Dustin Kelley: My name is Dustin Kelley and I am a librarian at Lewis & Clark College's Watzek Library. Today is December 29th, 2020. I have the privilege today of speaking with Khanh Pham via Zoom. This is her second interview with our project. She was recently elected to the Oregon State House and will be representing the 46th district. Thank you so much for speaking with us today, we really appreciate it.
Khanh Pham: Of course, happy to be here.
DK: Would you begin by briefly reintroducing yourself?
KP: Sure. My name is Khanh Pham and I am a community organizer here in the heart of House District 46 in the Jade District. I recently ran and won the seat to be the state rep for House District 46. I am the representative-elect, I will be sworn into office January 11th, 2021. Which is about ten days away, twelve days away.
DK: Congratulations, that is really exciting. [Pham gets up to close the door] So, in your first interview, you spoke in detail about your childhood, college, career, and also your Vietnamese American identity among many other things. Since that interview, you ran for office, you've won. I'm curious, could you tell us what prompted you to run for the Oregon House in the first place?
KP: I have been working for several years now with many different groups both in Portland and state-wide, first on the Portland Clean Energy Fund, which was a ballot measure that we passed in November of 2018 to raise thirty to sixty-million dollars a year for renewable energy and energy efficiency projects that would prioritize local communities and communities of color. From there, I continued to work with other groups and now state-wide to start to envision what an Oregon Green New Deal could look like. I've just been helping to organize a state-wide listening tour to figure out what community visions are and when this seat opened up, I was approached to run for this seat that Representative Alissa Keny-Guyer was leaving and it was just fortuitous timing. Just as I was thinking about our legislative strategy to pass something bold and ambitious this seat opened up so I thought, "You know, this is my chance." I had a young, five-and-a-half-year-old daughter at the time, now she's six-- this is my chance maybe, to really be able to tell her that I've been doing everything I can to ensure that she has a future where she can thrive.
DK: You've spoken a lot about Oregon's Green New Deal in many other interviews, I'm curious, what other issues do you campaign on?
KP: I talked a lot about a just recovery. About maybe two months after I started to run, COVID hit, and we just saw the implications and impacts of COVID on so many of our communities, particularly communities of color. So I really ran a lot on economic justice and racial justice-- talking about housing, talking about education and health care, really wanting to make a more equitable tax system so we can actually continue to support our most vulnerable communities with really strong social programs in this time when communities are experiencing unprecedented unemployment and houselessness. We really need to have a strong social safety net and I really talked about the way for me, our tax system is where-- just like budgets are our moral documents-- I think actually revenue and taxes are also moral choices that we have to make, and right now we've gone too far in a direction where corporations had so much power in coming up with loopholes that seem so tiny and can get past and yet have really big implications on our general fund. So those are some of the issues that I talked about and ran on, in addition to talking about the need to transition to a renewable economy.
DK: Very bold and important issues indeed, and really exciting. I'm curious, can you describe a little bit about what the process of running for election was like, and in during a pandemic no less?
KP: Yeah, I learned so much. It was so eye opening and there was so much to it, a whole world of politics that I had never really interacted with. It was like a marathon and a sprint at the same time. I had to first win my primary election just within the Democratic party first, so that election was in May. That was a competitive primary where I went up against a former Multnomah County commissioner, Jeff Cogen, as well as another woman-- Ashley Tjaden who also ran and also is an AAPI woman as well in the Jade District. So it was a pretty competitive primary but I just learned a lot about all the different political stakeholders, I did a ton of endorsement interviews which involved me of course having to learn about the teacher's issues and the iron workers and the carpenters and just really trying to get a deeper sense of the top issues of many different interest groups, and trying to articulate my values and the kind of vision that I would put forth. And many of the groups that eventually endorsed me were pretty open about some of our disagreements-- for example the building trades or you know, we have some different ideas about LNG Pipeline-- things like that. But ultimately they were able to endorse me because they recognized that we have shared values and there is so much for us to work on together. So that was a really eye opening and educational experience for me, to be able to articulate and stay true to my values while also really trying to connect and find shared values in really diverse constituencies.
DK: Looking ahead to the upcoming House session, what do you anticipate an average day to be like?
KP: Well it will be unprecedented, because we are still going to be virtual at least for the first two months. So, I don't know what it's going to look like, with the vaccine and everything I don't know how things are going to look like by May, but most of our sessions and committee meetings will be done online. So I'm envisioning that the average day will look like starting meetings at 8:00 am -- still back to back but suddenly on Zoom instead of in-person. I actually am excited about the potential for our committee hearings and for public hearings to be more accessible, to get more testimonies, because now people don't have to devote a full day to traveling down to Salem to testify. They can actually just click on a link and sign up to testify. I expect actually that we'll have more meetings but they'll be online and I'm excited to explore how we can use technology to make our democracy more accessible.
DK: That's really exciting. Do you know which committee assignments you'll be having?
KP: Oh, I'm so anxious. Usually we hear by now but I've heard that by the end of this week we should have them.
DK: So you've answered many questions about this from other sources, but I'm curious if you would speak to what it means to be the first Asian-American to be elected to the Oregon State House in quite some time-- I believe fifteen-plus years, is that correct?
KP: That's right, almost a generation. I think that for me it's a responsibility that I hold deeply. And I also want to broaden our ranks, right? There's no one monolithic Asian American community and I think that I represent one particular voice or particular community or particular generation of people. And I carry the experiences of my parents but I'm different from my parents, right? I am really excited to just be able to have a lot of events and community events so that young people can grow up looking at public service as something that a wide diversity of people can aspire to. I want our government to look like the people it represents and I've gotten a lot of stories that have been really moving to hear people say, like "Oh, it meant so much to my daughter to see you as someone who was elected," and I think that's just been so moving to me that this one action that I took really could impact people, young kids in particular, in terms of expanding what's possible.
DK: So there certainly has been a lapse in representation. I'm curious what impact that has had on your district and even state-wide.
KP: I was reading recently something about a newspaper account that was talking about our district and they were saying, "Oh yeah, our current rep represents the Laurelhurst and Mt. Tabor districts," and that's just one part of our district. It's literally one half and then 82nd avenue splits our district and the other half is East Portland where we don't have sidewalks and we have some of the lowest test scores and access to services is really limited. So I think the lacks in representation have meant that the people who have had the most political power have been able to determine the agenda. So I'm really excited about bringing new voices and hopefully a militancy too, to the urgency of this moment and the urgency to take a stand and be courageous against some of the really powerful interests that have prevented change and reforms in our state. That has everything to do with housing, with revenue and taxes. I think we have to have a conversation about -- especially in this moment -- how are we going to make sure that our state really reflects our values through our actions.
DK: How do we bring more representative voices to the table? How do we achieve more representative equity in Oregon?
KP: I'm really excited about a lot of projects and organizations that are really stepping into building political power. I know groups like APANO, the Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon, where I used to work and helped to recruit me for office, I see PCUN and Latino Network and Portland African American Leadership Forum, now Beyond Black-- it's so many different exciting organizations who are really starting to invest and building explicitly political power. And, at the same time, to recognize that representation is important, but it's not the be-all-end-all. It's also about the values and the political condition that people bring, so to talk about the importance of both. But I'm very hopeful about the movement that we've been making in this past year -- a few years-- honestly, my run for office was definitely the result of seeds that were planted ten years ago, right, where people were patiently building organizations that could then-- APANO didn't even exist barely, it was a baby ten years ago, right, just all volunteers, and so it was that kind of patient cultivating the field that allowed for someone like me to get the support that I needed to be able to run.
DK: Shifting gears a tiny bit, at present what local, public, or political issues do you think are most important to Portland's Vietnamese community in particular?
KP: I think that Portland's Vietnamese community cares deeply about their children and the health and education of their children, so I think strong schools are really important, [as well as] access to healthcare and affordable housing, and I think that there still needs to be education about civic engagement and what the deepest issues are. I think that we need to really invest in Vietnamese language media. Right now it's owned by a very tiny number of people who can determine in very many ways the agenda, because the Vietnamese language community will talk to themselves and sometimes if there's only one voice in the media it can really shape a focus-- I don't think it's a secret to say that a lot of Vietnamese media kind of lean Republican, it seems like, and I think that's a problem. I'm excited that there's a new generation of younger Vietnamese Americans who's also figuring out ways to -- we don't have our own media, but just to be able to talk to our parents about some of issues that we care about and why even that we have the same values, we've chosen different-- we see different strategies. It's been a very polarizing moment and I think that's been reflected in the Vietnamese community as well.
DK: You spoke to the polarization-- I'm curious, what are some ways that we can continue to bridge that polarization?
KP: As a community organizer I always seek to meet people where they're at and to really try to listen as much as I can, and really try to understand people's experiences and really build that trust first that I'm really listening, and then once we have that relationship that's strong enough I can actually share my perspective as well. Those are the kinds of conversations that we just don't have time for anymore and I think a lot of it comes with media. I would definitely say that we need more spaces where people can share stories across partisan lines. I feel like our media sources have now become so partisan as well, where people now mistrust so many media sources and there's so much false information spreading, like blatantly false information being spread and shared on the internet. It's just a really depressing time. I don't have a solution, I hope for technology and media that can support true democratic dialogue, cause I still am inspired by that ideal even if it feels like we've strayed from it in this past year and for however many years.
DK: I'm curious, what role will your Vietnamese American heritage play as a newly elected official?
KP: My Vietnamese American heritage shapes so much of who I am, and in all its complexity, right-- and in both words, both being Vietnamese and American. For me my politicization started when I was a teenager trying to figure out what it meant to be Vietnamese and I stumbled into my library and my bookstores, just looking up any books about Vietnam and I think I might have shared this last time but I couldn't find any books about Vietnamese culture. All I found were books about the Vietnam War. And that lead me to start reading about soldiers' accounts and the history of decisions that led the US to intervene in Vietnam and it just was very eye opening, very politicizing for me and it just really kind of gave me my sense of values about why we were even here and made me want to understand what imperialism meant and what led all this complex cascade of events to happen and why it led my family to be here and why we ended up in Oklahoma and later in California. I think that experience shapes how I view the world and how I view the fight, which side I want to be on.
I think it also will affect me as a legislator because when we think about climate change the fact that I don't view these numbers of climate refugees or the numbers of people killed by heat waves or by droughts to be abstract numbers-- for me they are my family members, they are friends, and are people who I have grown to love during my times in Vietnam and I'm willing to fight for them. I do think as someone who benefits from living in the US and all the unearned privileges that that involves I feel like I have a responsibility to fight to make sure that the US actually takes responsibility by reducing our impact, reducing our emissions, and sharing technologies so that we can support people who had nothing to do with and should not be held responsible for the impacts but are having to suffer from these really deadly impacts that we're already seeing and we're going to see more and more of. So that drives me a lot and as a Vietnamese American I hope I can be a voice and a bridge to share some of those experiences that many other legislators in Oregon don't have.
DK: Well, that comes to the list of questions that I have for us today. I'm wondering, is there anything that we haven't talked about that you would like to discuss?
KP: I think that's it. Thank you so much.