The Collectivist: Stephanie Chang, first Asian-American woman to serve as Michigan state representative

The People Issue

The Collectivist: Stephanie Chang, first Asian-American woman Michigan state representative
Photo by Jacob Lewkow

As state representative for Michigan's House District 6, Stephanie Chang is well aware that it takes a village to effect true change, whether in the legislature or in the community at large.

Before her time in office, the Canton native worked on such initiatives as community engagement for Detroit's James and Grace Lee Boggs School, in addition to cofounding the Michigan branch of APIAVote, a national organization devoted to providing Asian and Pacific Islander Americans with the resources necessary to be politically informed.

"I had been working as a community organizer in Detroit working on a number of different social justice issues, and I was approached by my predecessor, Rashida Tlaib, as well as a number of other friends, to consider running for office," Chang says of her choice to run for office. "It was a six-month process of talking to a lot of different people, and I was very hesitant at the beginning. Eventually, I decided to run because I saw it as a great opportunity to make a difference in a different way ... just to take it to the next level and make a bigger impact."

Chang was elected to office in January of 2015. During her first term, she served on the Committees on Criminal Justice, Education and Judiciary. Now in her second term, she serves on the Committees on Education Reform, Natural Resources and Law and Justice, for which she serves as Minority Vice Chair.

Of her role as the Law and Justice Minority Vice Chair, Chang is the leading Democrat on the committee. She explains what bills came out of the committee to the other Democrats so that they have the information they need to make an informed vote, and works with the other Democrats on the committee to make sure everyone knows what's going on, to find out where people are at on certain bills and to be able to relay information back and forth with the Republican chair of the committee. "What's been nice is to have a good bipartisan relationship with our chair, which actually allowed us to get a really great bipartisan package of bills through last month that are related to female genital mutilation," she says. "It's a great role; I enjoy it."

Though Chang has made her mark on the state legislature, she and her team have also moved mountains with grassroots community initiatives created through their neighborhood service center in Detroit.

"One [initiative] that I thought was really impactful was last summer, when we did a community baby shower for low-income pregnant women and moms with babies under the age of 1," she says. "We gave away a bunch of gifts, we did workshops on breastfeeding and safe sleep ... we actually gave away and helped install car seats. It was just really incredible, and it was very clear that we were actually making a difference for about 80 families. That is one example of something that we do through our neighborhood service center that I'm just really, really proud of."

When discussing Chang's achievements, there is another crucial component to be addressed: She is a first-generation American, and was the first Asian-American woman to be elected to Michigan's legislature, a role she does not take lightly.

"They came to this country looking for better opportunities for themselves and for their future children," she says of her parents, who emigrated from Taiwan. "I think that I have a role that I need to play. That's not necessarily the role that I sought out, but because I'm here and I'm the only [Asian-American woman], I know that there are people looking to me as an example," she says. "Sometimes, I get approached by other Asian-American women who themselves want to run for office, and it's exciting for them to see someone that looks like them there ... I see that as something that's unique to being a woman of color in the legislature that's an additional role you take on automatically because of your identities, in addition to all of your normal work as a policy-maker and as an advocate of the community."

Chang clearly holds herself to the highest of standards. She doesn't hesitate to do the same for her state.

"My goals for Michigan's future are to make sure, one, that we have a quality education for every single child, make sure that we have a fair justice system and that we have an economy that works for everyone," she says. "I know that sounds like buzzwords, but I feel like we have a long way to go ... The fact that we still don't have earned paid sick leave for every worker and it's 2017 — and we know it's an issue with overwhelming support — is just an example of something that we need to get done. So my vision is that we should have a state where people know that their child is going to get a great education, and a state where that know that they are going to be treated fairly under the justice system, and also just a basic quality of life."

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