

Yes.

Greg Kaster:

Okay. Yeah. Tell us a little bit about that, your background.

Samantha Vang:

Yeah. So, I’m a proud daughter of refugees. My parents, they arrived in the dead of winter of 1992 and with nothing but the clothes on their backs and my brother in the womb. And then shortly after I was born, first… Well, my parents, they first landed in Minneapolis, South Minneapolis, and moved up to North Minneapolis, and that’s where I grew up. And it was after the third grade that I started attending school in the suburbs, so I’m a Robbinsdale school area district student. I attended Robbinsdale Middle School and then went to Armstrong High School. And eventually, my family and I, we moved to Brooklyn Center, just hopped over the North Minneapolis border, and we’ve been long-term residents ever since.

Greg Kaster:

So, were your parents, were they coming from Laos?

Samantha Vang:

Yeah. They came from Laos and then they were Thai refugees. They were refugees in Thailand. And then they got selected to come here.

Greg Kaster:

Do you know what they had done in Laos? Were they farming?

Samantha Vang:

My dad was very young. There was a time where the US pulled out of the war and the Hmong were being persecuted. And so, my grandpa was actually one of the first soldiers to fought with the US, and he’s also an elected official in his village. Once the US pulled out of the war, the Hmong were persecuted. We had to flee to the jungles. I was told that my dad was two years old in the jungles when my grandpa died so he never really met… doesn’t have much memories of his dad.

Greg Kaster:

Right. Boy, oh boy.

Samantha Vang:

Yeah. He’d grown up with his uncles in Thailand. My parents, they met over there, I believe, and got married and came over here.

Greg Kaster:

It’s so amazing. I mean, it’s certainly not your typical story, that’s for sure. What about your parents now? What do they do? Are they retired? Are they still working?

Samantha Vang:

Yeah. So, my mom is no longer working. She was diagnosed with cancer just right before COVID happened, and so we had to go through-

Greg Kaster:

Oh no. I’m so sorry.

Samantha Vang:

Yeah. We had to go through, it was very tough, go through treatment during the pandemic. So, my mom is no longer working, and my dad, he still works. He works at Honeywell.

Greg Kaster:

Oh yeah.

Samantha Vang:

Yeah. So, he’s been there for a long time. He’s the rock of our family, and so-

Greg Kaster:

Well, I hope your mom will be okay. Sounds like you have a brother and sister?

Samantha Vang:

Yeah. So, I have an older, and then it’s me, and then two younger sisters and a baby brother who’s 10 years younger. So, all my siblings were… There’s five of us total and we’re all each a year apart, but the baby brother is 10 years younger than me.

Greg Kaster:

That’s great. That’s so great. Future Gusties, perhaps, Gustavus students.

Samantha Vang:

Yes.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. So, speaking of Gustavus, tell us a little bit, so how did you… You went to Armstrong High, is that what you said, I think, and then-

Samantha Vang:

Yes.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. I ask this of everybody because I just find it interesting. How do you find your way to Gustavus? Why Gustavus?

Samantha Vang:

Yeah. Gustavus is actually the last school that I applied for last minute. I was a senior at that time. It was actually Mr. Moss, he was my study hall teacher, and he is a Gustavus alumni, and he was talking about his experiences and his stories at Gustavus. He was a great storyteller and it seemed so fun because they would seem so fun and got me really interested in checking out Gustavus. And so, I decided to check out the website, I signed up for a tour, I applied for it last minute, got in in time. Gustavus is also the only school that I actually tour, too, so once I finished the tour, I loved it. And so, I paid my $500 deposit, I believe… Was it 500? Well, I’d paid a deposit and never looked back since.

Greg Kaster:

I say this so many times in this podcast. It’s always amazing to me the impact of the personal visit, the in-person visit on prospective students. I kind of joke if we could just get everyone to visit… I know we have to turn people away. There’s something about that tour that works its magic. Well, we’re glad you came. And are you the first in your family to go to college?

Samantha Vang:

Yes. Well, my dad went to a technical college and it took him probably… at least a decade to get his Associate’s degree because he was raising us kids. And then, yeah, I’m the first in my family to finish. Well [inaudible 00:14:23] besides my dad. Yeah.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. I’m somewhat similar. My dad did not go to college. World War II vet. But then, my mom went to a two year teacher college. And so, I think certainly my immediate family, I’m the first one, and my brother two years younger followed me. But yeah, there are a number of first-generation college students. I don’t know how many but a fair number to Gustavus. So, when you came to Gustavus, were you already interested in politics? I mean, did you know I want to major in political science?

Samantha Vang:

No. Actually, I was trying to go the pre-med route. And after taking two science courses in one semester, I was like, “I don’t think I can do this.” I was actually in high school that I was already involved in politics. I would say that was my political awakening because I was already doing some organizing work or campaign work when I was in high school.

Greg Kaster:

Around what issues? School issues?

Samantha Vang:

It was actually a candidate running for office.

Greg Kaster:

Oh, that’s great.

Samantha Vang:

Yeah. I was a high school junior at that time. School was already done, summer started, I didn’t have any exciting summer plans or summer job, and so my niece approached me and said, “Hey, do you want to volunteer?” And not really knowing what I was getting myself into, I said, “Yeah, sure. I’m not doing anything exciting.” So, I went, and wow, it was definitely a learning curve.

Greg Kaster:

That’s an incredible experience, though, especially at that age. Was that a candidate for state office?

Samantha Vang:

He was running for Hennepin County Commissioner, and I didn’t know what the heck that was, but I definitely learned a lot about it. It really motivated me to stay involved because especially I recognized that the… I still don’t like campaigning work. It’s tough to cold call people and ask them for-

Greg Kaster:

Yes. My wife, Kate, does it for some… I cannot do it right.

Samantha Vang:

Yeah. I still don’t like it, but it is part of the work. But what really keeps me going is… what kept me going at that time was my Hmong community was… I noticed how invisible we were to mainstream politics, and that really fueled me. And the frustration of like why did I have to work so hard just to… Because not a lot of people understand even the basics of how to vote, where to vote, register to vote. And we, at that time, it was a lot of work for us to just get people engaged and to just go out and vote. And so, a very simple right and not a lot of people utilize it, and so that really motivated me to organize the Asian-American community here in Minneapolis. And that has, yeah, remained involved.

Going to Gustavus, I wanted to do pre-med, and that didn’t work so well so I decided to do politics or do polisci because I was already familiar with it, in a way that… Yeah. Just in experience, and also I took extra AP courses in US government, and so I was like, “Well, I’m already a class ahead in polisci so might as well go for it.”

Greg Kaster:

Well, it turns out to be a good fit, given what you were doing and what you’ve been doing since. And then, what about communication studies? How did you get involved in that major?

Samantha Vang:

Yeah. So, I added that because I was also thinking of doing international relations, and Gustavus didn’t have an international relations major, but polisci, communications will be a good substitute for that. Which is one of the reasons why I decided to study abroad in Japan, is because I wanted to do foreign service after graduating college. And after my year abroad in Japan, I realized, “Well, it’s probably better for me to settle my roots back at home.”

Greg Kaster:

This is all so interesting and important to me, important lessons for current students, prospective students, because you need to experience… all of us, we need to experience things at times to know we don’t necessarily want to go that route. And then it doesn’t mean we haven’t… I’m sure you learned a great deal while you’re in Japan and valuable experiences, but you also learned, “That’s not the route for me, or not where I want to be.” So, I think those are really important. I’m wondering, what other important experiences you had at Gustavus. I mentioned your involvement in DEEP, which is interesting, but what else comes to mind?

Samantha Vang:

Yeah. Gustavus is a great community. I love Gustavus in that like academically, professionally, and personally a student has many opportunities to grow. And I always tell younger students, “Use this time to explore. Right now, it’s okay for you to make mistakes, and so use that time to explore and enjoy whatever that is there for you.” And Gustavus really offers that. And I think had I known better as a young high schooler, the only one thing that I would probably not choose Gustavus for will be for the lack of diversity.

Greg Kaster:

Yes. I wanted to ask you about that. Yeah, sure. Go ahead.

Samantha Vang:

Yeah.

Greg Kaster:

I mean, I just wanted to be frank about an ask you about what it was like to be a student of color, an Asian-American woman, and at a campus that is still mostly White, in a state that’s still mostly White, a town, St. Peter, that’s mostly White. Go ahead.

Samantha Vang:

Yeah. It was interesting. I think that’s the only thing that I wish that when I started applying for college that I thought more thought more about the importance of diversity. But in that itself, it really presented an opportunity for me and my friends to contribute something to that. And that’s how we co-founded DEEP, the Diversity Education and Exploration Project. It really started with a simple idea. Me and my friends who were students of color, we got a week early… There was a little cohort that Gustavus put us together to come in a week early before the freshmen, and so we were already there. That was how we were able to bond together first.

And amongst me and my friends, spring break was coming up and we were thinking we wanted to do something fun. We had spring break coming up and we also wanted to have a rich experience. And at that time, we had a great mentor, Glenn Lloyd.

Greg Kaster:

Oh, sure.

Samantha Vang:

Yeah. He was the diversity center assistant director and he helped us honed this idea into a student-led organization, DEEP. And I think it’s still going on today. Right?

Greg Kaster:

I believe so. The organization, at least when you were helping to lead, you traveled. Right? Is that right? You want to [inaudible 00:22:44].

Samantha Vang:

Yes.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, go ahead.

Samantha Vang:

Yes. because we were a bunch of students of color, we’d never been out of state. Gustavus in itself, it’s its own bubble. And then, students coming in to Gustavus savers have their own little bubble. And so, when you put, in DEEP, you put a group of students altogether outside of [GAC 00:23:06] and that creates a unique connection. And I think that’s really what helped DEEP fostered amongst students who you never thought would hang out together, but that first year we took like 18 students together total.

Greg Kaster:

Wow. Oh, that’s great. Yeah. I mean, I like your approach. Well, one, you stayed with Gustavus. You didn’t say, “Oh boy, I don’t see enough diversity, I’m out of here.” And then, as you said, it becomes an opportunity for organizing and activism, which you did. Is there a Hmong… I believe a Hmong student organizations, as well, or Asian-American students [crosstalk 00:23:46].

Samantha Vang:

Yeah, HACO.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. Go ahead.

Samantha Vang:

Yes, HACO.

Greg Kaster:

Oh yes. Okay. And were you involved in that?

Samantha Vang:

Yes, I was involved in that. I love HACO. I mean, I think were it not for the student organizations, I probably would have left Gustavus. And these are small but important spaces for students of color to really find connections and find shared experiences when we can feel isolated at times. And so, yeah, definitely love HACO, love doing the Hmong new year, love making friends and being with friends.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. [inaudible 00:24:35] off the top of my head, I don’t know how many Hmong students there are, but a fair number at Gustavus, and I’ve taught a number of them. I mean, certainly Gustavus is, I mean, we have a long way to go, but compared it to what it was, the diversity situation when I came, my wife Kate and I came, and others 30 some years ago, it’s better. But it’s ongoing work. Right? It’s not something that I think stops and then you rest on your laurels. It’s just ongoing work. And especially since George Floyd’s murder, I mean, all schools have been so… and renewed efforts around issues of equity and inclusion, racial justice. And Gustavus is certainly a part of that. I wonder about… So, you graduate with the comm studies and polisci double major, and are you thinking, “I want to grow up and be a politician”? I mean, at what point did you decide you’re going to run for state… Was your first run for office the legislature?

Samantha Vang:

Yeah. I actually honestly never thought about running for office. I think it just so happens that my experience helped prepared me to run for office. When I mentioned earlier, high school was the time that I had my political awakening, or debuted, and that’s how it got me started in politics, organizing in the community and the importance of advocating for my community at that time, specifically the Hmong or Asian-American community. The friends that I made during the campaign, they’re now my lifelong friends. Yeah. I kept in touch with them throughout college. And when I graduated college, I wanted to wanted to continue to remain involved in the community. I wasn’t going to do foreign service anymore. I wanted to build my roots here in Minneapolis, in Brooklyn Center, and so I stayed in public sector, worked at a nonprofit. I was a community engagement coordinator. I worked on non-partisan campaigns doing voter engagement, civic engagement, and I also worked on partisan campaigns. I helped elect folks into office. And then, soon after, my predecessor, she wanted to run for attorney general, and so that opened up her seat.

Greg Kaster:

And who was that?

Samantha Vang:

Deb Hellstrom.

Greg Kaster:

Okay.

Samantha Vang:

Yeah. Deb Hellstrom.

Greg Kaster:

I mean, did someone approach you about running for that seat? Yeah, go ahead.

Samantha Vang:

Yeah. Folks approached me to run for the seat, and I was… Deb Hellstrom also approached me about running for her seat, too, because she’s brought up to me that she was going to run for attorney general.

Greg Kaster:

Okay. And did you have… Go ahead. No, sorry, go ahead.

Samantha Vang:

Oh. Sorry. And at that time I was already getting involved and getting more active at the legislature, just being more of a community advocate at the legislature. And that’s how I met Deb Hellstrom. That was the time I learned, “Oh, you can actually ask to meet with your elected official.” And she came out to… We met in Brooklyn Center, had coffee. That’s when I first met her. Yeah. It was soon after that I learned she was going to run for attorney general, and folks approached me to run for it and I said no. Yeah. It was definitely very tough for me to say yes. It took multiple people convincing me.

Greg Kaster:

And you were very young. I mean, what are we talking about? About 20-

Samantha Vang:

Yeah. I was 23 and I got elected-

Greg Kaster:

23.

Samantha Vang:

Yeah. 23. I got elected at 24.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. That’s amazing.

Samantha Vang:

Yeah.

Greg Kaster:

And so, did you have, on the DFL side, did you have opponents?

Samantha Vang:

Yes. It was actually another Hmong woman, Cindy Yang, who ran also for the seat.

Greg Kaster:

Oh, interesting.

Samantha Vang:

She was actually the DFL-endorsed candidate and I was the underdog going into the campaign. But I stuck through and I won.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, that’s exciting. That’s a great story. I don’t know if you’re the young… you must be one of the youngest members of the legislature, I imagine, which is a great example, too, for young people and young Hmong people, but young people in general. So, roughly, how many Hmong… Is it Representative Her who was elected with you?

Samantha Vang:

Yes.

Greg Kaster:

Yes.

Samantha Vang:

Representative Her and I got elected at the same time.

Greg Kaster:

Right.. You’re the first two Hmong women in the House, I guess. How many Hmong people are in the legislature roughly as a whole, Senate and House?

Samantha Vang:

There’s a total of six.

Greg Kaster:

Six, wow. Yeah.

Samantha Vang:

Totally of six. Yeah. Yeah. 2018 was definitely a historic number for women, historic number for people of color, immigrants. Yeah. 2018, we elected… Yeah. Basically five Hmong at the legislature.

Greg Kaster:

In ’18?

Samantha Vang:

Yeah. In ’18, yeah.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. Yeah, it’s funny, I mean, there is… I’m just reading some of those statistics in preparing for this podcast, some of the statistics about diversity in the legislature, which I now can’t quote off the top of my head. But at one level, it’s, “Really? That’s it?” But at another level it’s historic, I guess, from what I read. I mean, there’s more diversity, people of color in the state House than ever before. And tell us a little bit, before we get into some of your other work, what is the caucus that you had like? What is its function? The People of Color Indigenous Caucus.

Samantha Vang:

Yeah. Definitely the POCI caucus has grown. The POCI caucus did not hit critical mass until 2018. It was before 2018 I think there was only probably six legislators of color. A small but mighty caucus. And then 2018 came and we grew to 13, 13 members of the POCI caucus. That first year together we were… It was definitely a learning curve for all of us being freshmen. It’s like going back to high school in some way, just learning your way around the building and whatnot, and just getting a feel of the legislature. We had shared values, we know that there’s a lot that we want to do that we can do together, and so we have a very strong bond with one another. The POCI caucus became a force to be reckoned with at the legislature. Yes.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. I really didn’t know much about the caucus until, again, preparing for our conversation. So, it includes, I mean, Native people, Black people, Asian-Americans. It’s quite a diverse, as it should be I guess, given its name and purpose, a diverse group. And that’s hopeful. I’m just interested in people’s work generally and what people do and how they do it. I mean, I know there’s probably no typical day in the life of a state representative here, but what is a day like for you when the legislature’s in session?

Samantha Vang:

Yeah. Yeah, no one day is ever the same, but we do have a lot of meetings, and it can go early, it can go late. I think what you can expect is we, on a regular session, we are assigned to committees, and so this year I sit on four committees, Public Safety, Judiciary Committee, I’m the vice chair of Agriculture Committee, and… I’m blanking out on my fourth one.

Greg Kaster:

Oh, then the one I mentioned on police… Excuse me. The-

Samantha Vang:

Public Safety?

Greg Kaster:

Publix Safety. Right. Exactly. Yeah. Finance, et cetera. Are those committees that you asked to be on or you’re just arbitrarily assigned? How does that work?

Samantha Vang:

Yeah. Well, we rank them from interest, so everyone… We don’t really get all the committees that we want, but we can rank what’s our top priority or not. And it’s actually the Speaker who makes the final decision on where she puts all of us in.

Greg Kaster:

Okay. And we should note that, I think, in 2018, the DFL, correct me if I’m wrong, had-

Samantha Vang:

Took the majority.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. So, I mean, that must be that… Well, you weren’t there, I guess, when that wasn’t the case, but it’s got to be more fun when you’re in the majority.

Samantha Vang:

Oh, yeah.

Greg Kaster:

[inaudible 00:35:18] more fulfilling. Yeah. And so, how much time… Right. A lot of time, I think people may not realize, is spent in committees and hearings, but is it… Really not that much time on the floor, I mean, debating bills. It’s really most of your time in the committees?

Samantha Vang:

Yeah. I will say the first couple months you can expect a lot of time do spent in community because that’s where we do the work of looking at the language, the policy language, reworking the language, hearing from the public, testimonies. That’s, I will say, the fun part of the legislative process.

Greg Kaster:

That’s really where, as they say, the sausage is being made, I guess. Working out the bills. Talk to me a little bit, too, about some of the challenges and surprises. Because, what, you’re now in your second term, I guess, right? Just finishing your second term, or half… Are you finished with your second term or halfway through?

Samantha Vang:

Halfway through. I have one more year.

Greg Kaster:

Halfway through.

Samantha Vang:

Yes.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. Okay. So, you’re still relatively new. What have been some of the challenges and surprises, whether good surprises, not so good surprises, in your experiences thus far as a legislator?

Samantha Vang:

There’s plenty to surprise me. I think so far for the terms that I’ve been in, there’s always something new that I’m learning all the time. It’s important for people to, I think, know that how… I think the thing that surprised me was when I first got elected, I didn’t realize how accessible we are to the public. Well, the public doesn’t really know how accessible we are to them. You can enter the Capitol buildings and walk in. There’s no security door or guard that you have to pass through. And if you want to see us debate on the floor, you could just come and sit on the galleria and watch us debate. So, I think that’s one thing that… We’re pretty accessible. I would say this term has definitely been difficult. Like my first term, I think we were debating heavily about the gas tax, and so-

Greg Kaster:

Yes, I remember that.

Samantha Vang:

… I kind of missed that, having those sorts of debates now.

Greg Kaster:

Those was nuts and bolts. Yeah.

Samantha Vang:

Right.

Greg Kaster:

Not existential issues like democracy. Right. Yeah.

Samantha Vang:

Yeah. I just go by, I just take it day by day and see what I can get out of it, make the most out of it, and go from there.

Greg Kaster:

And you had, I mean, boy, one of the challenges was the Dante Wright killing, that tragedy. And I wonder if you could tell us a little bit about that. I guess the legislature was in session when that happened?

Samantha Vang:

Oh, yeah.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. And it happened in Brooklyn Center. If you can just tell us a little bit about what that was like for you. I mean, I can only imagine what it was like, how awful it was for the family of Mr. Wright. I mean, I can only imagine just how terrible that was. Family, loved ones, friends. But what was it like for you as a representative of Brooklyn Center when you heard that news? And talk to me a little bit, also, I’d like to hear about the bill that you’ve sponsored.

Samantha Vang:

Yeah, definitely. When Dante Wright happened, it could not have come at such a worst time. I think it was a week before the Derek Chauvin trial.

Greg Kaster:

Yes, that’s right.

Samantha Vang:

We’re still-

Greg Kaster:

And the George Floyd case. Yeah.

Samantha Vang:

Right. And the George Floyd case. The state is still recovering from the aftermath of George Floyd and everyone’s still emotional and emotions are rising up again. I mean, it was chaotic. I mean, the moment I found out about Dante, I called my mayor and he said he was about to go into a meeting with the police department. And I said, “You have to let them show the body camera. People will be demanding to see the footage.” I’m glad that the police chief made the right decision to show it right away the next day. And I was there in that room when I saw it for the first time with everybody else with the public. Yeah. It was incredible.

Greg Kaster:

I mean, it’s just so hard to watch. They all are. I mean, yeah. I mean, you must have just kicked into action. I mean, what was your sense of your role at that point as a state rep of Brooklyn Center?

Samantha Vang:

Yeah. I mean, all I could think about was making sure I keep my community intact. It was the feeling of doing everything to help, yet still end up feeling helpless. And this is actually the first time I’m able to talk about it without feeling so emotional. Yeah. It was very chaotic. I would say that if any city has to learn about what has happened between Minneapolis and Brooklyn Center is that no city government is prepared for this type of unrest.

Greg Kaster:

That’s a good point.

Samantha Vang:

We are at a racial reckoning in this country, and the symptoms of our racist structures has led us to this boiling point. And unless we do something drastic to eliminate the root causes of why Black men and brown men get killed at a higher rate from police officers, we will continue to reach a boiling point. News media wanted to dig into Brooklyn Center, wanted to see what made Brooklyn Center different. Well, Brooklyn Center is just like any other city. What happened in Brooklyn center in Minneapolis can also happen in other cities, and has happened in other cities. And the only thing that made, well, that made Brooklyn Center unique is that we are the future face of America, we are suburban people of color majority city, one of two in the state. The other one is in Brooklyn Park.

And soon in our lifetime, Greg, America will be a people of color majority. We have to accept that. Past America thrived by exploiting the labor of Black and brown people. For example, slavery, the transcontinental railroad. And what we’re experiencing during this critical time is these racist structures no longer serve the America today and will not serve the future of America. And so, what I hope people learn from Brooklyn Center, and especially my colleagues at the Capitol, is that we cannot accept the status quo. We must be forthcoming to think about the future of a state. We can no longer ignore race. We have to say, “Yes, racism exists. It is a disease in America, and we must cure it.” That’s what I hope, that if we can get anything out from what we learned this past year, is that we have to be forthcoming and intentional when we talk about race and doing policy work.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. I mean, it’s so important, and of course, even more important now that we have, and it’s just a fact, Republican-led legislatures around the country seeking to prevent the discussion and teaching of issues related to race or equating those with denouncing the United States. And of course, there are wonderful people in history, and presently yourself included, fighting racism. So, yeah, I couldn’t agree more. And especially in a place like Minnesota which… I think there’s this Minnesota exceptionalism I’ve always thought where we’re somehow different. No, no, no, not really. When people were saying, “Oh, George Floyd, that’s not the Minnesota I know. How could that happen here?” Well, because that is who we are, and we need to confront that. And then in confronting it, as you say, reckon with it in positive Ways.

And that leads me to talk a little bit, or ask you a little bit, about the legislation you… I mean, there’s all this talk about… some people defund the police or police reform. Talk to us a little bit about the bill you sponsored. Didn’t that bill pass the legislature?

Samantha Vang:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Greg Kaster:

Okay.

Samantha Vang:

Yes.

Greg Kaster:

Tell us a little bit about the bill and what it will do.

Samantha Vang:

Yeah. So, this bill, we termed it as sign and release, and this is Dante Wright, how he got arrested is because before my bill got or… Yeah. The sign and release got passed, the reason why had Dante Wright got arrested is because he missed a court hearing that he never knew about. He got a summons for court, and I believe it got delivered to the wrong address and so he missed his court hearing. And so, when you got pulled over for a minor violation and the officer looked him up, noticed that he missed a court hearing, and it was practiced, or policy, that they have to arrest the person. And so, that escalated. Dante Wright, not knowing why he was getting arrested, that really escalated the tensions, and it was unnecessary.

And so, that’s how we came up with sign and release, that if an officer were to pull over an individual and noticed that they missed a court hearing, that they would not arrest the person. Instead, they would just give them a form, let them know, “Hey, you missed your court hearing. Sign here,” and they’d be off on their way. That probably could have saved Dante Wright.

Greg Kaster:

Exactly, and maybe many others, as well. I mean, it’s just crazy. I was so happy to read about the bill. I’m so happy to hear that it’s going to become law, or is law. Was there bipartisan support for that? Is bipartisanship alive, if not also well, in the Minnesota state House?

Samantha Vang:

Yeah. The sign and release, the I co-authored, is bi-partisan. The House Republicans, a few who were police officers, signed on, even shared their thoughts and amendments to improve the bill. And so, yeah, it was bi-partisan in the House, and I think it’s also bi-partisan in the Senate. Well, the Senate didn’t really have any hearings on police accountability or police reform at all, but when we were at the negotiating table, sign and release was one of them that they were willing to work with.

Greg Kaster:

The Senate is still a Republican majority, right?

Samantha Vang:

Yes. The Senate is Republican controlled.

Greg Kaster:

What are the prospects for further legislation around police reform, do you think, here in Minnesota?

Samantha Vang:

Well, the House, all the police accountability bills that we heard, there are about over 20 to 30 provisions, measures, that we wanted to get done, and we passed in the House. But the Senate, they barely had any hearings about it, so that’s the dynamics that we’re working with.

Greg Kaster:

Similar dynamics nationally, where the House is, now, I mean, has passed all kinds of bills, but then the Senate just ignores them, essentially.

Samantha Vang:

Right. Right. And so, we didn’t-

Greg Kaster:

That’s got to be frustrating.

Samantha Vang:

It was. It was. We didn’t get everything that we wanted, but we were able to get something. The POCI Caucus played a huge role in making that their top priority. I’m lucky to be chair of the POCI Caucus and lucky to lead on that. That’s how we got sign and release at the last minute, is because of the push of the POCI Caucus.

Greg Kaster:

That’s a great example of how that caucus can be effective in concrete ways. I mean, racism certainly affects African-American, black people, but also it’s Asian-American people, Asian people, Asian-American people in our country’s history. Especially recently with the uptick in violence against people of Asian descent, to what extent is that… I mean, I know the answer, it’s on your radar, but to what extent is that on your radar as a state legislator? Is there anything that the legislature is considering doing to deal with hate crimes against Asian-Americans specifically?

Samantha Vang:

Yeah. I co-authored a bill with Representative Frank Hornstein. He led on a hate crimes bill that essentially improves the reporting of hate and bias incidents in Minnesota. Because right now, how you can report a hate crime is you have to inform a police officer, and our communities of color don’t often feel comfortable contacting the police sometimes for help, and we instead go to our neighbors or community advocates, community organizations. And so, this hate crime bill would have improved how we report bias and hate motivated incidents at the state. I think in the federal level they passed a hate crime Bill. But-

Greg Kaster:

Right. Yeah, I think Biden signed, it was either an executive order or legislation. Yeah.

Samantha Vang:

Yeah.

Greg Kaster:

Because I’m just thinking, that just… I mean, if we don’t know if things are being… they’re not being reported or they’re being underreported for whatever reasons, then that’s a problem, obviously, if we want to deal with those crimes. So, is that bill advancing, or what’s happened to it?

Samantha Vang:

No, it didn’t pass to the legislature. It didn’t get through.

Greg Kaster:

I’m sorry.

Samantha Vang:

Yeah.

Greg Kaster:

Is that something that you can re-introduce in the next session?

Samantha Vang:

Yeah. I mean, the bill is still alive. Next year will be a policy year, and so the bill is still alive. We can still try to do one more push. Yeah. I mean this year has definitely been… I’ve never felt more Asian in my life during this time.

Greg Kaster:

Oh, that’s amazing because that was literally the next question I was going to ask you, which is to what… I was going to ask you how all of this has affected your sense of yourself as an Asian woman, Hmong-American women specifically. So, say a little bit more about that. Yeah. You mean because of the violence, because of the hate, or is it more towards… Yeah.

Samantha Vang:

Yeah. I mean, during COVID, I remember when the world the was shutting down and just feeling nervous, just even going to a grocery store getting groceries. And then with the Atlanta shooting-

Greg Kaster:

Yes, the spa shooting. It’s horrible.

Samantha Vang:

Oh yeah. And then right after, Dante Wright. And navigating a racial juncture, heavily dominated between Blacks and Whites. And so, I’ve, yeah, never felt more Asian in my life than during that time. It’s really not a great feeling. And despite me being a state representative, I did not think that I had to reassert myself as a state representative, but I had to.

Greg Kaster:

You have to.

Samantha Vang:

I wasn’t going to play their stereotypical Asian woman who was going to step aside and let others run the show. And despite how others made me feel, at the end of the day, I’m still a state representative. It is my elected duty to take care of my district, and that will always be my top priority.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. And you’ve been really, I mean, you’ve been… Certainly in print, I read, quite blunt about the need for Asian people, Hmong people specifically here in Minnesota, to be more visible, and that some of that is on them. Right? I mean, to be more politically engaged. And I wonder about that. I mean, to what extent are Hmong Americans your base? I mean, are they more politically engaged than, let’s say, they were five years ago or 10 years ago? Is their progress, or still a long way to go?

Samantha Vang:

There’s still a long way to go, but doing this organizing work for the past 10 years since I started in high school, I’ve definitely noticed a lot of change, a lot of progress. Before when I first started, it was a learning curve to just get people to vote and why people should vote. We didn’t have a strong voting history of just being regular voters, but now, there are Hmong neighbors who… Yeah. When I talk to and I go door-knocking, say, “Oh yeah, I know where to vote. Is it the usual place that I go to? When is it? Oh, right, I’ll be there.” I don’t have to convince people why it’s important to go on vote as much anymore.

Greg Kaster:

That’s progress.

Samantha Vang:

Yeah. I mean, there’s still a lot of… there needs to be more improvement, but I think I can only see activism coming more from Asian-American community, not less.

Greg Kaster:

And I gather you feel strongly, too, about the need for young people, young Hmong Americans, young Asian-Americans, especially, to be more involved.

Samantha Vang:

Mm-hmm (affirmative). Definitely. Any opportunity I can take to speak to young people, I will always encourage them to get involved politically, civically, just even in the community. And not a lot of people know, even when I was just starting to get involved, how easy it is to contact your elected official. “Hey, what are you working on? Or let’s go and meet for coffee and talk about issues that you care about.” Yeah. We can be, and it is that accessible. A lot of constituents don’t realize that we pay attention, we listen a lot to our district, the needs of our district, and the constituents can play a direct role in helping us shape our bills.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. I think that’s a really important point because there is so much… it’s not new, but, but maybe it’s more intense, the cynicism about, “Well, it doesn’t matter which party’s in power, in the majority. What does my voice matter?” But I agree with you. I’ve learned that, as my wife Kate has gotten involved with Representative Omar’s campaigns, really, I mean just how accessible you are and how, yeah, how… you do listen. You do listen to those who are doing the talking. Yeah. I think your points are well-taken. It’s hard for me, I don’t want to do cold calling. As you said, I’m not crazy about knocking on doors, but there are other ways to be involved that are just as important. It’s all important.

I mean, in some ways you’re a role model, given your youth and your background, and hopefully an inspiration. I’m sure you are for other young Asian-Americans and Hmong Americans in Minnesota specifically. I wonder also about, I’ll put you on the spot here a little bit, about your own ambitions. I don’t consider ambition to be a bad thing. I many times wish are Gustavus students were even more ambitious. But I have you thought beyond your current position? I mean, do you think, “Wow, this is something I’d like to continue either in the House or maybe the Senate, or maybe beyond”? Or is this sort of, “Well, I want to do this for a while, and then I’m not sure”?

Samantha Vang:

Well, I’m not sure about running for higher office. I think I’m good where I’m at right now, especially with all the things that I’ve gone through this year. I want to keep doing a good job at where I’m at. As long as we’re in the majority in the House, I feel like I can still continue to do a good work.

Greg Kaster:

Yes.

Samantha Vang:

How long do I plan to stay in office? I’m not sure. But what I do know is that it does take away time from my personal life. I think right now I can do it because I’m a single woman with no kids and I can dedicate and focus on my career. I think just learning from my colleagues who have young kids and who want to spend time with their family, I think that will be very difficult. So, I guess when that day comes, I’ll think about what my next steps are.

Greg Kaster:

You’ll reassess. Yeah. Public service is incredibly important and rewarding, but also involves sacrifice. There’s no question about that. And you’re talking about some of that sacrifice, the amount of time that’s required and the psychic energy and emotional energy, especially when there’s a crisis. God knows we’re in so many crises right now. I think sometimes, yeah, it’s hard to know where to start. But I want to end, as I often do, with you offering your own spontaneous elevator pitch for Gustavus. You’ve talked a little bit about what you liked about… I mean, how has your Gustavus education still, you’re not that far out from graduation, but informing you as a person, as a representative?

Samantha Vang:

Yeah. I learned a lot from Gustavus. Overall, my experience at Gustavus has been great. There are many opportunities for me to grow as a leader. If I wanted to send a student to become a world-class leader, I would say Gustavus. Gustavus can deliver that. They can deliver a world-class leader, the next generation of America. Gustavus taught me a lot about… I learned a lot about social justice issues from Gustavus, learned more about my identity from Gustavus, and having a better understanding of that. So, I have a lot to thank for Gustavus and my time there. I think Gustavus is a big small enough community for many students to explore and hone in on their growth and… Yeah. I’m really happy that I went there. I don’t regret it.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. Well, we don’t regret that you came. I want to echo what you said about social justice. That’s something about Gustavus that long attracted me. As I say, I didn’t know about Gustavus until I applied for the job, but learning about its long tradition of social justice work, commitment to social justice education. And then, I think more and more about leadership and the importance of policymaking, and I think I would echo what you said about Gustavus really creating an impressive number of leaders, and not just in politics, but in so many fields is pretty amazing considering the size of the school. We have a modest endowment relative to some elite, top-tier national liberal arts colleges. But yeah, we have just amazing leadership among our alums, and you’re one of them. I wish you-

Samantha Vang:

Thank you.

Greg Kaster:

… a relaxing break. You’re welcome. Thank you for all your work. By the way, do you know Representative Ann Rest? Do you know her at all? Have you come across her?

Samantha Vang:

Yes. Yes.

Greg Kaster:

Well, it turns out, I didn’t know this, a group of us have been Zooming with one of our high school history teachers who grew up in Minnesota. I went to high school in Park Forest, Illinois. And Ann is an alum of the same school. In one of these Zoom calls I got to meet Ann, and she seems like a great person. Yeah. I want to get together with her in-person at some point. Yeah.

Samantha Vang:

Yeah. She’s awesome.

Greg Kaster:

Tell her I say hello if you run across her.

Samantha Vang:

I will, for sure.

Greg Kaster:

And thank you, and best of luck with your housing advocacy and then getting some rest before the next session begins.

Samantha Vang:

Definitely.

Greg Kaster:

It’s been great to talk and get to know you a little better. We didn’t really know one another at Gustavus, so as always, these conversations make me so proud to be a professor there. So, all the best, take good care, and thank you.

Samantha Vang:

Thank you, Greg. I appreciate your time.

Greg Kaster:

Likewise. Bye-bye.

Samantha Vang:

Bye-bye.

Greg Kaster:

Learning for life at Gustavus is produced by JJ Akin and Matthew Dobosenski of the Gustavus Office of Marketing, Gustavus graduate Will Clark class of ’20, who also provides technical expertise to the podcast, and me. The views expressed in this podcast are not necessarily those of Gustavus Adolphus College.

 

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Media Contact: Director of Media Relations and Internal Communication JJ Akin
jakin@gustavus.edu
507-933-7510

 

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