Know Her Name: Yuh-Line Niou

An interview with the first-ever Asian American legislator to represent Chinatown, as she leads her district through the coronavirus, and the racism that has come with it.

America is an oligarchy organized by the hierarchy of the white supremacist patriarchy. Pancake Brain is a (free) Friday newsletter dedicated to replacing the status quo with equitable public power. If you’re into that kind of thing, I hope you’ll subscribe and share. This project is based on How to Start a Revolution, which you can read (or listen to) here.

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Dearest Pancake Brains,

How are you doing? I feel like my blood is fucking carbonated.

If you’re overwhelmed, congratulations, you’re alive. Over 100,000 people have died of the coronavirus, the most of any country in the world, as black people are harassed and murdered by police, the so-called “essential workers” on the front lines are denied even basic protective gear, never mind fair pay and paid sick leave. Meanwhile, American billionaires just got $434 billion dollars richer.

So, to recap: This is a racist, uncivilized country ruled by greed, and that was true before masses of people started getting sick and dying all at once. We owe it to the dead, and to each other, to vote Trump out of office on November 3rd, 2020, and our civic duty must extend far beyond that. It’s a lot of work to click into the hope the effort of freedom requires, and that is why I am writing to you this week with some much-needed inspiration.

When I am pressed for reasons to have faith in humanity, I often look to elected officials like Elizabeth Warren, Julián Castro, Bernie Sanders, Ayanna Pressley, and Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, and I would like to add another name to your potential list of leaders: Yuh-Line Niou.

I’ve long admired Yuh-Line. In the Before Times, we first met on a panel hosted by Eleanor’s Legacy, and later protested together, freezing our asses off in Foley Square this winter, before performing the #MeToo action “El Violador Eres Tú.” (In the interest of transparency, I must also disclose that I consider Yuh-Line a friend, and that I think she ought to be frequently mentioned in the same breath as AOC.)

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In 2016, Niou was elected to represent the 65th district of the New York State Assembly, an area which comprises swathes of downtown Manhattan, including Chinatown, making her, somehow, the very first Asian American legislator to represent Chinatown.

“I know, it’s crazy that in 2020, there are still firsts, but, yes, I am the first,” the 36-year-old public official told me on the phone on Thursday. “It goes to show something about New York. I’m also the only Asian American woman in the entire New York State Legislature.”

“When you’re a young woman, and especially when you’re a young woman of color, you have this perception of what a ‘leader’ looks like. It’s squished into all of us, as young girls, that a leader should be this old white guy with an alpha personality, who is super charismatic and gives a lot of speeches.”

Niou has a background in legislation and advocacy dating back 20 years. She began studying state policy issues in college before working as a intern and then staffer for the Washington State House Health Committee Chair. She later accepted a position as New York State Representative Ron Kim’s Chief of Staff, and was simultaneously working as a cocktail waitress at Winnie’s Karaoke Bar in Chinatown, when she made the decision to launch her own campaign.

Elected office was had never been the plan. “I didn’t think I would run,” Niou said. “When you’re a young woman, and especially when you’re a young woman of color, you have this perception of what a ‘leader’ looks like. It’s squished into all of us, as young girls, that a leader should be this old white guy with an alpha personality, who is super charismatic and gives a lot of speeches.”

In her two decades of experience, the most important lesson that Niou has learned is that leadership can look very different from that tired Brooks Brothers aesthetic.

“Uncle Bob taught me that leadership looks very different. You don’t need a desk, or even an office. You don’t even need a pencil. You can lead from wherever you sit.”

She recalled watching Ann Richards get elected as the first female governor of Texas as a fifth grader living in El Paso. “I was able to see, with my own eyes, a woman being governor of Texas, and it felt a way, it meant something,” Niou said. “It made me believe that women could be in positions of power.”

Niou moved to El Paso with her parents, when they left Taiwan with $1000 dollars, a few suitcases each, and the six-month-old baby who would grow up to be the only Asian American in her school, until her little sister enrolled. Niou’s position is a breakthrough in representation given all these facts of her biography, but also as a result of her governing style. When she says leadership can look different than the overly-confident old white dude, she doesn’t just mean that she is a young Asian American immigrant, she means that she actually tries to serve the people she represents.

Niou has had many mentors over the course of her two decades working in politics, most prominently including Eileen Cody, who was Niou’s boss as Washington State’s Healthcare Chair, and the activist Robert “Uncle Bob” Santos. “Uncle Bob taught me that leadership looks very different,” Niou said. “You don’t need a desk, or even an office. You don’t even need a pencil. You can lead from wherever you sit.”

“We had to suffer from two different epidemics in Chinatown. One is the actual coronavirus itself, and the other is extreme xenophobia and racism.”

“There are a lot of different ways we can be leaders in our communities,” she continued, “And the basic biggest leadership skill is actually listening, and not speaking, unlike many old, white guys seem to think.”

Through her tenure in the State Assembly, Niou has been working to meet to the needs of her community, and she’s striving even harder now, as her district reels from the impact of the coronavirus. In many senses, Chinatown is the epicenter of the epicenter of the disease.

“We had to suffer from two different epidemics in Chinatown,” she told me. “One is the actual coronavirus itself, and the other is extreme xenophobia and racism.”

Niou expressed this sentiment clearly in early April, when she gave a budget speech before the State Assembly. “My district was hit by covid-19 before we as a state knew what the scale of this crisis would be,” she said. “After the actual covid-19 virus started to spread, the other epidemic of xenophobia was fueled further by the racist fear-mongering of our President and his allies, as they sought to shift blame after failing to do their job to keep our nation safe. In my district, we are months ahead in the economic devastation of this disease.”

She told me that people often ask her how she could “tell the future” in that speech, delivered with furious passion on April 3rd, long before New York could have imagined what it meant to be put on pause. She laughed. “I’m, like, ‘Dude, I’m not telling the future, I’m just paying attention.’”

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Niou is currently up for re-election, and on Wednesday, Bernie Sanders endorsed her, though she has put campaigning on hold for now. Instead, she said, she is focused on continuing to listen to her constituents, and doing everything she can to meet their needs in this time of suffering.

Last week, Niou shared a photo on Twitter, in which she passed out on a couch after working past 2:00 in the morning. I asked her to tell me what her days are like, and she detailed mutual-aid efforts, such as distributing food and protective gear. Her tireless work is set in a backdrop of the absurd failure of the government at large.

“Our hand sanitizer that was given to us was given to us in giant, gallon bottles,” Niou said, in one particular example of the ridiculousness she has witnessed. “Am I supposed to stand on the corner of the street and disperse it one squirt at a time?” (She ended up purchasing thousands of tiny bottles, so that she and her team could distribute it. Squirting viscous liquid from one giant bottle into many smaller ones is a metaphor for our reigning status quo, if there ever was one.)

“Somehow, it’s deemed radical to fight for the people. Why is that so crazy? How is it possible that we can’t be looking for healthcare for everyone when we’re in a global pandemic?”

On this note, Niou says we need to think beyond “fixing a broken system,” to imagine something new entirely.

“We’re not talking about fixing a broken system,” she said. “The system is working perfectly fine, it’s working perfectly the way it was designed to work. We need to completely dismantle it, and change it. That means having a different value base for our entire structure of governing.”

As far as Niou is concerned none of that should be considered radical. “Somehow, it’s deemed radical to fight for the people,” she said. “Why is that so crazy? How is it possible that we can’t be looking for healthcare for everyone when we’re in a global pandemic?”

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As this country is consumed by racism and greed, led in no small part by a cohort of white nationalists claiming to “Make America Great Again,” I wonder if those of us interested in equity and sustainability might reclaim what it means to be American in terms of service and civic duty, as Niou has.

“Who gets to decide what is American enough? Who gets to decide what is ‘assimilated’ enough?”

Shortly before our interview, some guy on Twitter made fun of her name, challenging whether or not she is “American,” and claiming that her goal ought to be “assimilation.”

She asked if she could share her response on the phone.

“Hi. I’m an American,” she read aloud. “We are a country that should pride itself on our greatest strength, which is our diversity. There is power in a name. And I am proud of the name my parents and my grandparents gave me, with all their love.”

“I am the first born child of my entire family on my Dad’s side,” she continued. “My name decided the names of all of my siblings and my cousin’s names. It took me a moment, but I love my name. Grew to. Throughout my life, people of all backgrounds and roles have asked me to change my name.”

“My name is me,” Niou continued, her voice swelling with each line. “It is who I am. It tells my story. It is my immigrant story, it is the story of my parent’s love, it is the story of being an Asian American, and it is the story of the diversity we should be proud of here in America.”

“Who gets to decide what is American enough?” she asked in conclusion. “Who gets to decide what is ‘assimilated’ enough? I DO represent a city of immigrants, a state of immigrants, in a country full of immigrants… as an immigrant. Sounds pretty American, yet why is it implied that I don’t belong?”

Niou is technically a Democrat, but it became blindingly clear to me over the course of our call that the political ideology that truly defines her is a singular value that transcends the two-party system, namely, humanity.

Yuh-Line Niou is proud to be an American, and you should know her name.

With all my love,
Lauren

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If you would like to support Niou’s campaign, you can do so here.