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Jennifer Tang

Episode 045

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Going into Politics to Help Students

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About Jennifer Tang

Jennifer Tang’s parents are survivors of the Cambodian genocide. Growing up with those stories, Jennifer had a lot of questions about how societies and governments could fall apart like that. She always asked those questions, and she never found satisfactory answers. But that curiosity is what led her to start getting involved in public service.

Before Jennifer moved to Monterey Park at age 10, she lived in an apartment where her neighbor got shot in their driveway. And when her family moved to Monterey Park, she thought, ‘Oh my goodness, my life looks like a TV show now.’ The opportunity to grow up in Monterey Park meant that she had a great education and was able to pursue her hopes and dreams.

When Jennifer was 21 years old, she went to Cambodia by herself to be a volunteer teacher. After that experience, she decided that was what she was going to do as a career. It made the most sense to her, both for the type of work that she wanted to do in her life and the type of impact that she wanted to have. During her time in Cambodia, she taught four hours a day. Her youngest student was 15 years old, and her oldest was 65. The work that she was doing was directly impacting their economic prosperity because if they could speak English, they had more access to resources and jobs. The results were tangible. That experience is what has spurred everything else she has done since.

Jennifer has been a teacher for five years, and she has worked in education for ten years. During her recent campaign, a lot of people could easily say, “Oh, as a teacher, she may not have experience in finance and things like that.” However, Jennifer has also worked at startups for four years and helped build the companies from the ground up.

Instagram: @jenniferlovetang

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Jennifer Tang Quotes

  • “It’s incredibly powerful to be able to welcome 25 kids into a room and know that they can feel safe and be themselves.”
  • “How could I teach my kids how to read if they’re scared if their parents were going to be deported at the end of the day.”
  • “Education helped me escape poverty, and my students see that if they work hard in school, they can make it out.”
  • Jennifer Tang’s parents are survivors of the Cambodian genocide. Growing up with those stories, Jennifer had a lot of questions about how societies and governments could fall apart like that. She always asked those questions, and she never found satisfactory answers. But that curiosity is what led her to start getting involved in public service.
  • Before Jennifer moved to Monterey Park at age 10, she lived in an apartment where her neighbor got shot in their driveway.
  • The opportunity to grow up in Monterey Park meant that she had a great education and was able to pursue her hopes and dreams.
  • When Jennifer was 21 years old, she went to Cambodia by herself to be a volunteer teacher. After that experience, she decided that was what she was going to do as a career.
  • Jennifer has been a teacher for five years, and she has worked in education for ten years.

WHAT IS YOUR CONNECTION TO THE SAN GABRIEL VALLEY?

When I was born, we lived in Chinatown in LA, and my parents saved up their money so we could move to a suburb. When I was ten, we moved to Monterey Park.

Now, I am a homeowner in Monterey Park and am contributing to the community that raised me.

WHAT MADE YOU WANT TO GIVE BACK TO THE COMMUNITY?

A big piece of that comes from being a teacher. I started my teaching career in a low-income community in Maricopa, Arizona. I felt so helpless against the policies set forth by the sheriff. “How could I teach my kids how to read if they’re scared if their parents were going to be deported at the end of the day.”

Being a teacher is really important to me, but I felt helpless unless I could affect change in policy. That’s when I started learning about community organizing.

WHAT BROUGHT YOU BACK TO SAN GABRIEL VALLEY?

I missed home. My entire family is here. My friends are here, and I was so burned out from teaching that I took four years off and worked with Nolan Bushnell, the founder of Atari, making educational video games.

It ended up not working out, and I started mentoring students from over 200 high schools across Southern California.

Then, the 2016 election happened, and the best place for me was back in the classroom.

WHAT WAS IT LIKE GROWING UP IN CHINATOWN?

I remember a lot from growing up in Chinatown. It was so different from when we moved to the suburbs. We were living in poverty, but I didn’t realize it until we moved to Monterey Park.

We are ethnically Chinese, but my parents are Cambodian refugees because they escaped to Cambodia due to the cultural revolution in China. We lived in a community with many Cambodian refugees. We always had food on the table, and I always felt safe.

When we moved to Monterey Park, I understood what having space and a park in the community was like. It was a big difference.

DID YOU HAVE ANY BROTHERS OR SISTERS AT THE TIME?

My sister was born nine months after we moved. My parents had decided not to have another kid until we moved.

WHAT HAPPENED AFTER YOU MOVED TO MONTEREY PARK?

I did well academically and went to college, USC, and chose English as my major because telling stories is important to me. I felt like so many stories in the San Gabriel Valley weren’t told, and I wanted to learn to communicate better to tell those stories.

When I was 21, I decided to go to Cambodia by myself to be a teacher for a few months. I taught students English. They were between the ages of 15 and 65. It was a life-changing experience.

HOW MUCH OF THIS INFLUENCED WHAT YOU DO TODAY?

It influences a lot. I teach in Huntington Park, where there is a lot of poverty, and almost all of my students are immigrants or are children of immigrants.

Education helped me escape poverty, and my students see that if they work hard in school, they can make it out. I hope my students use this to give back to the community and help improve it.

WHAT GIVES YOU HOPE, AND WHAT FRIGHTENS YOU?

I’m very much an optimist. The hope comes from what I’ve seen in my own life and seeing what’s possible in this country.

YOU SAID THIS COUNTRY. DO YOU BELIEVE IN THE AMERICAN DREAM?

I very much question the American Dream. I used to believe in it up until my mid-20s. As I’ve gotten more into politics and policies, I question if it’s available to everyone, and that’s why I do organizing work and policy work. Those are the levers we have to pull to make the dream available to everyone.

WHO DO YOU SEE THAT NEEDS THE HELP?

There are a lot of people, but the distribution of wealth isn’t accessible to everyone.

HOW DO YOU DEFINE THE AMERICAN DREAM?

We talk about this in my AP English class every year. We read The Great Gatsby, and I asked my seniors, “What do you think it means, and do you think it exists?”

The majority of my students say that it does exist, and it means the ability and freedom to do things like earn money, buy a house, and support your family.

Over the last five years, I’ve seen that fewer students believe in it. They also define differently now. They see it as the ability to be who you want to be, whatever that means to you.

It’s moved away from the economical piece of it and towards a more social or identity-based piece. I wonder if it is because the economic piece seems less accessible to my kids.

DO YOU FEEL THE PULL TO TEACH IN THIS COMMUNITY?

I have wanted to teach in the San Gabriel Valley for the longest time. I still think I might someday, but right now, I feel a powerful pull to the community I’m teaching in now. It’s so incredibly empowering to bring 25 kids into my class where they can be themselves and feel safe.

DO YOUR STUDENTS RESPOND TO YOUR TEACHING?

They do. I’m teaching ninth grade, and this is when people are trying to learn who they are and to be able to witness that is such a great privilege.

In the last few years, there has been more awareness of gender identity, and I’ve had several students come out to me as transgender and other non-cis gender-related identities. The fact that I’ve created a space where they feel safe enough to do this is my greatest accomplishment as a teacher.

YOU’VE BEEN GETTING INVOLVED IN POLITICS. WHAT IS YOUR HISTORY IN POLITICS?

I ran for Monterey Park city council in 2020 and finished in second place by 118 votes. Had I been elected, I would’ve been the youngest woman councilwoman in the San Gabriel Valley. It was a great learning experience.

Afterward, I became the campaign manager for Councilwoman Sasha Renee Perez.

DO YOU PLAN TO GET INVOLVED IN ANOTHER ELECTION?

We’ll see. I have a lot of different opportunities right now. Ultimately, it will come down to where I’ll have the most significant impact.

HOW DO YOU AFFECT CHANGE IN YOUR CLASS AND THE COMMUNITY?

When I first started, I wasn’t very good. After 2016, when I got back into teaching, I said I was going to just be myself, and it worked. The unabashed authenticity worked really well.

HOW DOES THAT CARRY OVER INTO YOUR COMMUNITY ORGANIZING?

When I ran for office, I was 26 years old. I thought, “I didn’t have a suit, and I didn’t know anything about politics,” and my friends who had done it before said to just be myself.

I was myself through the election. I didn’t compromise myself or my story. It’s important that politics and politicians have that authenticity. People would hate it less.

WHAT IS YOUR VIEW ON THE ACCEPTANCE OF GENDER IDENTITY ISSUES?

Because of social media activism, my students have the terminology to think about their gender identity and then come out. Before that, someone might be transgender and not have the words to communicate that to someone.

 

SGV III

  1. I loved going to the Summer Jubilee in Alhambra. The last time they did it was in 2008, though.
  2. The Bruggemeyer Library in Monterey Park. At one point, there was an English-only movement in Monterey Park. They were trying to pass an ordinance to make signs English only, including foreign books in the Bruggemeyer Library. Because of its civil rights history and the fact that I spent my entire childhood there, it’s a special place for me.
  3. Dim Sum. It’s the quintessential food of the San Gabriel Valley. Growing up, I read a lot of books, and these books were filled with white people who would go to church on Sunday mornings. We never went to church, but we’d get dressed up every Sunday and go to Dim Sum. There was such a ritual to it, and it was such a special experience. For every milestone, it was always going to get Dim Sum.